Natural Variation, Part 1
Designers and consumers alike have come to expect a lot of control over colour. We even plant flowers in our garden based on the colour we expect them to have. Still, we allow for much greater variation when it comes to plants than when it comes to, let’s say, a sofa; an item we want to be the same colour we saw at the store and to not fade or change over time.
But as designers become increasingly interested in creating new organic materials, the predictability of colour is changing. When materials are derived directly from our environments and landscapes it seems all but counterintuitive to cover them in a uniform coat of pigment, and more appropriate to celebrate one of their defining characteristics – natural colours.
As we’ve begun to seek ways to leave behind synthetic materials such as plastic, a growing desire for the more organic and for the sustainable has understandably taken hold. Previously we worked towards industrially produced materials that we could reproduce infinitely; the focus has now shifted from production to the entire lifecycle of a material. This is also causing us to think differently about colours, and go beyond simply the trend or the aesthetics to consider their provenance too. New, non- industrial materials are pushing us to see beauty in the variations and the materiality of colour rather than in replicable uniformity.
Interest in circular and localised production also has its part to play in the drive towards using previously overlooked natural resources, such as seaweed, and seeing value in our immediate environments, such as the colour palettes of our local landscapes. With such fundamental shifts taking place, it is no wonder our perceptions and expectations of colour are being affected. We no longer wish to have the same hues follow us from product to product or from city to city – now we seek to let each material’s unique colour, with its connection to its origins, come through. Through organic materials, colour has also begun to renew its relationship to place.
In 2015, designer Fernando Laposse began his ongoing project Totomoxtle in a rural region of his native Mexico. With the help of an old family friend, he established connections with a local farming community, and together they set out to replant disappearing varieties of Mexican heirloom corns. The corn husks produce an array of natural hues, from deep purples and soft pinks through to pale shades of beige, which Laposse then incorporates into his hand-assembled designs.
The leaves are manually removed from the husks and pressed into flat sheets that can be applied directly to textiles or glued onto supports and then cut into intricate shapes. It is from these coloured shapes that Laposse curates his patterns, which cover pieces such as lampshades, tables and wall panels.
Laposse says he has learned a lot by working with this material – not least about patience. Getting the production running took nearly two years and now every year he has to wait and see what materials he will work with, as not even two cobs of the same variety are ever alike. But he likes going against what he calls the ‘total homogenisation of everything’ and the challenge that brings. He wants the material and the sustainable production method to keep pushing his aesthetics for a long time to come.
‘Every season I have to go to Mexico to see what they have. We have to make measurements of the average size cobs we’ve got that year and I have to adapt my designs every single year. We often remake cutting tools – I rescale up and down or change some of the designs or my laser cutting patterns. I have to adapt to whatever I have that year in nature and I think that’s a really good way of going about it, but sometimes it’s really hard to explain to clients. They want something straight away and in a standard size and a standard colour.’ - Fernando Laposse
Turning to material streams that are often overlooked is one of the ways in which designers today are looking to create new and more sustainable materials. Martijn Straatman created a furniture range out of manure as part of his Design Academy Eindhoven graduation collection, presented in summer 2018. Straatman was originally intrigued by his discovery that many cultures outside of the western world use manure in their daily lives as ‘a fuel to cook on, to generate heat, as fertiliser and, of course, in construction.’ This, coupled, with his desire to design for sustainable interiors, led him to create the Manureality project.
Through experimentation, Straatman created his own mixture of horse manure and biocomposites that gave him a material he found to have very similar qualities to wood. By adapting woodworking techniques and continuing to refine the material he was able to start moulding and bending it into chairs and other furniture.
While Straatman has experimented with colouring his material, the first edition of Manureality draws its colours directly from the manure he used. By embracing that original colour he hopes to do justice to his vision of the material and its origins, as well as to challenge the user to appreciate it fully.
‘The colour you see in the pieces is pure manure. It is completely dictated by the material and I like it that way. It gives the natural look I was looking for and it stays true to the origin of the material. I also experimented with colour and I can change it with a range of colours based on stone pigments. I made an egg tempura based on egg yolk and crushed stone pigments. This would also create a very natural-coloured look with the material.’ - Martijn Straatman
Jonas Edvard’s research into the use of organic raw materials was informed by growing up on the north coast of Denmark and ‘watching how nature survived and how the plants and trees changed’ over the seasons. Being at the mercy of the elements gave the designer a deeper understanding of the organic changes in nature and their inherent beauty, which he seeks to bring into his pieces.
In his most recent project, Gesso, Edvard created a material based on calcium-rich limestone extracted from the fossilised Nordic coral reef, which thrived 65 million years ago. Combining it with a bioresin, and sometimes with traditional pigments, results in a paste which is then moulded by Edvard into pieces such as lampshades and tabletops. As with all of his work, the goal is to use a raw material that is both organic and sustainable, from which he can then create a whole new material to use in his designs.
Edvard used the same approach with his previous project Terroir, a collaboration with designer Nikolaj Steenfatt; they combined seaweed with recycled paper waste to create a durable cork-like material. The pair then designed a set of furniture to show off its warm and tactile qualities as well as its range of colours, derived from different species of seaweed.
‘Most organic or natural materials hold a certain colour, which really characterises the quality of the material. By combining the different textures of colour it is possible to make design more tangible and tactile, enhancing our senses and creating a long-lasting bond to the object and material.’ - Jonas Edvard
Words → Vilma Paasivaara
Featuring → Featuring Fernando Laposse, Martijn Straatman, Jonas Edvard, Studio Klarenbeek & Dros, Nienke Hoogvliet and Atelier NL