Disegno 20

The Food Developer


15 January 2019

“Whenever I visit a new country, I have to visit a supermarket,” says Carolien Niebling. “There you really see what people are eating. I don’t really like specialised or high-end food markets.”

Niebling and I are walking through a specialised, high-end market in Zurich. There’s charcuterie, an artisanal bakery and crates of organic vegetables. I silently curse myself: I suggested we meet here, as Niebling is mid-move from Lausanne, and consequently has no studio. I had hoped that the novelty sausages in the market’s cured meats section might serve as prompts for our discussion of Niebling’s most well-known project, The Sausage of the Future. The book examined, in forensic detail, the cultural history, constituent parts and sustainable futures of the lowly sausage – “a product with more than 5,000 years of research and development,” as Niebling likes to point out. It won her the prestigious Grand Prix at last year’s Design Parade competition in Hyères, France.

As it turns out, I would have done better to suggest the Coop down the road for our meeting. Although Niebling presents her work within relatively rarefied contexts – The Sausage of the Future has been exhibited at Villa Noailles in Hyères for Design Parade, as well as Wanted Design Brooklyn for the 2018 edition of NYCxDesign – she considers her field to be much more quotidian. “I don’t see myself as a food designer,” she says firmly, “if food design at the moment can be defined as mostly experience-driven. It’s not [concerned] with industry, but rather with how you experience something, or the social dimension of it. You eat from your elbow; you can’t see what you’re eating; or you have pink bones in chickens. Very conceptual things.” I ask Niebling how she would categorise her practice as we make our way to the market’s café. “I don’t know if there is a real definition,” she says. “If somebody makes a Mars bar, what is that person? A food developer, maybe. I think I’m closer to that.”

An image from Niebling’s The Sausage of the Future shows a blood sausage photographed by Jonas Marguet. All imagery seeded throughout this article is taken from The Sausage of the Future.

The Sausage of the Future was an exercise in hypothetical food development. Niebling’s premise for the project was simple: we need to eat less meat in order to reduce the environmentally damaging effects of the global meat industry, which currently constitutes approximately 14.5 per cent of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and is one of the main driving factors behind the sixth mass extinction. “It started with me just being interested in the question: ‘If we’re going to eat less meat, then what are we eating instead?’” explains Niebling. “And then I noticed that the solutions out there were not ones I thought were good. I believe that it would be an easier and much more efficient solution to start reducing now, quickly, and try to change the way we produce rather than have the meat industry continue as it is, and add a lot of new industries next to it.”

The new industries cropping up alongside the traditional meat industry are manifold. Silicon Valley, for instance, is currently abuzz with biotech startups such as Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats, which offer lab-grown meat and meat-like vegetable protein (“meat-free meat” is the ontological conundrum these companies claim to produce). While Niebling welcomes such ventures in principle, she also points to the prohibitive cost of the finished products – at the time she was researching The Sausage of the Future, a single lab-grown burger would put you back US$25,000, although prices have dropped considerably since then – and the fact that they cannot draw on much existing infrastructure for their production. Veganism as a panacea for the meat industry’s ills is also something Niebling is sceptical of: “[If everyone went vegan,] there wouldn’t be enough surface on earth to farm plants that give us enough protein to survive,” she says. Instead, with The Sausage of the Future, Niebling sought to build on an existing infrastructure and body of expertise in order to introduce incremental changes. “I try to be more realistic,” she says, “almost as if it were a lamp or a chair. I look at production processes, materials, availability, market value and those types of things.”

A liver and raspberry jelly sausage, photographed by Jonas Marguet.

Before redesigning the sausage, however, Niebling needed to understand it. The first part of her book is devoted to the cultural history of preserved meats, a topic she had already explored while a graduate student at the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) from 2012 to 2014. “For example, I find it fascinating that [preserved meats] made us travel!” she says, as we sit down to talk. “We couldn’t go for long distances without protein. Then all of a sudden, we could.” The waitress brings in the coffees we’ve ordered, and I wonder if the Venetian merchants who first brought coffee to Europe in the 17th century would’ve done so without salami. Niebling snaps me out of my musings. “My favourite part of a project is researching where something came from,” she says. “Because the ‘where, when, and how’ is often the reason why it’s still here. The sausage is, in its very essence, a good object, because it came out of efficient butchery and preservation.”

