In 2016, Sophie Rowley quit her job in London sourcing textiles for the designer Faye Toogood’s fashion line to work with a decidedly less desirable material: industrial garbage. At the Mumbai innovation center of one of India’s largest manufacturing firms, Godrej & Boyce, which produces everything from submarine parts to padlocks, Rowley joined a small team of designers tasked with cataloging every waste product the corporation produced, then recruiting local craftspeople to experiment with the discarded materials: She gave old raffia to rattan artisans, who wove it into chairs; disused copper wire went to ceramists, who crocheted it into patterns to adorn their pottery. “The quantity of waste is beyond comprehension,” Rowley says. “The workers were using up to 30,000 pairs of gloves each month.”
Despite all this trash, Rowley was ultimately galvanized by the experience. After moving back home to Berlin in the summer of 2017, she started building an archive of novel materials that she’d been tinkering with earlier that decade, during her student days at London’s Central Saint Martins. At first glance, some of these experiments appeared like natural substances: a block of “coral” carved from discarded blue foam, recycled glass melted down and transformed into something that resembled a ghostly glacier. But her most successful project was more surreal: Bahia Denim, a sturdy textile fabricated from leftover pieces of jeans, moulded and bonded using bioresin, then cut into flat sheets that mimicked indigo-hued marble, which could later be formed into stools, tables and other furnishings. “The ultimate goal,” she says, “is to out-design waste.”
In doing so, the 32-year-old Rowley joins a group of young designers who are not merely recycling — or even “upcycling,” as the contemporary design language goes — but rather re-envisioning garbage as both an abundant and largely untapped resource, one that can be manipulated via technology and artistry into new materials and objects that are beautiful in their own right. The benefits to the global corporations that produce such staggering amounts of waste are myriad, not only in reducing their total environmental footprint but in finding ways to move beyond what was long presumed to be the endpoint of the creative process. Two years ago, for example, the French fashion brand Hermès started sponsoring the Spanish designer Jorge Penadés, occasionally sending him palettes of leather offcuts. With those scraps, he produces Structural Skin, a durable snakeskin-like material formed from shredded hides that are placed into a mold and reconstituted using a sustainable glue. Penadés developed the idea a few years ago as his master’s thesis project at Madrid’s Istituto Europeo di Design. There, he spent a year researching how fashion companies dispose of tanned leather, much of which is chemically treated and won’t decompose. “I thought, ‘What if I tried to apply the way wood is recycled into particle board to leather?’” Penadés, now 33, says. Once complete, his product functions just like wood: He sands and drills it together to make tabletop sculptures and consoles. Eventually, because the material is both fire retardant and sound absorbent, he hopes to offer floor and wall paneling. “I only go through about 300 kilos of leather waste a year” — or 660 pounds — he says. “I want to make a larger impact.” (When the United Nations last published an estimate in 2000, it found that more than 800,000 tons of leather waste was produced by the global leather industry.)
For the 37-year-old Dutch designer Mieke Meijer, it was a poetic impulse, rather than an altruistic one, that initially moved her to try transforming newspaper into wood: “What if I could turn this back into a tree?” she recalls thinking more than a decade ago. It’s this revisiting of materials — whether raw to finished or finished to raw — that inspires many of these projects, regardless of the advanced processes involved. In Meijer’s case, the manufacturing was surprisingly crude: In 2003, she pilfered a stack of newspapers from her parents’ house and used a paint roller to glue them together, sheet by sheet, until she had created a 10-inch roll, like a stout tree trunk. Using a band saw, she divided it into two-inch-wide planks. “I didn’t know what to expect when I started cutting, but I saw that it was beautiful,” she says. With those knotty gray strips, she constructed a small table. Five years later, she met Arjan van Raadshooven, the co-founder of the Dutch design label Vij5, who asked if his firm could try her material in an upcoming collection. Now patented under the name NewspaperWood, it was used by Peugeot to create a dashboard for two concept cars and, three years ago, the American skate company Nixon employed it as a limited-edition face for a watch sold at Barneys New York. “In order to apply these new materials on a larger scale, one has to also become an entrepreneur,” Meijer says.
Most of human history has been defined by our use of materials, from the Stone Age through the Bronze and Iron Ages. The industrial age, which began in the late 18th century, has been marked by large-scale technological advancements that have allowed us to mass-produce out of steel, plastic and wood, ultimately at great cost to the planet. Now these designers and their peers are trying to undo that damage. “We are going through a very important transitional phase,” says Seetal Solanki, the author of “Why Materials Matter” (2018) and the founder of the London research design studio Ma-tt-er. She refers to the current era as the anthropogenic age — after the planetary destruction caused by humans — but she believes that if we turn to reserves such as buried plastic, “our resources are actually super abundant.”
Plastic, of course, has become both an international scourge over the last decade as well as a dare of sorts among this vanguard of contemporary designers. The Dutch designer Dirk van der Kooij, 35, has been making his sinuously shaped chairs from reclaimed synthetics since 2009 but recently began to blow plastics from old CDs and chocolate moulds to make ethereal hanging lights that dangle like swirls of soft-serve ice cream. The standout show during the London Design Festival last September was “PlasticScene,” curated in part by the 31-year-old experimental British furniture designer James Shaw. One exhibition featured a collection of historic objects that were designed from natural plastics, such as a 19th-century replica of an Aztec rubber shoe and a Victorian-era Parisian ceremonial plaque stamped out of bois durci, derived from dried animal blood. Shaw himself uses a self-invented extruding gun — similar to the machines that shape long strands of dry pasta — to create wonky coils of repurposed plastic with which he sculpts stools and side tables.
And yet, the idea of reclaiming plastic is perhaps less thrilling than reconsidering those natural materials that we humans have often (and incorrectly) derided as waste. Think of mycelium, the weblike network of vegetable matter that connects mushroom colonies, which is now being used by the technology company Dell, in partnership with the biomaterials company Ecovative, for some of its packaging. In the Netherlands, seaweed farms on the North Sea are being developed in hopes of supplying the raw material to produce alternatives to fossil-fuel-based polymers. But in terms of both aesthetics and human advancement, it’s microalgae that perhaps hold the most promise. At the Algae Lab — part of Luma, an ambitious cultural complex in Arles, France, that will fully open to the public in 2020 — 3-D printers are currently producing luminescent vessels made from an algae biopolymer that are inspired by Roman glass artifacts. On their own, they are striking, but the properties of the material, collected at wetlands in the south of the country, are more impressive: Every kilogram absorbs roughly its own weight in carbon emissions, according to the Dutch designers Eric Klarenbeek, 40, and Maartje Dros, 39, the duo leading the project. “We are not just designing objects of beauty but showing that we can develop technology that binds carbon dioxide rather than emitting it,” Klarenbeek says. “Now we need to make it happen on a global scale.” And indeed, if there is a gold rush within the world of once-wasted materials, where better to start than at the beginning: with micro-organisms themselves.
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