Discussing bio-based material experiences with Elvin Karana

Meike Schipper
June 13th 2019

The world of design is in need of new materials that align with the urgency for sustainability. Issues such as climate change, plastic waste and harmful materials require us to explore new paths and develop new methods. In light of the exhibition Nature: Collaboration in Design at Cube Design Museum and Cooper Hewitt Design Triennale, we invited Elvin Karana to share her perspective on the development of new design methods.

Elvin Karana is Professor of Bio-based Art and Design at the Centre of Applied Research for Art, Design and Technology (CARADT) in the Netherlands, bringing together researchers and practitioners from Avans University of Applied Sciences and Willem de Kooning Academy. She received her PhD in 2009 from Delft University of Technology, where she is currently Associate Professor at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, leading the research group Materials and Fabrication Design. In 2015, she founded the international research group Materials Experience Lab, which she leads jointly with Valentina Rognoli from Politecnico di Milano.

Elvin Karana welcomed us at the Faculty of Design Engineering in Delft, where we talked about her vision on bio design versus growing design, the power of material-driven design and the necessity to collaborate with nature.

Material-driven design

Elvin’s work focuses on material-driven design, which takes materials and material understanding as a departure point in the design process. In 2015, Elvin and her colleagues published the Material Driven Design Method. “You start with a material at hand and explore its design potentials by incorporating technical and experiential (what people think, feel and do) understanding of materials in the design process.”

Educated as both industrial designer and material researcher, Elvin combines scientific knowledge with design thinking. “The perspective of science and engineering is mainly about improving material performance, particularly in relation to durability. Art and design can bring a critical perspective to the process of material development, by asking important questions. What is the purpose of this material? Why is it needed? What does it mean for society? And what does it mean for other non-humans, and ecology, in general?”

Art and design can bring a critical perspective to the process of material development

There are no straightforward answers to these questions. “However, I truly believe that you can only answer these questions by zooming in and out of the material repeatedly during the material-driven design process,” Elvin explains. “Designers uncover different potentials of materials, which are not always envisioned or expected by science.” This material-driven approach drives the development of sustainable, bio-based materials, and can accelerate the success of already existing ones.

Material as opportunity

The approach of material-driven design is exemplified in a recent project on mycelium in collaboration with Professor Han Wosten from Utrecht University and designer Maurizio Montalti. Graduation student Davine Blauwhoff designed a wine packaging inspired by the experiential qualities of the material she discovered during user studies.

“Mycelium-based materials have been used for packaging before. But our idea was triggered by our research into materials experience, exploring how people interact with the material. We found that people had an urge to break, pluck and pick the material when they interact with it. The samples we developed had rough tactile qualities; you could see and feel the substrate material, natural fibers in that case. The irregular material surface had some holes and cracks, where we could literally feel and pick the fibers.”

Normally, you would try to prevent that happen in the final design, as it ruins the carefully designed outlook. “However, we wanted to use this performative quality as an opportunity and create a packaging that is especially made to pluck and pick in order to function. You need to interact and break with the material in order to open the package. We offer a totally novel way of interacting with the material, which comes from the qualities of the material itself.”

Elvin also enthusiastically talks about the work of her students who followed the Material Driven Design course at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, TU Delft. “Students realised that on the surface of the mycelium-based material, when the skin doesn’t grow, the material becomes porous. If these holes are in contact with water, the color of the material changes from cream into a dark brown, almost like paint. Finding the way to intentionally create holes on the material surface, the students developed different patterns which appear when exposed to water. When it dries, it goes back to its original color, which takes about a day.”

The students created a material demonstrator, which shows this possibility of material, to inspire other designers. “One potential idea was to use the material as an outdoor furniture, which shows certain patterns when it rains.”

Challenges in designing with microorganisms

This new practice of design is often called bio-design, which is a generic term that captures all forms of design that involve biology. Bio design is a broad field that ranges from design fiction to digital bio fabrication. Elvin’s work is framed under ‘growing design’, in which designers collaborate with biological organisms, guiding their growth and forging the conditions in which a material or product is created. The practice of growing design is close to craft, as it is rooted in hands-on manipulation and making. It’s is a rather new design practice which brings unprecedented opportunities but also challenges for the domain of design.

Growing design brings unprecedented opportunities but also challenges for the domain of design.

“Bio-based materials come with the unpredictability of living materials, dependency on many conditions and the organism itself, a non-linear growing process, and a different temporality compared to petroleum-based materials. You act upon material, but you don't see the result immediately. This requires a certain kind of sensitivity on the temporal qualities of the material at hand.” As such, it becomes part of the design practice to spend time with the material and familiarize yourself with its qualities. “They are living organisms, they have their own agency and you can control them to a certain extent, but there is always a surprise coming.”

When working with organisms as material, is there still a distinction between the natural and the unnatural, the born and the made? “I don’t refer to such a distinction, at least not anymore. Within product design and design engineering there is a very clear distinction between material, object, human and non-human. But in my research group, these boundaries are disappearing. We recently started working with algae and bacteria, and I find it difficult to call them a material. I see it all more as an ecology; we are all part of it and contribute to the system in different ways.”

Contribute to the ecology

Talking about shared systems and ecologies, we need to broaden the perspective of human-centered design. "It's time to give other living organisms the possibility for a shared central role in the design practice. I'm taking the needs of everyone into account, and how they can actually benefit from each other. In the Materials Experience Lab, we are hoping to bring this dual perspective into the design of next generation of bio-based materials. It’s important to bridge this ecology and to implement the mutual goals of human and micro-organisms into the design process.”

Biogarmentry by Roya Aghighi is a good example. Roya Aghighi recently started as a designer in residence at Materials Experience Lab/TU Delft. “She developed a biodegradable living textile capable of photosynthesis. The life cycle of the living textile is directly dependent on how it is taken care of. You need to water this textile, like a plant, in order to keep it alive."

The project challenges our current relationship to clothing. "It acts as a catalyst for change in our everyday practice of washing clothes. The relationship between the living-textile and human is very central to our research. Would you live with a living textile and would you wear something like that? These are important questions to explore.”

Biogarmentry shows that we can design our relationship with things around us. As such, the power of design goes beyond awareness. “Eventually, you don’t need to be aware that you are aware of it, because you can feel it, see it and imagine it. Design enables you to imagine what these materials mean for the future.”

Design enables you to imagine what these materials mean for the future.

In the near future, material-driven design might be a necessity rather than a choice. “Our sources will be limited, and we will lose the luxury to pick from a range of materials at hand. The change is happening now, today. I am very optimistic about what design can do; what it can offer for sustainable development. There is a lot happening in design when it comes to innovative use of materials and finding new ways of making artefacts. The Nature exhibition in Cube Design Museum and Cooper Hewitt is showing that.”

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