Next Generation: Biophilic design with Daniel Elkayam

Freya Hutchings
October 29th 2019

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Meet Daniel Elkayam, a fresh-faced Industrial Design graduate, based in Jerusalem, Israel. For his graduation project MAYMA, Elkayam worked with algae in ways that implore us to "imagine a world in which we harness nature in our favor without harming it," as the designer puts it.

Delving into the notion of biophilia — the belief that humans have an inherent tendency to make connections and form relationships with the natural world — Elkayam wonders about how humans relate to the natural world, and how the use of living materials may affect these (often consumerist) relations.

Welcome to the Next Generation: Get to know Daniel Elkayam.

What is MAYMA?

MAYMA consists of three tanks that contain formations of modified microscopic algae. Within each tank, the algae is manipulated into unnatural shapes that replicate man-made material fibres.

With the help of Dr. Filipe Natalio from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Elkayam developed a genetically modified outer shell for the algae which allows for the exchange of gases needed to sustain photosynthesis. The result is a living material that is autonomous yet confined, both natural and unnatural.

Elkayam sees MAYMA as a speculative venture into how we can make new connections with nonhuman life. His work explores how we can look afresh and reconnect with overlooked resources when they are presented in new forms.

The development of his project, and the deeper scientific exploration it involved, allowed the young desiger to see algae in a completely new light — as an untapped resource with dynamic possibilities. MAYMA brings together scientific exploration, human desire and the needs of algae in thought-provoking ways.

"How may our consumption habits change if the materials we use are alive? "

Making the unfamiliar familiar

MAYMA evokes familiar archetypes such as the aquarium, house pants and traditional weaving techniques. Elkayam introduces algae in familiar ways to find a middle ground from which people can connect with it as both a potential resource, and as a living being for which humans have a responsibility. This feeling of responsibility is something Elkayam sees as crucial for living with nature in the future.

The designer seeks to ask, "how will the relationship between human and nature change if humans have to take care of the materials that purify the air around us? Would it be the same as taking care of a pet?" and "how may our consumption habits change if the materials we use are alive? Would this new duty of 'care' make us consume less?"

Questions like these encourage us to think more deeply about our current use of natural materials. For instance, how deeply can we connect with a non-living wooden table? What duty of care do we have for it, beyond preserving its aesthetic appearance? What will happen if the natural materials that surround us are not inanimate, silent witnesses to our everyday lives, but alive, responsive organisms that require our care?

Rethinking biophilia

When we think about connecting with nature in a biophilic sense, Elkayam challenges us to think through the contradictions that surround our relationship with nature.

We may see MAYMA as another example of human mastery over nature, and think to ourselves, what’s different here? This is where Elkayam’s work challenges us to dissect our notions of what is natural.

Elkayam aims to create a productive tension between living and static, domestic and wild, touched and untouched. Projects like MAYMA can encourage us to let go of the romantic ideal of unspoilt nature, and see how scientific exploration can re-enchant us with natural materials in unexpected ways.

"Will organisms such as algae become our next co-designers?"

Algae as co-designers

Elkayam’s project can be seen as tentative investigation into where the boundary lies between nature’s autonomy and humanity's desire for connections with it. It opens up discussion about what kinds of relationships we can form with living organisms when we let go of the idea of nature as pure, static, balanced and harmonic.

If biophilia is about making connections with the natural world, then we must learn to connect with new, not-so-natural nature that surrounds us.

In this case, can connections be made stronger when we can experience natural materials in ways that incorporate the needs and desires of both the human and nonhuman?

Will organisms such as algae become our next co-designers, or perhaps, our next natural companions? 

MAYMA consists of three tanks that contain formations of modified microscopic algae. Within each tank, the algae is manipulated into unnatural shapes that replicate man-made material fibres.

MAYMA is one part of Elkayam's two part graduation series SEAmpathy.

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