Interview: Pirjo Kääriäinen on collaboration and the new ecological biomateriality

Freya Hutchings
December 12th 2019

Meet Pirjo Kääriäinen, professor of design driven fibre innovation at Aalto University, Finland. Kääriäinen founded CHEMARTS—a collaborative program at the university that brings students from different disciplines together to experiment with new material processes—to explore alternative applications for bio-based materials.

Having a extensive knowledge of the Finnish textile industry, it’s fair to say Kääriäinen is an expert in the field. She possesses a valuable bank of insights, a clear perspective on how the industry must change, and an inexhaustible passion for the benefits of collaborative work. Her realistic approach to sustainability is what informs the CHEMARTS program, along with an attitude of openness and respect for change.

What CHEMARTS does

The CHEMARTS program has produced a plethora of interesting outcomes. Participants have offered alternative applications for bio-based materials that make tangible the possibility of producing longer lasting, more sustainable applications for valuable forest resources.

Some examples: students have developed biodegradable tableware, natural sunscreen, wearable garments, home furnishings, wood-based bricks and organic jewelry.

What new possibilities are out there? We caught up with Pirjo Kääriäinen to learn more.

Biodegradable tableware. Designer: Aurora Tani

Hi Pirjo, tell us about CHEMARTS

Chemarts started in 2011, and has been an interdisciplinary collaboration from the beginning. When Aalto University was merged there was a desire to see how different disciplines could really work together.

In setting up the program, we realized that these different disciplines —engineering and design— had a shared interest in materiality, with a particular focus on using wood for new textile fibres.

We received some funding from the university and managed to set up a team; members who not only came from different disciplines but also from different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.

In following, participants from chemical engineering and design set up their courses, came up with the name CHEMARTS, and thought about how to collaborate. It was a really useful, student driven exercise, and we have been developing it ever since.

How do you succeed in creating a common language between these disciplines?

Everyone who has worked on our interdisciplinary projects has said that communication is crucial for how successful the project will be. A shared language has to be created, and it is created and enabled by doing things, by working together, by being hands-on and making together.

There are two crucial elements needed for a fertile collaboration to succeed: The first is willingness; when you have a willingness to do something, you want to understand, and you make an effort to understand. If you don’t have willingness, nothing will happen.

"A shared language has to be created, and it is created and enabled by doing things, by working together, by being hands-on and making together"

The second element you need is respect. If you have respect for the other person’s knowledge, their experience, and them as a person, a true collaboration is enabled.

For example, I don’t want to become a chemist, and I couldn’t because I don’t have the knowledge. I feel I have to leave that area to my colleagues, who are the true experts in that field. However, I believe we can play a little bit in the other’s realms. By combining and respecting each other's deep expertise, we can work together and have true collaborations.

Do designers working in the natural sciences have a different responsibility to those who don’t?

Whether you are working with the natural sciences, or some other field, I think responsibility is becoming more important for designers in general. Of course, designers can’t always have an impact on things inside companies such as sustainability, but they should at least try. Particularly as sustainability is becoming such a dominant issue. I think as designers we need to take a bit more responsibility than we are now.

"I think as designers we need to take a bit more responsibility than we are now."

I do agree that designers working with the natural sciences have a unique responsibility. Working with living things such as bacteria, fungi or microbes is a different story—these are alive.

How we treat and use them is always up for discussion. Ethical discussions need to happen, and designers must be aware and take part in these discussions.

To what extent does the Nordic context inform the work of CHEMARTS?

A lot. Firstly, we have plenty of forest-based materials here. And we know them quite well, as we have been using them industries such as papermaking for over two-hundred years.

We have plenty of wood in Finland, and currently we use it in ways that don’t always make sense. Valuable side streams from the industry are not always utilized efficiently, and some methods of harvesting are not the best for the environment. We have the raw materials but we need to find new ways of using them.

"We have the raw materials but we need to find new ways of using them."

