WORDS NELL CARD
PHOTOGRAPHS WILLEM JASPERT
As environmental damage and the problem of waste become the defining issues of our era, designers and makers are exploring new ways of looking at their creative processes, with handbags made from decommissioned firehoses, door handles from discarded fishing nets and furniture from bonded industrial dust…
We are, according to some climate and cultural commentators, in an anthropogenic age. This is an epoch defined not by the materials we harness – stone, bronze, iron – but by the irreparable damage we are causing to the planet. The Anthropocene, as it’s otherwise known, is not yet formally recognised as a subdivision of geologic time (that may or may not happen in 2021). While various unions and commissioning bodies are deciding what to call the current era, the designers and makers on these pages are grappling with a similar issue of nomenclature. Both boil down to the same thing: waste.
For Sophie Rowley, waste streams are treated as ‘future quarries’ – a starting point rather than an end point. All see the proliferation of waste as an opportunity to take a long, hard look at the creative design process and their place in this age – whatever it may be called.
Berlin-based maker and Loewe Craft Prize finalist Sophie Rowley is interested in the inherent value of materials. ‘I’ve always enjoyed taking something of very low value and making it more precious through a process that I apply,’ she explains.
As a textile design student, this process was often embroidery: nowadays her practice has broadened to encompass the repurposing of common waste materials such as denim, paper, Styrofoam and glass.
Rowley’s MA project, Material Illusions, became an extension of this notion. Taking raw materials such as wood, limestone and marble as inspiration, Rowley developed processes that reformed waste streams into new materials. ‘I decided to only work with waste, simulating nature by studying the sedimentation of natural materials and applying this process to a range of materials.’
Her Bahia Denim range, for example, is produced by draping denim offcuts on top of a mould and sealing them with bioresin. Once dry, the material is carved to create a flat surface. Through the carving, a unique pattern emerges that is visually similar to Azul Bahia marble, quarried in Brazil. The new material is then formed into sculptural furniture pieces that showcase the vibrant pattern of the Bahia denim.
Rowley sources her waste locally. While studying in the UK, her Bahia range was formed of off-cuts supplied by Diesel denim; in Germany, where she is now based, denim is sourced from a recycling centre in Hamburg. ‘There is the challenge of the inconsistency of waste,’ she says. ‘The colours and composition of a particular waste stream might be different, or it might be mixed with other materials, but I try to play with this and embrace it.’
The success of Rowley’s investigation into value and process is contributing to the redefinition of waste in design. Her new materials are now sought after by global companies and luxury brands, including Volkswagen and Stella McCartney, and she is currently working on a commission for a hotel, trialling processes that will enable them to repurpose existing soft furnishings. ‘More and more, people are approaching me – and it’s so nice to see how much you actually manage to stop going to landfill.’