Is material innovation the key to a sustainable future?

Is material innovation the key to a sustainable future?

Words Vilma Paasivaara

With the launch of their new book Radical Matter, research agency FranklinTill has been stirring the discussion around sustainability, the perception of resources and our material futures…

As one of the events highlighted on our Cultural Journal for March, the launch of Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future at the Design Museum was an evening we have been especially looking forward to in the Hole & Corner office. Though Kate and Caroline – Franklin and Till respectively – have a busy itinerary, travelling the globe to talk about their book, this panel discussion was the big home launch.

For the talk, FranklinTill had recruited a diverse bunch of industry experts featuring Carole Collet, who is a professor in Design for Sustainable Futures at Central Saint Martins and a biofabrication pioneer; James Shaw, a designer/maker whose hands-on practice centres around material experimentations, translated into sculptures and functional objects; Paul Smyth of Makerveristy – an artist, technologist and co-founder of design studio Something & Son; and Zoe Laughlin, co-founder and Director of the Institute of Making at University College London. ‘There seemed to be great energy,’ Caroline says about the event. ‘What was nice was that the audience seemed really passionate about the subject.’ After a night of lively back-and-forth discussion, we caught up with Caroline Till to discuss radical matters…

The book itself is the result of a two-year process – so seeing the project finally come to fruition was a particularly special occasion. Till says the timing could not have been better, with high-profile media outlets such as the BBC’s The Blue Planet having brought many of the questions surrounding sustainability and its relation to materiality into the public consciousness. Though the book was originally destined for designers, it has found a far wider audience of people who want to know how to take action for good in their daily lives.

The book begins by addressing contemporary issues by exploring how we can turn current waste into new materials. From there it moves on, through chapters with captivating and provocative titles such as ‘Shit, Hair, Dust’ and ‘Designed to Disappear’, to eventually confront a more distant reality with ‘Future Mining’. This was a very conscious choice, Till explains: to go from the familiar to the futuristic. ‘If you started with ‘Future Mining’, which might be happening in hundreds of thousands of years’ time, people might be really questioning the relevance of that,’ she says.

For FranklinTill, it was important that the book would be seen as a useful tool for the designers and makers who produce the things around us. ‘It is meant to be a call to the design community; to really have a deep look at our systemic issues in relation to production and consumption of materials,’ Caroline says, adding that, although London is one of the main hubs in the world for material innovation, there seems to be a problem in bringing the research out of the labs and studios and into the mainstream. Pointing to the Netherlands as a prime example, she says that adopting and actively encouraging work in this field is crucial for it to make a difference. The objective of Radical Matter is to inform the right people about sustainability and the material possibilities available. ‘The smart companies, or manufacturers, or brands are the ones who are starting to invest in sustainable material innovation,’ she says, ‘there’s a real thirst from consumers for that.’

However, it is not only important to reach the companies who are mass-producing consumer goods: Till sees the role of the maker in material innovation as ‘massively important’. Makers are very present in the book – which is why they had also invited James Shaw to take part in the panel discussion at the launch. ‘Makers like James Shaw have the freedom and the ingenuity to play with materials,’ Till says. ‘To see how making can really explore – to the extremes – what the potential of a material is.’ Though these makers might not produce the everyday objects we are most familiar with, they are advocates for material change – and they are increasingly collaborating with larger, more mainstream brands.

Makers have been striving to reclaim the making process from mass production and are now moving towards doing the same in terms of materiality as well. ‘I think in the designer and maker community, it is now an important part of the process to make your own material rather than working with an existing raw material,’ Till notes. Creating a connection with – and an understanding of – the materials we use automatically makes us think about sustainability and provenance. ‘Personally, I think we have always been relatively divorced from material origin,’ Till says; ‘and I think that is one of the biggest problems.’ She suggests that we have come too far without equipping people with knowledge of material origin – which has led to our current throwaway culture. ‘If you have a better understanding of where something’s come from – and the process it’s been through – then you probably know how to deal with it after use.’

Radical Matter is a huge step forward towards spelling out a vision of a more sustainable future – but it feels like it is just the starting point for FranklinTill. Based on the book, they have already moved on to co-curate a show with Dutch Invertuals, a Dutch design studio founded by Wendy Plomp, for Milan Design Week next month. The show is titled Mutant Matter – for which they’ve worked with 12 designers to take the last chapter on ‘Future Mining’ out of the pages of the book and into the real world. ‘We are exploring the idea that for so long humans have been playing with nature’s materials – and now we are also starting to see nature play with human-made materials,’ Till explains. ‘It’s great that the book hasn’t remained static. It has informed some new ideas and pushed conversation with those designers…’


Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future is available from Thames and Hudson.

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