Sustainability is a deeply multifaceted, incredibly comprehensive and often quite overwhelming notion - particularly when it comes to product design on a global scale. Here, we get an insight into what that looks like for Jan Peter van Deutekom, Vice President Product Design and Portfolio Management at Interface - a flooring brand that prides itself in designing innovative products with sustainability in mind.

JP, as Jan Peter is also known, leads the product portfolio team across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia with his efforts centred around new product development, product management and concept design to support Interface's diverse group of customers. Here, he explains why sustainability is like a mountain - and how Interface is scaling all of its different slopes.

“For us design is much more than the pretty picture, what the product looks like, the pattern or the colours,” says JP. “It's really about how it is constructed, but also what it does for the user, or in a bigger context for the planet. So, we started to use lifecycle analysis as a management tool, and carbon as the magic metric, to understand product footprint. Because carbon runs through every aspect of sustainability.” 

Using this focus on carbon to conduct life cycle analyses, Interface found that close to 70% of a product’s impact is caused by the raw materials and the production stage – a part that manufacturers can absolutely control on their own terms.

“That inspired us to adhere to a couple of design principles, which we see as different slopes to climb that sustainability mountain. Reducing, recycling and redesigning,” says JP. “By reducing, we refer to dematerialising – using less material, like yarn, and backing, in our carpet tiles. Then we use more recycled content in all layers of the product, or completely redesign the product. And that can be done by developing new technologies to create a product or find alternative raw materials.”

But as with any design venture, Interface fuses the drive for more sustainable products with the aspiration to make beautiful products – with nature often a backdrop to both of these ambitions. “In my team, I have seven product designers and 35 concept designers working in markets in Europe, Asia, and Australia, and a similar size team in the US. And they translate not only customer requirements, but also sustainability objectives into product development,” says JP.

“One of the really interesting concepts we use in this regard is biomimicry,” he adds. “Learning from nature, and how nature would design products. And it’s really very interesting to follow those principles, because nature uses cyclical models that are actually closed loops. So, we asked ourselves the question, ‘how would nature design a flooring product?’. And as a great example of random design, we looked at how a forest looks with leaves coming down in autumn. And they're on the floor in a completely random way, but still showing an interesting picture from a distance.”

“We used that idea to design a carpet tile that could be installed in a random way, which really had a major impact on installation speed, on waste, plus operational benefits, because we could use obsolete yarns in the product, which usually wouldn't be done or thrown away. So it reduced waste,” JP explains further. “And it’s a great example of how biomimicry, as a design principle, can be used in designing great products that are more sustainable.”

Biomimicry aside, Interface is undoubtedly one of the most advanced design businesses when it comes to sustainability, with initiatives that cover every stage of the product lifecycle, and even go a step past carbon neutral - to carbon negative products.

Find out more about JP’s work and this innovative company, by listening to the full Talking Architecture & Design podcast episode.