After establishing the “where, when, and how”, Niebling proceeded to examine the constituent parts of the sausage: its skin, bulk, glue and flavouring. “I dissected the sausage and tried to tackle every single element,” she says. “For example glue: how can I explain in two pages what the glue is that holds a sausage together?” The Sausage of the Future explains the function played by each element in existing types of sausage, whether they be dried, fresh or fermented, and then offers alternative ingredients with similar properties to those traditionally used. Rather than gut, for instance, the skin might be made from beeswax or seaweed. Rather than mince, the bulk of the sausage could consist of ground-down worms, crickets, grains or protein-rich seeds, the latter being “the most underestimated thing ever”, according to Niebling. Identifying the potential replacement proteins, skins and gelifying agents led Niebling down the route of nutritional science. The fruits of her research can be found in the form of tables detailing the structural formulae of different types of protein, and a Protein Chart, which lists the calories, amino acid score (“If it’s over 100,” explains Niebling, “it’s a protein replacement”), and nutrient score of everything from pork ears to poppy seeds. “It’s one of my favourite things in the book,” says Niebling. “It’s only three pages but it took forever.”

An insect collage by Emile Barret.

This meticulous approach has come to characterise Niebling’s way of working, and is something she developed under the tutelage of the designer Jonathan Olivares at ECAL. “There was a research workshop that I did with Jonathan,” she says, “and he said a few things that made me think, ‘Oh… research!’” Niebling’s eyes widen as if she’s reliving the epiphany. “It’s something I hadn’t considered to be so important. [But I realised that] actually, it’s not all about the object. In the end you can translate research into an object – but you don’t have to. That’s what I loved about it.” She refers to Olivares’ painstaking book A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, which was published by Phaidon in 2011, as an important source of inspiration. “For me, that book was an eye-opener,” says Niebling. “So I made a book about food preservation for Jonathan’s workshop. I covered maybe 35 different forms of preservation, and for each one, I wrote a little text: is it healthy or not? Where does it come from originally? Then I categorised this information in five different ways: on a map, a timeline, as an index, as categories, and alphabetically. And every time you look at it in terms of a new category, you read things differently.” Niebling laughs. “I didn’t know that I liked to classify things so much.”

While the research process can be an end in itself, Niebling’s work does tend to materialise as so-called end products. As a follow-up to the preservation project at ECAL, for instance, she made three objects designed to aid food preservation: a smoker, a vacuum-packer and a dryer that uses silica pearls. Each is an intuitive and well-crafted object in its own right, and faintly reminiscent of lab equipment. Similarly, The Sausage of the Future resulted in a number of newly designed sausages developed in collaboration with the Dutch butcher Herman ter Weele and the Lausanne-based chef Gabriel Serero: a mortadella that has had some of its pork filling replaced by broccoli; a fuet with pig’s heart and nettles; a fruit and nut salami; an apple and blood sausage; and an insect paté sealed within a soft wax skin (the insects were sourced from Thailand, Niebling says, explaining that European insects taste too “dusty”), to name just a few. Each sausage features in the book in the form of an explanatory text, an illustrated cross-section, a still-life photograph, and, in the Sausage Matrix at the back of the book, a pie-chart recipe. Niebling has a knack for finding appealing ways of presenting things that are intuitively unappealing. Ground-down grasshoppers, chopped-up belly fat, and the very concept of animal guts stuffed with animal viscera are all rendered in such a friendly, neat and stylised manner that they not only feel inoffensive, but actually seem rather chic.

A heart collage by Emile Barret.

Although Niebling likens herself to a food developer, she is not particularly interested in having her future sausages taken on by a food company. She prefers, instead, to think of her research as a catalyst: “The future sausage is a metaphor for the possibilities that lie ahead,” she writes at the very end of her book. I can’t help but think, as we sip our coffees, that her apple boudin or liver and raspberry gel sausage would do rather well in the specialised, high-end market we’re sat in, but Niebling sees things differently. “The thing is, there are millions of options to think about if you applied the rules [set out in The Sausage of the Future]. The sausages that I made are only suggestions for butchers, who can then go and do things themselves in the way they want to with local, seasonal ingredients.” Niebling’s presentation of the project at Wanted Design Brooklyn was a case in point. “I worked with a butcher [Brent Young for The Meat Hook] in New York, and it almost made me emotional to see what he made of it,” she says. “I gave him the book and told him: ‘Do whatever! As long as it’s reducing meat in some way, go for it.’ And he made a smoked apple and pork skin sausage, and a heart and tongue sausage. They were both delicious. Even the fruit salami that he made was really good.” This is the sort of impact Niebling values the most: for her ideas to be taken up by specialists and artisans themselves. “That’s much more important than to have a sausage with my name on it,” she says.

A heart and herb fuet, photographed by Jonas Marguet.

