8 materials innovation case studies you haven’t heard of yet
As part of Circulate’s collaboration with the Disruptive Innovation Festival, we’re featuring insight from some of this year’s Open Mic contributors in advance of their performance at the DIF. Find out more at thinkdif.co, and don’t forget to tune into this session on materials innovation, live at 12:00 GMT on November 16th.
These familiar words have trailed behind designers for several years now, tagging their work, as they sought a suitable response to the rising mountains of waste and our shrinking resources.
Today, though, these words are no longer a mantra for designers; nor do they capture the quiet but powerful movement taking over many realms of physical design.
Artists, architects, product, and textile designers–makers of all kinds, really–have moved far beyond the acts of ‘recycle’ and ‘reuse.’ The most innovative work in the many fields of design is coming from makers who are entirely breaking down society’s waste and the scraps of industrial production, and transforming them into their material components.
What follows is an almost scientific extraction of all viable elements, and their conversion into entirely new and aesthetically promising raw material for design.
This isn’t the easy path, especially when shiny swarms of catalogued and shelved materials are more easily available, often at a lower price.
Still, the ‘reconstitution’ of what the world is regularly discarding, and its ‘rematerialisation’ into innovative, new materials and exhilarating products is drawing in more and more designers today. From pristinely white, webbed stools made from Nylon powder (and SLS 3D printing waste); to velvety, handmade bricks made from a cocktail of construction and demolition waste; to beautiful organic-looking art, crafted from thousands of reformed Starbucks coffee cup lids– the list of examples is endless.
Increasingly donning the hats of researcher and scientist, alongside that of the designer, today’s makers are releasing new products from lab-like studios and testing grounds. These finessed products have evolved well past the gruff, homegrown quality we had come to associate with recycled goods; and most can rival any industrially produced products in their cohort.
So what is this movement really?
For starters, it is the creation of a new material (and product) vocabulary, born from the complete transformation of waste. No longer content with just regurgitating what is within reach, designers have taken innovation into their own hands, and it all begins with the materials that they work with.
And from our perspective, this material innovation seems to be contemporary design’s best stepping stone to the circular economy.
Here are our top picks for products, processes, and their makers, that are leading the way in this movement of material innovation.
1) WasteBasedBricks / StoneCycling
Netherlands-based design and manufacturing company StoneCycling crunches and blends construction, demolition, and building manufacturing waste into beautiful hand-made bricks. The bricks all sport natural-looking hues, textures and are appropriately named–Aubergine, Nougat, Truffle, and Caramel, among others.
The sustainable and versatile bricks are making their way to prominent building facades and interiors in the Netherlands, while their base material (made of reconstituted waste) has been transformed into a new collection of furniture as well.
2) Hot Wire Extensions / Studio Ilio
Partnering with 3D printing companies, whose largest and rapidly growing waste product is Nylon powder, London-based designer duo Studio Ilio have created a series of webbed stools, lights, and miscellaneous products. Their only ingredients–waste Nylon powder, sand, and electrically charged Nichrome wire. ‘Hot Wire Extensions’ represents the studio’s signature investigation into conventional manufacturing processes, and their intent to challenge material-uses. Also, key to this innovative practice and the project, are the cross-disciplinary partnerships between designers and diverse manufacturers.
3) From inorganic to organic – braiding, melting and warping plastic / Mariana Nelson
California artist Mariana Nelson has developed specialised techniques to metamorphose discarded yarn and plastics (including Type-6 plastics, which cannot be recycled) into exquisite art. By braiding, melting, warping, and heat-pressing multiple layers of plastics, Nelson consumes nearly 100 percent of the massive amount of discarded material she sources.
A recent commission for the ‘Festival of the Arts’ in Laguna Beach involved the creation of a large, growing, organic ‘fungus’ on a tree, engineered by Nelson from warped and treated Starbucks coffee-lids.
4) Textile from pineapple waste / Piñatex by Ananas Anam
Evolved from seven years of R&D in the Philippines, UK and Spain, Piñatex™, developed by sustainable materials manufacturer Ananas Anam, is a natural and sustainable non-woven textile, produced from the fibres of pineapple leaves. The pineapple leaves are a by-product of the pineapple harvest.
Designers all over the world are beginning to tap into Piñatex for their products and fashion accessories. While some designers have been quick to term Piñatex as a leather substitute, many others keen to explore Piñatex in a long-term way and unlock its material potential far beyond this.
5) Co-cultivating with living technology / Faber Futures
Operating within the realm of biodesign is UK-based designer and researcher Natsai Audrey Chieza’s practice Faber Futures. Among Faber Futures’ key projects is ‘Fold’–an experiment in assigning colour and pattern to textiles by placing them inside a small petri dish full of living, pigment-producing bacteria. Unlike other research and production entities, the goal here is not to harvest pigment from bacteria and to dye fabrics in conventional ways. Instead, the intent is to co-cultivate with bacteria–to intervene actively in its processes and arrive at new possibilities of desired pigments, and then direct the bacteria to attach themselves to fabric, producing results naturally and intuitively.
The results are extremely attractive, sustainable, and en route to becoming scalable for larger industry production.
6) Joining Bottles / Micaella Pedros:
With her ‘Joining Bottles’ project and toolkit, London-based designer Micaella Pedros turns discarded plastic bottles into joinery, and wood scraps into eclectic compositions. Using heat, and a technique of indentation into wood scraps, extremely sturdy, usable and harmonious results have been created from Micaella’s practice, which developed during her work and volunteering experiences in Uganda and Guatemala.
7) Cardboard Architect / Fold Theory – Tobias Horrocks
Australian architect Tobias Horrocks has created an architectural and furniture design practice that relies exclusively on the strength, ease of assembly, disassembly and eventual return to composting, of materials such as cardboard and Xanita-x-board, which are made from post-consumer recycled waste.
The architect achieves structural strength and nuanced forms using digital design and fabrication, all with this bio-degradable material (cardboard), and pairs the material with temporal uses, with the end of life in mind. His only aspiration? Waterproof cardboard.
8) From DIY to GIY (Grow it Yourself) / Ecovative
Biomaterials company Ecovative has gone one step further than ‘DIY,’ with its range of Mushroom Materials. With agricultural waste, Mushroom mycelium and well, time, as its only ingredients, designers can grow their own sustainable material, using Ecovative’s toolkit, and orient it to flexible uses. Designers and artists such as Danielle Trofe and Erin Smith are using the GIY material to create lighting, homeware products, sculpture and more.