Also keep in mind that the Finnish concept of forest is completely different to, say, the Dutch concept. Nordic forests are totally different. We have a very special legislation in Finland, it’s called ‘every man’s rights’, and it’s a right the means everybody's free to go to the forest and explore, to pick berries and mushrooms.

You should not harm nature but you can go and forage. It’s a beautiful old tradition that we have here, that we hope we can keep. This context comes into our projects too, and although we often use processed wood-based materials they are still very linked to the forest. It’s a wonderful, renewable resource.

How do you navigate the conflict of continuing to extract natural materials, yet at the same time trying to be more sustainable?

With climate change, there is a lot of discussion going on about our forests being valuable carbon sinks, meaning they take in carbon and keep it within them as they grow. This means that we need to work on preserving our forests as carbon sinks, and using what we do take in different ways; using wood for long-life applications, for example creating wooden buildings that continue to store carbon for decades.

The worst possibility is that we use our materials for a short time and then throw them away. We must think about how we can balance environmental and economic needs. Finland can’t afford not to use wood at all, this is not a country rich with different resources. Instead, we can use it in better ways.

How will these bio-based material experiments help us relate to nature in different ways?

I think in general people don’t know what’s in materials these days. If you would ask people on the street, ‘what materials are you wearing?’, most of them will don’t know that they are two-thirds oil, or that they have plastic on their skin.

One value of these projects is that they connect people back to materials in general. We will continue to use materials in our everyday lives and we need to be aware of them and how they exist in our world. If you are not aware of something, you cannot have an impact on that. For example, if you want to select something more sustainable, you can’t unless you know about it.

"People used to sew, repair, make food from scratch - and this makes you think differently."

We feel strongly that when you play with natural materials, when you work with them in intimate and tangible ways, you start to think about the material more deeply, and that’s a kind of trigger or motivation that allows you to think more deeply about nature in general.

And even human nature. One of our students has been exploring how to help children to express feelings through playing with materials. Our minds are deeply linked to our body, and we are looking into how these materials may make us more aware of many things — ourselves, nature, sustainability.

More and more we are not working with our hands. People used to sew, repair, make food from scratch - and this makes you think differently. To do this is to also develop your thinking and your mindset.

Do you feel that CHEMARTS disrupts narratives of humans mastering nature for their own needs? 

I think they have to disrupt this narrative. We can’t go on using nature in the way that we do. There is much more discussion happening about the agency of materials in the era of the Anthropocene.

"We are part of nature ourselves, yet we seem to have forgotten that somehow."

We are part of nature ourselves, yet we seem to have forgotten that somehow. However we nature effects whole environmental systems. By learning about the impact, and how we use systems, we can change the way we use them. We have to change how we are using materials on a large scale, and for a very short time. The whole system is unbearable. 

How to change this?

We can change things by establishing some kind of balance. For example, experiments with natural dyes have become popular recently, but many of the plants we use for them are very rare. What would happen if the whole industry started using them? It would be a catastrophe and would bring new problems. So we need to have a more holistic way of thinking, to ask where do these techniques it come from, is it good for nature? Can we grow it ourselves, for example with bacteria? We should be very careful about what we label as sustainable.

Do you see a move in this direction already?

I see it here in Scandinavia, I may see it in central Europe. But to be honest, if we take a global perspective, not yet. We are living in a bubble, and it’s easy. We live in rich countries and we can afford to be sustainable.

I was recently speaking with someone from Lebanon, and for him the concept of sustainability was not familiar at all. So we have a lot to do in terms of spreading this thinking and knowledge. And of course we need people like Greta Thunberg, we need these kinds of activists to spread awareness.

We can take inspiration from nature, where nothing is too much and nothing is too little. Whatever nature produces, some other element is balancing it and using it. Our ecosystems work in a certain ways so that there is no waste, and that’s a very interesting thing to consider.

"Our ecosystems work in a certain ways so that there is no waste, and that’s a very interesting thing to consider."

For more information about student projects and research by CHEMARTS, follow the links and see for yourself! CHEMARTS will be releasing a Cookbook in 2020, learn more about it here.

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