I have managed to catch Niebling at an unusually hectic time in her life. She is in the middle of her move to Zurich, and is also in the final stages of preparing for her wedding. When we meet at the market, she has recently returned from Hyères, where she sat on the jury for this year’s Grand Prix and also presented the first fruits of a new project centred around seaweed, developed as part of the two residencies the Grand Prix winner undertakes as part of their prize: one for the historic French porcelain manufacturer Sèvres, and another for the glass-making centre CIRVA in Marseilles. These residencies were a challenge for a designer who prefers to delve deeply into the material properties of her subject before thinking about aesthetic applications. “I had to do a vase [for CIRVA], so I thought, ‘Water plant vase!’” says Niebling. “And for Sèvres, they asked me to do something decorative, like tiles. But I was a bit stubborn and made them a plate. I thought, OK, decorative – why don’t I look at the aesthetics of seaweed, because it’s so beautiful.”

A mortadella collage by Emile Barret.

The resultant CIRVA vases are jar-like, with subtly coloured gradients – blue, ochre, mint green – at their bases and narrowing brims, the shape of each adapted for a specific type of aquatic plant, ranging from waterlilies, which need tall vases, to micro-plants such as fanwort and duckweed, for which smaller vessels suffice. The Sèvres plates also drew on the material properties of aquatic plants by moulding rehydrated supermarket-bought seaweed to form textured patterns on top of each plate. “I thought it was a bit funny, because the seaweed is plated on the plate,” says Niebling. “But I was also surprised at the beauty of it. Sèvres porcelain is super precise and loyal to the seaweed’s shape. You see all the bubbles and every type of wrinkle. Dulse seaweed, for instance, has tiny little leaves that are about 2mm, and you can actually see them [on the plate].”

Insect paté, photographed by Jonas Marguet.

The process of designing the objects for CIRVA and Sèvres clearly yielded interesting insights into the characteristics and properties of different types of aquatic plants. However, there is one particular aspect of seaweed that Niebling is looking to focus on when continuing her development of the project. “The branches of seaweed can grow in any direction, and because of the waves they need a thickening agent: their cells contain a little gel to prevent them from tearing. None of our air plants have these properties,” she explains. This is something Niebling discovered while working on The Sausage of the Future: sausages need a binding agent such as starch, blood, eggs or gelatin to stay compact, and seaweed could potentially be processed into a sustainable glue substitute. I ask Niebling what format her seaweed project will eventually take, and she laughs. “Well, my boyfriend begged me not to do a book again. It’s really, really time-consuming,” she says. “But I love books. I think they are this moment in time. Probably in five years it will be a bit useless,” she says, gesturing to the copy of The Sausage of the Future she’s brought with her. “There will be new developments. But still, I think it paints a good picture of the moment.”

We get the bill, which amounts to a sum that is to be expected from one of the world’s most expensive cities. It reminds me to ask Niebling why, as a young designer, she has decided to settle in Switzerland. “I don’t mean to be crass,” I venture, “but some would say it’s a surprising decision to base yourself here.” She laughs. “I know. And for food, it’s not a great location either, because I think Switzerland has one of the poorest food histories that I can imagine,” she says. “I mean, we’re surrounded by Spain, Italy and France.” But there are redeeming factors. “There are loads of science and research funds and resources here,” Niebling explains, “and as I also teach on the side, that’s really good.” A final factor concerns something less tangible. “It’s not easy to be a designer in Switzerland, but I think me and what Swiss people are expecting are aligned.” I must look bewildered. “Much more than in Holland, where I’m from,” she explains. “The Sausage of the Future was well-received everywhere in Europe, except Holland. They think it’s too normal. It’s like, I should’ve made a sausage with my own blood and cured it with my sweat.” We both chuckle. “Something provocative, always.”

A bangers collage by Emile Barret.

Niebling is a pragmatist, not a provocateur – this much has become evident during my afternoon with her. She’d rather tweak an existing industry than attempt to overthrow it; she’d rather suggest a solution for immediate implementation than adopt shock tactics. Niebling’s pragmatism has an optimistic edge to it. I ask her what she thinks we’ll look back at in 50 years’ time – provided we’re still here – and find most shocking about the food industry in 2018. “Meat,” she says immediately. “I think we’ll look back at some point, maybe when we’ve found a way to make protein more concentrated in plants, and look at the way we consumed meat, and think … God.” She doesn’t believe that meat will have disappeared completely from our diets in 2068, however. “The idea of going to the supermarket, buying a piece of raw meat, throwing it in the pan, and for that to be part of our three-component meal – I think that will go,” she says. “Maybe beef jerky and those types of things might stay.”

We make our way out of the market, and Niebling picks up the thread of our conversation. “I’m so curious,” she says. “I hope I’m there to witness these things. And I fear it too, obviously. But I would love to see the world in 50 years.”

Vegetarian bangers photographed by Jonas Marguet.