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Shells, feathers, volcanic ash: How exciting materials are powering sustainable design

Milan Design Week 2019 offered materials galore

Each piece in Panter & Tourron’s new furniture collection ships flatpack and is made of recycled materials.
Each piece in Panter & Tourron’s new furniture collection ships flatpack and is made of recycled materials.
Photo: Jagoda Wisniewska courtesy of Panter & Tourron

Now in its 58th year, Salone del Mobile, also known as Milan Design Week, is still the place to find the most innovative materials shaping the future of the industry. This year, many compelling material experiments emphasized environmental sustainability, including inventive uses for natural materials like feathers and volcanic ash and various new takes on recycled plastic.

In the design gallery Rossana Orlandi, an eye-catching furniture collection highlights natural materials that would otherwise be destined for landfills. British designer Bethan Gray partnered with sustainable surface company Nature Squared to create “Exploring Eden,” a dazzling 10-piece collection where each piece uses locally sourced natural materials, like scallop shells thrown away by restaurants and goose feathers that are discarded after the soft layer of down is used for bedding.

Goose Feather Side Table.
Photo: Bethan Gray
Light Capiz Shell Side Table.
Photo: Bethan Gray

Gray also used thin capiz shells—from windowpane oysters—which were inlaid by hand to create a side table with a shimmering geometric pattern. “The capiz shell is the bamboo of the sea—it grows very fast where freshwater and seawater meets,” Gray told Curbed. “I was trying to give it a more contemporary feel.”

Nature Squared purchases the discarded shells from fishermen on the island of Negros in the Philippines, which helps contribute to local conservation efforts. The company typically provides bespoke surfaces for private residences and superyachts, but Gray hopes this collaboration will bring its work to a wider audience. “I think this is just the beginning [of working with thoughtfully sourced materials],” she says. “There are thousands more materials to work with.”

Over in the Tortona District, the Ventura Future exhibition “Future (H)eart(H): 8 Dutch Design visions for a livable earth” explored the circular design process, which calls for reusing resources like waste materials. Participants presented projects incorporating the latest developments in biotechnology, from leather made of animal fat and bones from slaughterhouse waste to fabrics made of woven ostrich feathers.

Pascale Theron, a recent graduate of Eindhoven Academy of Design, is originally from South Africa, where ostrich farming is common. Theron explained that ostrich feathers were once imported to Europe in mass quantities for ladies’ hats. After that trend fell out of fashion favor a century ago, ostriches are now raised for their meat and leather and live just a year before being slaughtered.

Theron’s “Feathered Fabrics” project suggests a return to rearing ostriches purely for their plumage. “They can live 40 or 50 years and provide new feathers every six months, so it’s not causing any harm to the animal,” she explained. “We produce it in a town [that farms] the ostriches as well, so it’s a full circular economy and we bring a lot of jobs to a lot of people.”

Another exciting new use of a natural material comes from design duo Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma, who unveiled the volcanic ash-glazed tile collection, “ExCinere”. Created for London-based manufacturer Dzek, the tiles resulted from years of experimenting with a glaze made of volcanic ash spewed from Mt. Etna in Sicily, where Trimarchi is originally from. “It’s this force of nature that mines materials by itself,” said Farresin.

The project also sought to bring back the more traditional process of glazing in a time when most tiles are digitally printed. Formafantasma’s long process of trial and error shows how challenging harnessing a rarely used natural material can be. Trimarchi credits Dzek and its founder Brent Dzekciorius for supporting the project, especially because the pair has noticed that many of the students they teach at Eindhoven Design Academy are interested in material research. “Most of the time, those beautiful projects end up in nothing because there is no company that is brave enough to believe in them,” said Trimarchi.

“ExCinere” by Formafantasma for Dzek.
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti courtesy of Dzek
The tiles feature a glaze made from volcanic ash.
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti courtesy of Dzek

For Switzerland-based design team Panter & Tourron, the future of furniture means marrying sustainable materials with durability and portability. In “Tense,” its new lightweight furniture collection, each piece, including a table made of recycled aluminum and a fabric divider made of recycled plastic, is connected entirely by tension.

The tension method harkens back to some of man’s first structures—like animal skins stretched over wood or bone frames—and avoids the use of heavy machinery and molding. The set weighs only 45 pounds altogether and requires no additional tools for assembly. Each piece ships flatpack, which helps cut down on transportation and related pollution.

Designed to support a nomadic lifestyle, the “Tense” collection includes a room divider, low table, ceiling lamp, wall lamp, and lounge chair.
Photo: Jagoda Wisniewska courtesy of Panter & Tourron

Recycled plastic also got a spotlight at Rossani Orlandi, which launched the inaugural Ro Plastic Prize for innovative uses of the material. The top design award went to German designer Alexander Schul for his sleek “Substantial” furniture series, comprising a chair, lamp, and side table made entirely out of recycled plastic.

Seoul-based Jongdae Ryu, one of 90 finalists in the competition, incorporated patterns referencing the tile roofs typical of his home country on the colorful bases of 3D-printed side tables. The side tables are printed in a variety of shapes and sizes and use both plastic purchased from recycling centers and recyclable plastics extracted from cornstarch.

Jongdae Ryu’s side tables use recyclable plastics extracted from cornstarch.
Photo: Jongdae Ryu

A dynamic installation by French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani for the fashion brand COS also teases the future of 3D-printed plastic. Taking over the courtyard of the 16th-century Palazzo Isimbardi, “Conifera” featured geometric shapes 3D-printed with compostable bio-plastics. On one side of the courtyard, visitors watched the 3D printer produce the installation’s geometric structures in real time.

Mamou-Mani, who has created temporary wooden structures for the Burning Man art festival, thinks architects need to start leaving the idea of permanence behind and rethink materials and production methods.

“There is an urgency to solve the climate problem, and carbon footprints are mostly caused by our idea of permanence: Concrete is responsible for 8 percent of all carbon emissions...” he told Curbed. “This project is a call to action, and I really hope it will wake up some minds.”