Solar cells are often considered an eyesore, used for their sustainability yet not for their beauty. Installed on roofs or in solar parks, they take up precious space. Well that’s about it to change if it’s up to solar designer Marjan van Aubel. With her innovative take on this intriguing technology, her goal is to turn solar cells into real objects of desire.
Marjan welcomes us in her surprisingly dark studio in the basement of a floating studio building. We laugh about the irony of the lack of light, which is her main source of inspiration. Sitting on her well-designed timber waste chairs, we talk about sustainable energy generation, solar democracy and the power of aesthetic design.
Marjan has long been fascinated by colors and light. After graduating from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam she gained her MA at the Royal College of Arts in London and wrote her thesis on the characteristics of colors. Naturally, colors do not exist without light.
The designer always thought of solar panels as an interesting technology, “because of the supposed simplicity of capturing the energy of sunlight on a surface. Step by step I learned more about it and eventually it led me to focus my entire creative practice on it."
Unfortunately, the threshold to solar energy is rather high when you live in the city. “I live in the city center of Amsterdam, where it’s hard to place solar cells or connect to solar energy.” To lower the threshold, Marjan integrates solar cells into objects that can be placed in and around the house, in front of the window or in a small garden.
Her practice thus focuses on what she calls solar democracy. “I think about how to integrate solar cells into daily life and make them available for as many people as possible. It really is my mission.
One of those objects is the Cyanometer - a work that utilizes crystals to direct sunbeams onto solar cells, increasing its efficiency. In 2017, Marjan won the Swarovski Designers of the Future Award, which provided her the chance to collaborate with Swarovski.
Cyanometer takes its name from the 1789 invention which was used to measure the color of the sky. The solar crystal harvests energy during the day and powers itself by night. The stones used for the ring-shaped installation are opals, which scatter the light in the same way that the sky does.
It became a success and the collaboration continued. Just last week Marjan presented the new Cyanometer collection at Milan Design Week 2019. “We developed the Cyanometer into a product”, Marjan enthusiastically explains. “This collection includes 3 lights, standing, hanging and wall mounted, that are part of Swarovksi’s Chrystal Palace lighting collection.
This development of innovative concepts into functional products is a strong characteristic of her work. “I do not design to simply tell a story. Instead, I want to reach a larger audience and create useful products.” In order to create feasible designs with solar panels, Marjan often collaborates with universities, scientists, architects and alike.
Inspired by Next Nature’s Pyramid of Technology, Marjan aims to turn solar cells into an invisible and naturalized technology. “Right now, solar cells are a technology that are often placed upon an object, but are not integrated in it. I want solar cells to feel natural—because good design is invisible.”
Still, visibility seems key to make solar cells into objects of desire. Marjan compares it to the way we relate to cars. “Cars are not just a way of transportation; they are a lifestyle. If you drive a Tesla, you are supposed to be a certain type of person.” The same relation could be established with technologies of energy generation.
“At current we have electric outlets in our homes, but the energy is generated elsewhere. If you are connected to green energy, no one will know. It is only visible on your bill. Solar cells are a way to generate energy close to home, so we can we can experience it.” By making energy generation visible and attractively designed, it becomes part of a certain lifestyle.
Marjan’s Current Table is the Tesla among furniture. The table has an integrated solar panel with increased sensitivity, which makes the Current Table into the first piece of furniture that is able to harvest energy indoors.
The design reveals the tension between the wish for invisibility and the need for visibility. “Of course, I did not want the Current Table to become a simple solar cell on legs. Still, it does need to be recognizable in some way. If people don’t recognize anything, it becomes too abstract.” The USB port that is included in the table makes it easier for people to recognize it as something they can charge their phones with.
Aside from products that fit within our direct living environment, Marjan wonders how solar cells can be integrated in different industries. Think about agrotechnology. The field is developing quickly, and new technologies are focusing on effective and fast production of our foods. However, minute climate control and lighting systems cost a lot of energy. And that’s where the solar designer comes in.
Teaming up with The New Institute, architect Emma Elston, researcher Yasmine Ostendorf, Physee and University of Amsterdam, Marjan developed world’s first self-powering greenhouse called Power Plant. The Power Plant harnesses the power of design to improve both food production and decrease energy consumption, creating the perfect environment for the plants of the future.
The team implemented solar panels directly into the architecture of the greenhouse to simultaneously harvest both energy and food. As such, the Power Plant is fully able to power its indoor climate. A hydroponic systems pumps around nutrient water, which saves up to 90% water usage. The blue LED lights enhance leave growth and the red LEDs encourages the plants to flower. Utilizing these characteristics of colored lights in addition to sunlight, the Power Plant increases the yield up to 40 times.
Again, the concept of solar democracy is central to the design. The Power Plant can be placed onto rooftops in order to grow the food directly where it is needed: the city. Local produce cuts out transportation costs and establishes a stronger connection between the people and their food. Marjan is now in conversation with parties in Shanghai and New York to implement Power Plant there.
According to the solar designer, beautiful and effective design do not necessarily have to be opposites. She is constantly looking for the ultimate balance between form and function.
“The angle of the Power Plant greenhouse is 39 degrees because in The Netherlands it is the most effective angle to capture sunlight. The plants are positioned diagonal because water only needs to be pumped upwards once, and it streams back down while watering the plants. These are the type of choices that I make continuously. I want efficiency, but there’s always a margin which allows you to play."
What about the future of energy? “The ideal situation would be that we generate all of our energy from inexhaustible sources, such as wind and the sun. Energy could and should be free.”
But before we arrive there, changes have to be made on a lot of levels. Solar cells have to be produced in less damaging ways that are CO2 neutral. Then, we could produce crops on demand and reduce food waste.
“In essence, life is a very complex energy transition,” Marjan concludes. “Being sustainable is just like breathing; we don’t have a choice. We have to think about the source of our energy.”