A jet-black resin produced by honeybees is blown like glass into otherworldly vases. Animal tissues from a bloodless lab are grown into leather-like fabrics. And multicolored husks of heirloom corn take on a new life as jigsaw-patterned furniture.
This is biodesign: an experimental discipline merging design, technology and science to produce high-performance materials from organic substances and agricultural waste.
The resulting “biomaterials,” co-created by humans and nature, are set to be collectively honored as “Material of the Year” at the London Design Fair, which opens this week.
The fair’s director, Jimmy MacDonald, said he hopes these materials can transform industrial supply chains, discouraging people from accepting waste as inevitable and providing a “second yield” from otherwise discarded byproducts.
With a new exhibition in East London’s Shoreditch district set to open this month, MacDonald hopes to alert visitors and business leaders to the potential of four different biomaterials, each made from agricultural waste and crop residue, including potato starch and coffee bean shells.
“These materials really move the needle in terms of recycling, because they are a byproduct from a huge industrialized waste source,” MacDonald said in a phone interview.
Last year, the London Design Fair named plastic as its material of the year. Although the accolade celebrated the creation of desirable objects from recycled plastic, the decision arguably risked glamorizing the material’s use.
But these biomaterials – used for everything from lampshades to sunglasses – provide greener alternatives to plastics and could reduce the demand for oil-derived products, said MacDonald.
“I think what’s going to happen is designers are going to start presenting these materials, and consumers are going to start demanding them.”
French designer Marléne Huissoud said biomaterials have come a long way since 2011, when she joined Central Saint Martins art school in London as a student with then-unconventional interests. Hussoud inherited her father’s passion for bees, and began exploring their design potential.
“I started to experiment with the bee hives of my father, in the forest in the Alps, and I came out with this honey bee resin,” she said.
Today, Huissoud keeps beehives near Chateau de Fontainebleau, outside Paris. Using techniques adapted from glass-blowing, she has developed a technique for using honeybee propolis – the biodegradable “glue” that bees use to build nests – to create sculptural vases and furniture.
It’s just one of the natural materials she has developed from the insect world. Some of Huissoud’s other designs are made from the cocoons of silkworms, which she harvests after the silkworms have emerged as butterflies.
“The first goal of the whole project is the celebration of the insect world – the beauty of the insect world – and the material properties of biomaterials,” she said in a phone interview. “Maybe there is a different way of making, and different processes can be applied to industry.”
Huissoud only makes about eight new pieces of homewear a year, and her creations are not intended to be mass-produced. Instead, the designer added, she wants us to question how many household objects we really need.
Fungus and friends
Huissoud will be in London to discuss the emerging commercial uses of biomaterials at the Global Design Forum, a series of talks in the London Design Festival program. She will be joined by Amy Congdon, a tissue engineer who produces new biological textiles for clothing, and Italian designer Maurizio Montalti, who explores the applications of fungi and bacteria.
Elsewhere at the festival, much of the focus will be on scaling up production of biomaterials, as once-experimental techniques near commercial viability.
MacDonald said he chose to highlight the four aforementioned materials because of their ability to benefit from large supply chains, where enough waste is being generated to produce them at scale.
He gives the example of Chip[s] Board, founded by designers Rowan Minkley and Robert Nicoll, which is backed by the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen potato products, McCain Foods.
The company produces durable bioplastics from waste potato starch, along with other agricultural by-products including coffee grounds and oak shavings, that can be shaped into sunglasses frames, among other uses.
Globally, biomaterials are already emerging from the lab to underpin real-world businesses, including a coat made from bio-engineered spider silk, which has been produced by Japanese firm Spiber in collaboration with outdoor clothing brand The North Face. Spiber recently raised $44 million from investors to build a new factory – one of a series of fashion industry applications gaining traction.
Changing the system
Eliminating waste is yet to become the norm in big business, said MacDonald – something he hopes his exhibition can help change. One of the four designers in the exhibition, Fernando Laposse, is hoping to challenge industrialized agriculture in the process.
He discovered that native Mexican varieties of corn had all but disappeared from markets, a phenomenon he says is due to competition from industrially farmed and genetically modified monocrops. In 2015, Laposse headed to the remote town of Totomoxtle, in the state of Oaxaca, to try and reverse this decline.
“It’s a very isolated place, so I figured, if there is going to be somewhere that hasn’t been touched by (industrial agriculture), it’s going to be there,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s an indigenous community, it’s high in the mountains, there’s no highway connecting it to anything, no internet.”
Yet Laposse found that industrial farming had wreaked havoc on the region’s soils. “It was a total shock for me. The land was completely devastated. The town had become this sort of ghost town, everyone had migrated because they couldn’t grow anything, anymore.”
Working with local indigenous farmers, Laposse created new agricultural projects by re-planting traditional varieties of corn, whose husks he has turned into a versatile material currently used in furniture and decorations.
Developing new biomaterials only makes sense if they don’t repeat the harm done by previous industries, Laposse argued. And many existing biomaterials rely on the kind of industrially-produced corn that has so damaged Oaxaca.
“We’ve made these mistakes already and it seems like we don’t learn from them,” he said, referring to the 1980s and 1990s, when bioethanol was promoted as a renewable replacement for fossil fuels only to become a chief contributor to deforestation.
“There’s this present obsession (with) coming up with the new ‘hit’ material… there’s this big drive to find an alternative to plastic, which I think is a good thing.
“But I think we have to be really careful of this pursuit of the new biomaterials – to really be present in the moment, and understand where we get our raw materials from.”