New Material Award 
New Material Award

LIVING, GROWING MATERIALS THAT CAPTURE CO2
Conversation with
Maartje Dros and Emma van der Leest

For designer Maartje Dros of the duo Dros & Klarenbeek, seaweed, mycelium and algae are an inspiration, and a raw material to develop new materials, techniques and production methods. Emma van der Leest is a biodesigner and co-founder of the open-source laboratory and workshop BlueCity Lab at the former Tropicana water park in Rotterdam. As a biodesigner, she integrates living organisms such as bacteria, fungi, algae or cells in her design process. How do the two designers see the future of living, growing materials?

Realising early in her career that the current natural resources would one day run out, Maartje Dros set herself a goal: to have materials grow themselves – biopolymers based on cultivated algae, seaweed and mushrooms, for example. At the same time, her design and R&D projects also try to boost local economies and production chains. She therefore collaborates with a broad network of universities, high-tech companies, farmers, local producers and industry. Since 2004 Maartje Dros has been working in partnership with Eric Klarenbeek. In 2018 they won the New Material Award for the Algae Lab project, which they set up with Atelier Luma in Arles, France.

Emma van der Leest also works as a biodesigner in collaboration with people from a variety of disciplines, including scientists, physicists, artists and designers. With a blend of craft, scientific research and new production techniques, she has succeeded in growing biological materials ranging from coatings and inks to textiles, made using fungi, bacteria and yeasts. In 2018 she was a member of the New Material Award nominations committee.

When did you decide as a designer that you were going to work with living materials?

Maartje Dros (MD)

For us, it started with the idea of not using plastics for prototypes anymore. We were polluting our workshop and constantly breathing in plastic fumes. We also noticed that mushrooms responded much better if we added wood filament and bioplastics (PLA). My background probably also plays a role. I’m from Texel [the largest of the Dutch Wadden Islands, ed.] and that’s given me a particular social and historical view: on our island you always work from the perspective of cultural and historical value, you cooperate with the community, you understand your environment, and you take responsibility.

 

Emma van der Leest (EVDL)

As a first-year product design student at the Willem de Kooning Academy, I visited the Micro Impact exhibition at the Boijmans van Beuningen museum. I saw all sorts of designs inspired by nature. One of the projects was Suzanne Lee’s BioCouture Jacket. I thought it was wonderful, and I immediately realised that I didn’t want to be a designer who just makes even more things without thinking about what happens to them when we throw them away. At home I then started growing a leather-like material, and I found it amazing that I could make a material myself in a vessel full of liquid! Finally, after pushing for a long time, I was allowed to do an internship with Suzanne Lee. The annual Biofabricate Conference in New York was one of the projects I worked on. So for me it all started in a museum.On the one hand, there are now many open source libraries, such as Materiom, which promote experimentation with recipes for biomaterials, but on the other hand, it’s still
a long road from experiment to product. What could make the journey easier?

 

MD

We notice that especially in terms of laws and regulations we’re stuck with existing
economies and ideas. As a designer I’m not allowed simply to bring a new material onto the market, for example. That’s a good thing, because just as with a vaccine, you need to know it’s safe. Having said that, is it really such a problem if you make a cup out of edible materials? Does it really have to be CE approved? It’s also important to be in contact with market players, such as suppliers to organic shops. When we work well together, we’re actually teaching each other.

 

EvdL

I started out in my kitchen, but if you want to experiment with a product, you need a professional place. All the alarm bells started ringing at DCMR, the Rijnmond Environmental Service, when they heard about our work. They were really worried about the safety of our processes. What on earth were we doing, in an open lab with mushrooms and algae? This kind of reaction is down to a lack of knowledge. Working from the lab, I’ve devoted a lot of attention to telling the bigger story. And then there’s the issue of patents. Everyone wants to share, because open source is important, but the thing is, you’re working with big commercial companies. They’ve been at it for years and you have to watch out for them. You shouldn’t fight against the big companies, though, but show them how things can be done differently, and what this approach means for the economy and nature conservation.

