Designing for Confluence


22 January 2019

“What do you think it feels like?” The Malmö-based designer Petra Lilja hands over one of her brightly patterned swatches, a square of oceanic blue covered with splotches of red and blue, about half a centimetre thick. It has the smoothness of leather and the springiness of rubber, but it is recognisably neither. Rather, it is a bioplastic formed from gluten proteins and water.

Lilja has nicknamed this substance “Gleather Glubber”. She created it in her kitchen, flattening it out into its present tile-shape with a rolling pin. Her samples display myriad textures and patterns, the latter created by mixing the gluten with food colouring and natural pigment. Arranged together on a table, they feel like geological specimens from some alien museum. Lilja was introduced to the material by Dr Ramune Kuktaite and Bill Newson, two bioscientists at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Although not yet at the point of commercial production, Newson believes that one day the material could be used to make biodegradable food packaging. For now, Lilja has created a prototype coffee holder and a pair of banners. The material’s full potential, as well as its limitations, remain mysterious. “I made a banner for a gallery opening,” explains Lilja, “and soon after I had a call for the gallery owner, saying it had started to warp. She thought it might have worms.”

Gleather Glubber is one of the fruits of What Matter_s, a project run from Malmö’s Form/Design Center that connected designers with scientific researchers, each of whom was engaged with developing and testing a material. Ten local designers or design practices were each placed in contact with scientists, and granted six months to create something based on that research period: not necessarily a finished project, but a physical outcome. The results – which also included a human-powered 3D printer that creates a vegan alternative to bone matter; a set of bioplastic plant pots; candleholders made from modified hemp hurds; and a prototype heat-absorber that mimics the structures of nanowires — were first unveiled at Dutch Design Week in late 2018, and are now on display at Form/Design Center.

The project was initially suggested by two not-profit organisations, both based in Skåne – a culturally distinct, densely populated region in the south of Sweden, in which Malmö is the largest city. The first organisation, SPOK, was founded by Skåne-based designer Jenny Nordberg in 2016, and aims to connect designers with manufacturers and material suppliers, bolstering local production. The second, Art & Science Initiative, advocates projects that bridge the gulf between the arts and the sciences, with the conviction that such interdisciplinary activity will benefit the world. “We were all looking for this kind of project at the same time,” says Art & Science Initiative co-founder Eliel Camargo Molina. What Matter_s was further supported by Form and the three-year South Sweden Creatives programme designed to promote Skåne’s cultural output.

The idea of a fissure between the arts and the sciences is a pervasive one, most famously expressed in 1959 by the scientifically-trained novelist C. P. Snow. In his lecture ‘The Two Cultures’, Snow claimed that those well-versed in the arts are often virtually illiterate in the sciences. Critics immediately leapt on the nuances (or lack of them) of Snow’s argument, but his core diagnosis – that scientific study often seems hermetically sealed from outsiders, orbiting in its own intellectual universe – seems as relevant today as before. Institutions that attempt to cross the border, such as MIT’s Media Lab, remain anomalies.

Design, traditionally figured as existing somewhere adjacent to art, has a particularly curious relationship to science. Many of the technological and material advancements that have allowed design to evolve, from fibreglass to digital computing, originated in scientific research, but designers are seldom able to directly interact with scientists. What Matter_s sought to grant designers such access, with particular attention to new, sustainable materials as yet inaccessible to general use. It also hoped to inspire exploration – even fun. “You don’t have to have a problem, or be looking for a solution,” explains SPOK’s project manager Anna Gudmundsdottir. “Experiment! Do what you want!”

The project began with an open call and selection competition for designers from Skåne. It proved immediately popular. “The designers were head over heels. People from all over the country called up to find a way to enter,” recalls Terese Alstin of Form/Design Center. “‘I have relatives in Skåne,’ or ‘I was once in an exhibition in Malmö.’” The 10 that were chosen represented a diverse array of design practices, many of which longed for greater access to science.

