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Why Materials Matter

Sustainable materials and innovative techniques meet style and functionality in the DOEN | Materiaalprijs, one of the most interesting and important design awards in the Netherlands.  15 000 euros will go to the top finished product and 5 000 euros to an idea not yet realized.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 18-10-2012

There are some fascinating projects short-listed for this years’ DOEN | Materiaalprijs, which will be announced this Saturday.

While politicians and scientists back and forth over the actual impact civilization is having on the earth, designers are just acting on their instincts.  It just seems logical to limit waste and work out ways around our over-reliance on non-renewable resources.  It is less a matter of guilt, and more a natural urge to problem solve.

“Guilt is more for politicians,” says Max Bruinsma, Chairman of the DOEN | Materiaalprijs jury, which this year includes Guus Beumer, Thomas Rau and Wieki Somers.  “Designers take responsibility for what they do when they take into account the costs and benefits of their choice of materials and production techniques.  It is not not just vis à vis the product itself, but also it's afterlife.  Yes, that should be in the nature of their trade, but of course taking responsibility for the material side of one’s designs has become more urgent lately.”

But not every designer sits in front of a blank piece of paper trying to invent.  A lot of times it’s the design process itself – not the desire to be original - that leads to invention.  Last years’ DOEN | Materiaalprijs winner was Studio Maarten Kolk and Guus Kusters. 

Kolk and Kusters’ project “Waterloop” started as a commission by the Audax Textilemuseum in Tilburg to create something for a sustainability exhibition.  “On a tour we were told the only thing we could not use was the dying and printing section because that was not sustainable,” says Kusters, “which of course meant that that was exactly what we wanted to use.”

Kusters points out that despite huge sympathies and interest from the broader public on the importance of sustainability, we rarely see people walking around in natural, un-dyed garments.  

“We started to look at processes to think about what to do and how to make what already exists more sustainable,” Kusters says.

A chemical protein is generally added to a piece of yarn before it is dyed.  This protein ensures the added colour is both vibrant and permanent.  Kusters and Kulk experimented using different yarns - everything form traditional cotton and wool to more modern yarns like those derived from bamboo leaf.  “The bamboo reacted differently and actually better without the chemical addition,” Kusters says.

Using their research on how each type of yarn bleeds, Kusters and Kulk created a textile that did away with the chemical protein.

It may not sound revolutionary, but it is experimentation like this that leads to step-by-step change that will create a more sustainable design industry across the board.   

“Experimenting with materials is where innovation starts,” says Bruinsma.  “Experimentation has now acquired the added value of figuring out how to use less materials in a more environmentally friendly manner. Or simply find out what potential is held by materials we used to discard as 'trash'.”

Of course experimentation and small discoveries has always been happening.  It is what drives and even defines the trade.  “But outside their trades, nobody cared much about results, until something spectacular was produced,” says Bruinsma.  “So you might say that the current state of culture and society brings out this often hidden internal R&D into the open, into the public debate.”

Both judge and designer agree that the future will be made out of different materials.  “Absolutely yes,” says Bruinsma admitting how difficult it still is to imagine a life with today’s every-day essentials made without oil.  “We see the beginning of experimentation and research into finding alternatives, but we ain't seen nothing yet,” he says.

The DOEN | Materiaalprijs main prize of 15, 000 euros will be announced on the opening day of Dutch Design Week this weekend.

“The Doen | Materiaalprijs prize came at a perfect time for us,” says Kusters.  “It gave us the opportunity to develop and grow during a cultural crisis when everything else seemed to stop or stand still because of the political situation.”

Studio Maarten Kolk and Guus Kusters used the prize money to further develop “Waterloop”.  In “Waddenzee” they imitated the tides to create a new ceramic production process that cuts out one step – glazing – by attaching it to the mould.

Images:  top page chairman of the jury Max Bruinsma, main at top and three small from top "Waterloop".  Next three "Waddenzee".  Both projects by Studio Maarten Kolk and Guus Kusters.

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