Seven questions with... Ana Cristina Quiñones
Ana Cristina Quiñones, a Puerto Rican designer whose practice is largely based on her research into sustainable materials, talks about her Material Madura series, how to look for material inspiration in a local context and about her hands-on making process…
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do
I’m a Material, Furniture & Product Designer from Puerto Rico. With a background in Architecture and Industrial Design, in 2015 I completed my Master’s Degree in Furniture Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London. For the past few years since I have been focusing on using design and material experimentation as a means of bringing sustainable issues to light; creating effective and meaningful solutions to those problems by designing sophisticated objects that have a story to tell through their materiality.
What materials do you use and is there a reason for this?
I gravitate towards discarded waste material. There are so many organic elements in our everyday life that often end up in landfills, contributing to a large number of environmental issues. As a designer, I don’t necessarily see these substances as waste. I rather see raw matter with great potential to be transformed into a sophisticated material applicable to design solutions. For my Materia Madura series, I use plantain and coffee ground waste. Analysing abundant waste in the local context of my home country of Puerto Rico lead me to use unconventional materials such as these, which are considered staple foods. Largely consumed in a number of traditional dishes, they contribute to an ample amount of organic waste from the matter that is left over and then discarded regularly into landfills after it’s brewed or cooked.
What making processes do you employ in your practice? How did they come about?
I like to carefully and consciously select the material used and to work hands-on with it. I enjoy using my hands as the primary tools by which these raw materials are transformed. Feeling the texture, shaping the form, and not shying away from the un-mechanical imperfections that complement an organic material. I’m not entirely convinced by the idea of rapidly industrialising a material in order for it to fit standard and traditional methods meant for synthetic materials. I believe one needs to work closely with the raw matter as to understand its properties and characteristics in order to find the best texture, shape, scale, form and application that the material itself ought to represent. From the start, the making process is determined significantly by the material at hand. The properties and inherent characteristics of the material itself end up dictating the method to be used in each project. For example, for Materia Madura, I make full-scale clay prototypes of the designs in order to then make custom, re-usable moulds. Once the moulds are finished, I process the plantain and coffee ground waste and pour the mixture into the mould to dry. After the design has set, I take it out of the mould to finish each piece by hand.
What inspires you to create?
I find inspiration from the natural world in all its organically and carefully placed imperfections. One rarely finds complete symmetry and precise geometry in nature. Instead, its value is superseded by variety and uniqueness in texture, shape, form, colour and proportion. Functionality is based on a cradle-to-cradle approach, serving specific and unique purposes throughout its lifecycle and beyond. There is an opportunity with design to emulate the way nature behaves, and in doing so, establishing meaningful relationships and connections between the user and the created object.
Sustainability is at the core of your making. How do you see your practice evolving in the next few years?
I see my practice as a constant research process that unravels itself by the means of material experimentation. Searching for opportunity where there seem to be none and designing products that tell a story through the materials they are created with. Just recently, Puerto Rico was faced with Hurricane María, its worst natural disaster on record. Having suffered mass destruction, for months nearly the entire population was left without electricity. Clean water, fuel, food and medicine were in short supply. Structures, houses, bridges and agriculture were significantly destroyed, leaving behind a trail of an almost apocalyptic ruin of decaying urban and agricultural material everywhere. Apart from the slow response and lack of sufficient resources to clean up the overflowing material waste, the only solution was to utterly inundate landfills to the brim. Being aware of this problem and seeing the potential in the abundance of waste, I decided to design a series of objects that would bring light to this issue while demonstrating the potential functionality of the waste material by transforming it into a product that responds to one of the main obstacles the island faced during and after the hurricane: the absence of light.
Do you collaborate or engage with other makers who are focusing on sustainability?
I value maintaining close relationships with colleagues from my Master’s in Central Saint Martins to peers from my professional practice. Additionally, working as an Industrial Design Professor at the International School of Design & Architecture of the University of Turabo in Puerto Rico, sustainability is constantly regarded as an integral subject matter deemed to be applied throughout the design process. I believe it is crucial to maintain the dialogue relevant among designers and makers as well as making evident to the rest of the community that sustainable design is not a fad, but a valuable and necessary way of life.
As makers begin to engage with sustainable materials, do you think designers will turn away from using traditional materials?
I think the issue here is, how do we re-define what a ‘traditional material’ is. When sustainable materials become the norm, ‘traditional’ will, therefore, be sustainable. Indeed, design should be universal in the sense that it is accessible to all. However, ‘universal’ should not necessarily apply to materiality in a one-material-fits-all methodology. The key lies in understanding the context and environment that we live in. Creating materials with local, organic, abundant resources that are found in the particular context that we are designing in will generate new possibilities that can lead to discussions on the topic, alternative applications for current designs, and initiate future novelties. This potentially would be sustainable and work in an organic way by imitating the lifecycle of nature, instead of differing from it. When we become aware of what is actually available to us, then we can begin to design more consciously and start to establish sustainable as ‘traditional’.