For Jenny Lee of Studio Aikieu, for instance, What Matter_s offered a chance to enact the sort of collaboration she saw as essential to her practice. “I really believe in the value and importance of establishing synergies with different sectors,” she explained, “[particularly] if we are wanting to innovate and identify viable solutions to tackle some of our global issues.” Lee ended up working with biotechnologist Dr Solmaz Hajizadeh to create furniture from chitin, a fibrous mixture of organic polysaccharides and inorganic calcium carbonate that makes up crustacean shells – a firm, sustainable and biodegradable material that is often thrown away as waste product. Lee learnt to refine chitin in her own home by dissolving discarded shells in household substances such as vinegar, creating a do-it-yourself method of replicating laboratory processes at home.

While designers applied for selection, various scientists with material-based research interests were approached to take part, the majority from nearby Lund University, one of Sweden’s oldest and largest. There, reactions were more muted. “Some scientists ignored our emails,” recounts Camargo Molina. “I imagine they first thought, ‘Is this for real?’ and then wondered what would be expected of them in terms of time.” For several of the scientists, there was also a psychological barrier. “Some of the researchers,” Camargo Molina continues, “were worried they couldn’t say anything about design. They did not see themselves as creative people.”

In other cases, the transition felt natural. Material science doctoral student Virginia Boix grew up in a family of designers and her work has focused on experimenting with 2D materials such as graphene. She was paired with product design duo Andréason & Leibel. “Our main question,” explains Kristin Leibel, “was how to visualise it. You can’t see it, and you can’t touch it.” Together, they came up with the Graphenogram, a system where graphite oxide is placed on an acrylic glass and shot with high-intensity light. The thin layer of graphene then remains on the glass, creating a photograph-like image and visualising the difficult-to-perceive material.

“Making graphene visible brings the concept closer to the public, and makes it interesting, beautiful and fun,” says Boix, and this interest in the communicative capabilities of design was shared by several of the other scientists. “As researchers,” says biomaterial specialist Dr Cedric Dicko, who worked the young design duo KOSK on developing samples in spider silk, “we have a duty to present to the public. Working on this project has helped with that.” For Boix in particular, working with Andréason & Leibel also gave her a different perspective on her research. “Designers have a more practical approach that we in fundamental science sometimes lack.” she says. “Collaborating with them made me rethink the impact of my research in people’s lives, and made me think about how it can affect society in the future.”

What Matter_s allowed practitioners from both fields to perceive the divergences in their working practices. “I tend to be more experimental and less methodical,” explains Jenny Lee, “while Solmaz is much more methodical – though this could also be due to the fact she works with some highly corrosive chemicals!” For Bill Newson, working with Petra Lilja allowed him to perceive a fundamental difference in research outcomes. “I think designers are more qualitative,” he says, “whereas scientists are more quantitative.” One is looking for what will happen, the other to measure the degree to which something happens. “Designers,” sums up Form’s Terese Alstin, “put things in a bowl and see what happens. Scientists place things in a bowl once they know what will happen.”

Has the project inspired scientists to continue bridging the gap? “It would be hard for them to contribute to the basic, fundamental research,” says Vilgailė Dagytė, who worked with designers Wang & Söderström to explore the energy-absorbing possibilities of nanowires, “but if I had research that was close to a product or usable materials, I think it would definitely be very nice to work with designers in the future.” Although Dagytė’s remarks hardly augur a definite commitment to future collaboration, they do acknowledge design’s potential for science: which, alongside the projects themselves, seems the covert aim of What Matter_s in general. It bodes well for the ability of scientists and designers to work together. Whether such collaboration can be fostered outside localised, time-delineated projects remains an open question.

One pairing does have firm plans to continue working together, however. Helsingborg-based design company Superlab worked with the engineer Dr Axel Nordin on Artificial Intelligent Architecture and Interior Design, which uses algorithms to generate office plans optimised to meet the needs of their users. A model created for the exhibition shows a hugely unconventional design for a workplace, far more complex than those designed by humans. For designer Niklas Madsen – who founded Superlab after a collaboration with psychology student at Lund, and who conceives of Superlab as a fusion of expertise from different disciplines – What Matter_s has proved a potentially beneficial experience for his company’s entire practice. “When we began looking into AI with Axel, we realised there is so much you can do,” says Madsen, “we feel that this is just the beginning! What we have worked on so far is just a side-project.” For Superlab, Nordin’s expertise has opened up a whole new route for its design – and there is no need to think such routes couldn’t be opened up elsewhere.