Taken out of their familiar context, so-called trans-materials offer designers new opportunities to blend sustainable design, flexibility and innovation
Trans-materials - what might sound like a hip buzzword has long found its way into everyday design processes. Thanks to increasing demand for sustainability and a low-impact approach to raw materials, more and more designers simply co-opt existing materials to give them a new lease of life replete with novel functions and a surprising range of curious combinations. Once repurposed, this material is no longer at home in any particular discipline and thus defies existing genre boundaries. The result: a wealth of truly interesting and innovative hybrid products.
For a great example of this approach, look no further than the kami pots by Berlin design studio ett la benn. Their severe, polygon-shaped vases are fashioned from 100 per cent biodegradable cellulose and thus not only relatively easy to manufacture, but also entirely compostable. Developed by design duo Oliver Bischoff and Danilo Dürler, these vases - available in a muted shade of grey - are shaped like papier mache and then air-dried layer by layer over the course of several days to save on energy. Their unadulterated starting point: differently sized cellulose flakes by a third-party supplier. Danilo Dürler explains: “Finding a totally novel use for this material leads to interesting side products and projects that probably wouldn’t be thrown up - or considered - by conventional means or processes. For us, this makes following the material, for a change - instead of a distinct shape or idea from the start - a true joy and challenge every single time.”
The duo’s kami pots pave the way for future innovations, yet took a while to take their final shape. “Well, that’s the beauty of it all. There already are alternatives for most of the ‘traditional’ materials, but unfortunately a lot of these alternatives are quite a bit more expensive and not very well explored. So, we consider it our duty as designers to make use of these alternatives,” states Danilo Dürler. Right now, ett la benn focus on accelerating manufacturing time per unit to enable larger production runs. In April, they will present the result at this year’s Milan Design Fair, Salone del Mobile.
Nir Meiri from Tel Aviv pursues an equally inventive approach to an, at first glance, relatively mundane raw material. The gently undulating lamps of his Desert Storm series consist of nothing but desert sand and, thanks to their semi-transparent nature, bathe their surroundings in a muted, atmospheric light. “This material intrigues me due to its ability to change its form and characteristics, re-invent itself all the time as a new material (stone, glass, powder act) and due to its wonderful aesthetics and textures,” explains the intrigued designer. Each and every Desert Storm lamp is absolutely unique and manufactured by Nir Meiri himself in a process that involves both industrial manufacturing steps and hands-on intervention. To this end, he mixes up sand in a special mould with a glue compound of his own invention. The drying process creates a random pattern reminiscent of a sand storm. Along these lines, Meiri also took shapes and inspiration from the distortions found in dried desert mud and Mediterranean desert plants to create the lamps’ mould. “My point is that we should use natural materials that we have in abundance, not over exploiting our planet... And again, I think that new technologies are the key for developing the future materials,” Nir Meiri adds. On a more personal note, his own upcoming experiments promise to include work with wood and concrete.
Another trans-material - not necessarily available in abundance yet certainly an integral part of our everyday lives - is cardboard. Karton encompasses an entire range of satisfyingly solid tables, chairs, shelves and toys fashioned from nothing but cardboard. A clear pioneer in trans-materials, the Berlin-based studio Stange Design started to pursue this approach in the 1980s and has been producing it’s Karton line in-house ever since 1990. Last year, they won a world-wide distribution deal with an Australian company, ready to take their innovative indoor appeal all the way across the globe. After all, cardboard furniture’s greatest advantage happens to be immediately obvious: All items are easy to recycle, quick to assemble and take apart and, despite their lightweight nature, surprisingly robust. Manufacturing involves down-to-earth and old school tools like rolling scissors, platen press, flat bed plotter and a waste press for serial production - or a more individual, hands-on approach for one-off commissions.
Mechtild Kotzurek-Stange of Stange Design appreciates the leeway of working with cardboard and thinks there is plenty more scope for innovation. “Right now, cardboard is a wood-based product, but why not derive it from other plant-based sources? For example hemp, to name but one,” she explains. And there is one key criteria for the manufacturing process: “The paper weights and the composition of the processed papers are decisive for the subsequent stability and longevity of the material.” With this in mind, Stange Design continue to research their chosen material with a focus on finding new ways to make cardboard furniture more resistant to water and fire.
Well, common cardboard, plain cellulose and ordinary sand prove just how flexible and versatile materials can be when taken from their natural habitat and use scenario - and how they can offer timely answers to the challenges posed by the finite nature of many materials we find in the worlds of manufacturing and design.
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Ett la benn