Is it clear to everyone who you are, what you do and what area you work in? People use a lot of different terminology, sometimes it’s unclear, and that has consequences for your position as a designer.

MD

The field is indeed still new to many people, so you’re constantly being stuck with new labels!

 

EvdL

At BlueCity Lab they talk about ‘bio-engineers’ – that’s not my choice, by the way. Or ‘bio pioneers’. I’ve been saying ‘bio designer’ for a few years, even though I graduated as a product designer.

 

MD

In the Netherlands people tend to think that ‘bio’ has something to do with ‘organic’ [the word for ‘biological’ is also used to mean ‘organic’ in Dutch and some other languages, ed.]. But what does that mean – something that comes from nature? We’re much more interested in the impact of our work and thinking about the bigger picture. ‘Social designer’ is also a possibility; we’re creating a new network to question things, and to do it collectively, to create a new movement.

 

EvdL

I now call myself a ‘bio designer’, but I’m also an entrepreneur, a product designer and a researcher.

How do you help big companies and in what form? You’re presenting them with a new vision of the future. What’s the designer’s role in this?

EvdL

The designer’s role is that you can literally show them the difference. You can demonstrate through a physical object why this natural direction is better. How versatile algae can be, for example – there are thousands of species! I can use them to make an incredible number of products, which can replace much worse versions.

 

MD

People and the industry want to do things differently, but they don’t exactly know how. That’s really a big incentive for us as designers. If I show how you can make bio-plastic thread with locally obtained micro-algae, and then use it for 3D printing, people immediately start coming up with all sorts of ideas, and we’re working together rather than just me telling them about it. Active participation is important, so we find like-minded people. We’re also building a network of designers and companies within the chain. It’s very noticeable that we all know each other. That’s not a good thing – there are far too few of us. We need to grow so big that we don’t all know each other anymore.

 

EvdL

I like the fact that you’re imagining the future. Storytelling is crucial, and as Maartje says, always creating a dialogue through exhibitions and art forms. What makes a usable organism? How can you use it? You shouldn’t make it too didactic, but leave room for people’s own imagination.

 

MD

Imagination, education and knowledge sharing, that’s it. Create accessible places where you show live algae and the real material. If you show people all the steps and guide them through it, they become part of the process. We see ourselves more as a linchpin than as the designers who come up with all the ideas, because that’s not the case! We collaborate with commercial companies such as Swarovski, and also with biologists and researchers from Wageningen University and Research, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, organic farmers, and start-ups from the new seaweed sector, such as the Zeewierboerderij and Seaweedfarmers. But, as Emma says, you always have to work with a certain amount of caution. The industry is also looking for sustainability, for ‘doing good’, but they sometimes cut corners to achieve it.

The biomaterial movement is growing, and it’s diametrically opposed to the standard production system and the way we’ve organised it worldwide up to now. We need new systems based on non-economic value. What developments do you see in this area?

MD

We recently spoke to an expert who does research on algae, very small microorganisms. In Arles, France, these micro-organisms naturally create a sort of partition between the sand in the riverbed and the water, which makes it easier to extract salt. Unfortunately, the knowledge of how to stimulate this process has been lost. Unfortunately, ‘usefulness’ is still linked to money, turnover and markets. This expert has now simply taken his research and library home with him. Designers and researchers are inspired by passion, by non-economic knowledge. We want to discover a world, we want to know how the world works.

 

EvdL

I work with a medical mycologist, a fungus expert, from the Radboud University Medical Centre in Nijmegen. He said there are only 250 official mycologists worldwide – the discipline as it used to exist has disappeared. This is because over the past 100 years, many diseases have originated from bacteria, so scientists started to focus on bacteria and not on fungi, and now there aren’t many people interested in the discipline. But we’re going to need this knowledge again in the coming years.

