Materials really matter. The scientist, author and director of the Institute of Making, Mark Miodownik, probably sums it up best when he describes them as “complex expressions of human needs and desires”. We value some materials for their rarity, while others provide a trusted sense of comfort. Then, there are materials whose reputations have been transformed over time: Bakelite was considered miraculous when it was created at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now of course, plastic is seen as a pollutant.
In the years of over-abundance, design was often seen as a tool for consumption – a way of seducing people into believing they needed more stuff. More recently though, the role of an emerging generation of new talent, raised in the shadow of climate change, has become far more nuanced. The job has fallen to them to push for change within the system. To coax and cajole industries rife with vested interests to embrace new, sustainable ways of doing business.
Take building, for example. The use of concrete was first recorded in 6,500 BC, and it became a vital element of the Roman Empire. Technology stood still for hundreds of years until a Parisian gardener, Joseph Monier, decided to embed some loops of steel within it for some large plant pots he was making. His reinforced concrete became one of the backbones of the contemporary construction industry. However, the material presents problems, using huge amounts of energy, emitting greenhouse gases and being distinctly tricky to recycle. As a result, architects and designers are looking at alternative solutions.
Andrew Waugh, Co-Founder of architecture practice Waugh Thistleton, has been one of the pioneers in the UK of Cross-Laminated Timber – a panellised timber product that comes out of a factory 16m long by 3m wide.
“Those panels are then cut down and are used to make walls and floors and roofs and lift shafts and staircases. They arrive on-site like a big Airfix model and are craned into position. Then a couple of people with cordless screwdrivers go around and screw them all together. It’s a very simple, solid means of construction”, he explained to me recently. The practice built its first timber tower, Murray Grove in Hackney, in 2009, and has since become evangelistic about the material’s qualities, believing that it’s a more sustainable, cleaner, quieter and quicker way to build.
CLT isn’t the only innovative material architects are specifying. The young(ish) firm Practice Architecture, which initially emerged with Frank’s Cafe in Peckham, has recently finished a house on Margent Farm in Cambridgeshire where the pre-dominant material is hemp. Hemp has actually been used in construction since the Romans, and mixed with lime produces a form of concrete that is extremely effective at insulating spaces. The hemp plant grows quickly and rejuvenates the soil so it’s good for farmers who wish to rotate crops. Meanwhile, it’s cheerleaders (which are growing in number) claim that Hempcrete requires three times less heat to produce than limestone concrete.
As the world turns its back on plastic, an emerging generation of designers are experimenting with different materials, or finding ways of changing our perceptions. In his Plastic Baroque series, James Shaw, for example, works with extruded sausages of HDPE waste plastic – created from pellets which are heated up and pushed out of a homemade machine or ‘gun’. He moulds these while still warm into a variety of products before the material cools and hardens. His notion is that we should learn to treasure and keep this polymer as we might gold, rather than using it once and burying it in the ground.
At the same time others are experimenting with oil-free, compostable bioplastics (which can include hemp incidentally). Crafting Plastics! Studio, for instance, was founded in 2016 by product designer, Vlasta Kubusova, and production designer, Miroslav Kral, who are based between Berlin and Bratislava. The duo have made a name for themselves with a range of spectacles made from a single material, including the hinges. Once the user has no need for them, the frames can be thrown in the compost and will decompose in 90 days. They look pretty good too.
The practice’s work featured in last year’s V&A exhibition, Food: Bigger than the Plate, and one of the stand-out products was Totomoxtle, a veneer made from colourful Mexican heirloom cornhusks by Fernando Laposse. To create the material, husks are peeled from the cob, flattened and glued onto a textile backing. This is then laser cut into interlocking pieces and re-assembled. It’s a process that provided work for people in Tonahuixtla, a small village of Mixtec farmers and herders in the state of Puebla, and is helping to regenerate traditional farming practices in the country, as well as promoting the preservation of biodiversity.
Arguably though, one of the breakthrough materials of the last decade has been mycelium, which is being used in everything from furniture to packaging, and is currently being celebrated in a new show at London’s Somerset House entitled Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi. Myco Tree, designed by Sustainable Construction and Block Research Group, are load-bearing blocks with which it will be possible to build. In 2011, Dutch designer, Eric Klarenbeek, working in collaboration with scientists at the University of Wageningen, 3D-printed a chair using living fungus and local waste material. The substance then grew inside the chair’s frame to give it strength, whilst mushrooms on the surface provided a final decorative touch. Subsequently, Klarenbeek dried it out and added a thin layer of printed bioplastic to prevent it from growing further. Since the launch of the chair, the designer has gone on to found a new company with collaborator Jan Berbee and Arthur Moree called Krown, making a slew of products from the material.
Sebastian Cox, a designer-maker best known for his beautifully crafted timber furniture, has also been experimenting with uses for the material. In 2017 he launched a new collection of pieces – including a lampshade and stool – created with the help of design strategist Nilena Ivanova. “I was coppicing some hazel, and I noticed when I cut some rods down which had grown quite near each other that they’d been bound together by something,” he explains. “And that something turned out to be fungus. I didn’t know at the time, so I cut the bit off and sent it to the British Mycological Society.” The discovery allowed him to return to thoughts he’d had as a student around re-inventing MDF. “I spent a bit of time during my MA with natural glues and stuff,” he explains. “So, when I found mycelium, I thought that maybe that’s the substrate or substance to bind the chipped wood together. People talk about the mycelium but, for me, it’s actually about the wood.”
His pieces are made in two stages: initially sterilised Goat willow and birch are chipped up and put into substrate boxes, before the mycelium - which is carried on a millet-like grain - is introduced. The mixture is left for two weeks to allow the mycelium to grow throughout the wood, and then packed into a mould. After a further fortnight, it expands into the available space and an object is formed. The finished work has an odd, unsettling quality, which is both fascinating and repulsive in roughly equal measure.
“Mushrooms are vaguely alien things,” agrees Cox. “They’re sort of the unknown – some of them can kill you, some of them are tasty. We have a weird relationship with them. We also don’t fully understand their potential.”
Be in no doubt, the role of the designer is being transformed. Twenty years ago, a graduate leaving the Royal College of Art might have aspired to create a sofa for one of the big Italian manufacturers and become a star at Milan’s Salone. However, this career path is no longer available for the majority. In part, this is down to the 2008 banking crisis that bruised the industry so badly. Rather than taking a risk on up-and-coming talent, many of the larger brands have retreated and seem happy to commission tried-and-tested names. However, the need to create an ecologically sound way of living has shifted concerns profoundly: now the designer’s job is to persuade the world to consume less and consume better. To think ethically and act sustainably. To stop creating products made from petrol-chemicals and instead develop other materials. These are fascinating times.