Kate Franklin and Caroline Till believe we are on the brink of a “materials revolution”. In the introduction to their new book, Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future, the pair argue that the current “take-make-discard” method of production – making products in large factories to be shipped around the world and discarded a few months later – is no longer sustainable.
“We are running out of new materials and creating enormous amounts of waste. We cannot continue to race through our planet’s finite resources …. We need a better, smarter, more cyclical approach,” they write.
Franklin and Till are not the first to point this out. It’s pretty widely accepted that mass consumerism is one of the worst things to have ever happened to the planet – leading to the production of toxic materials and waste on a vast scale – and most of us would agree that we need a more sustainable approach to making.
Their new book Radical Matter… aims to show how designers can help drive positive change through materials innovation – experimenting with waste and natural products to find alternatives to unsustainable methods of production.
The book is divided into eight chapters and explores eight ‘big ideas’ in design. The first asks “Can we use industrial and domestic waste to create new raw materials?” and includes a look at bricks made from demolition waste, furniture made out of leather off-cuts and kitchenware made from waste plastic using a homemade shredder and 3D printer.
Another section looks at how “Shit, Dust and Hair” can be used to create building materials, home furnishings and even jewellery. Examples include Merdacotta – a terracotta-like substance made from cow dung – and a bioplastic made from manure as well as boxes and combs made using human hair.
Excrement might seem an unlikely base material for a nice vase or a pair of earrings but as Franklin and Till point out, with the world’s population increasing, it is one of the few natural resources that is becoming more abundant – and it has the potential to be harvested and exploited.
Other chapters look at how designers are developing alternative raw materials – such as textiles made from seaweed and wool made from forest pine – and creating biodegradable products that disappear without leaving a trace on the environment. A section on community projects that promote interaction and the exchange of ideas includes Assemble’s Turner Prize-winning Granby Four Streets project and a Berlin initiative where refugees learn to make furniture using basic tools.
The use of living materials such as mushroom mycelium – a versatile substance that has been used to create textiles and furniture – is also explored, while a chapter on co-creation examines how companies such as Unmade (formerly Knyttan) are using technology to reduce waste by producing items on demand.
The book ends with a look at the future and asks what kind of new materials we might end up mining as a result of human production. A new kind of rock made from natural sediment and man made plastic has already washed up on the shores of Hawaii and Adidas has released trainers made from waste plastic found in the ocean.
Radical Matter isn’t an exhaustive guide to sustainable design. But it is an interesting introduction to alternative methods and materials that could replace unsustainable practices in the future. It’s also a handy reference source with dozens of inventive product, furniture and fashion designs from across the world.
Most of the projects featured in the book are either prototypes or items produced in very limited runs. But each project presents an idea that could be developed to produce sustainable products on a much larger scale – whether it’s repurposing copper thread from discarded electrical items or using seaweed instead of cotton to make textiles.
These methods will only become mainstream if large companies and manufacturers are willing to invest in sustainable design. This requires a major shift in attitudes towards making. Right now, most manufacturers are more concerned with making the largest amount of product for the lowest possible cost – sustainability is seen as an afterthought rather than an essential requirement.
Without this change in thinking, the practices featured in Radical Matter will remain niche – made in small batches by artisan designers and sold with a three or four-figure price tag. But big change often starts on a small scale – with experiments in universities, basements or cramped studios.
Radical Matter champions DIY experimentation and aims to inspire other designers to explore more sustainable practices in their work. Inspiring designs are featured alongside essays from experts and designers that aim to put projects in context and explain why materials innovation is so important to the future of design.
In this sense the book is not just a reference source but a call to action. On their own the projects featured might not change the world of manufacturing as we know it – but they could lead to one small step forward (or a huge leap) in making sustainable practices the norm.
As Maurizio Montalti of design and research practice Officina Corpuscoli explains in a chapter on living materials, “everybody has a role to play in making positive change”. Designers can become the catalyst for change because they can take abstract ideas and make them tangible and accessible. “The function of the creative practice, art or design, is to open doors where nobody sees an opening, to create new forms that nobody would expect,” he writes.
Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future by Kate Franklin and Caroline Till is published by Thames and Hudson on March 8 and costs £32.00. Kate Franklin and Caroline Till are the founders of FranklinTill, a design research and trend consultancy group in London.