 

MD

Another thing I like is that students aren’t working on projects just for themselves anymore. There are even students who say: ‘I don’t like to call myself “I” anymore, but “they”, because 40 per cent of me is made up of bacteria.’ It’s ‘planet thinking’ – the anthropocentric way of thinking is disappearing, we’re thinking more about a holistic and universal form. How can we stimulate the return of biodiversity to nature and our ecology? We need to think in a much more nuanced way about what a product is good for, what happens to it and how long you use it for. That’s difficult, because we’re part of a very compelling economy in which everyone uses plastic, for example, one way or another. 

Algae, bacteria, enzymes, fungi such as mycelium, where do you see the most potential for applications in, say, five years?

MD

Both food and the built environment are huge markets. Mycelium has a good chance because it’s fire-resistant and can be used safely in buildings. If you incorporate a high percentage of seaweed in building material, it also has a fire-resistant effect. In the Netherlands, people are mainly aware of seaweed as food, and in Asia, there’s a vast knowledge about it, and a huge industry, but the conversion to materials hasn’t happened yet. There’s no connection between the two. You can see that some farmers in the Netherlands are already switching from food production to material production.

 

EvdL

That’s right, material production is certainly getting bigger. Westland, a greenhouse horticulture region in the Netherlands, works with farmers who have a residual flow, such as tomato stems, peppers and aubergines. Most of these fibres are too short for textiles, but they can be used to make a leather-like material. You can see that a new economy is starting up using the residual flows from agriculture, and farmers are open to it. The province of South Holland is also promoting it, so there’s room for farmers to invest time in innovation projects like this.

 

MD

This is about huge quantities, so you can really make an impact. If as designers you’re going to do a project in this area, you don’t say ‘this is an experiment’, you demonstrate the effect on a large, serious scale.

How are we doing in the Netherlands in the field of biodesign compared to other European countries?

MD

The Netherlands is doing really well. We’re hearing it from France and Germany, and even from the US. That’s because the Netherlands is big in food production – we’re trained in biological processes and nutrition. What’s more, we’re in a country that could be flooded, so we have to take action, we have to respond to nature. We’re also a country without too much hierarchy. We have this ‘polder culture’ [consensus-based approach to decision-making, ed.], we have short lines of communication, and we like to experiment and innovate.

 

EvdL

It’s no coincidence that the famous American curator and author William Myers lives in the Netherlands. He is a founder in the field of bio-design field and has a worldwide influence, also on students.

 

MD

Designers have achieved a status in the Netherlands, and design is taken seriously. There are universities and research centres that stimulate the field, such as Wageningen University and Research, and the universities of technology in Delft and Eindhoven. Investment groups, also from the US, are looking to the Netherlands to see where they can help and get involved. Take Ecovative Design, a biotech company in New York which is pioneering mycelium biofabrication, and can give this a boost.

 

EvdL

And Bolt Threads from San Francisco, which works with mycelium and spider silk. They’ve opened a branch in Arnhem, which is also interesting.

 

MD

That’s right, they have huge investors behind them and they’re moving fast. They can scale up and compete with existing, traditional markets. You can see that the collaborations are only now beginning to flow, and biologists, engineers, scientists and designers are coming together. It’s not just about an end product, but more process-oriented thinking – it’s important that this gets attention.

Looking ahead to the future, do you think we’ll be making half our products out of biomaterials? How far do you think we’ll get?

MD

I hope it won’t be as far away as 2050, but it’s going to take a long time. Of course I want to be around when it happens.

 

EvdL

Hopefully, if companies like Coca Cola and Adidas start investing in it, things will go quickly. In America, in any case there’s more money involved and things can move faster. This gives Dutch companies in Europe and the government the opportunity to work on legislation and regulations, and that’s important to move forward. I hope that when I’m old, my grandchildren will be saying, ‘Have you seen that new dress at H&M made of algae yarn?’