New Material Award 
New Material Award

Reinventing the natural value chain
Conversation with
Tjeerd Veenhoven and Christien Meindertsma

People used to be fixated on materials, but now the interests needs to shift towards the value chain, say Christien Meindertsma and Tjeerd Veenhoven. The two designers are driven by similar kinds of questions. How can you use materials research in companies? What’s the value of material design? Where is the money to be made? And how can we better understand materials and products around us? One thing is certain: the value of the chain lies both in the material and in the creation of connections.

Christien Meindertsma and Tjeerd Veenhoven know of each other professionally, but have never worked together. What connects them is research into the origin of products, the processing of natural, sometimes almost ‘forgotten’ materials, and the life course of objects and raw materials. With her inquisitive mindset, Christien Meindertsma has put established patterns of consumption and thinking in the spotlight through a wide variety of designs, from books to the One Sheep Sweater. Tjeerd Veenhoven is a product designer and works with natural materials. From palm leather flipflops, to a wooden chair coated with tulip pigment, to a grass tabletop, he experiments with manufacturing techniques, and designs products and value chains – from raw material to product, including the consumer experience.

You both work either in or with companies. What’s it like, pioneering in companies? What position do you take?

 

Christien Meindertsma (CM)

What’s nice about pioneering, but what also makes it difficult, is that you’re always inventing something new. You work on inventions that might be of use to people, but it only seeps through later. If I were a consultant, I could research the same thing, but the way it’s monetised would be different. Still, I benefit a lot from being the odd one out as a designer, because people allow me into systems. Then I can quietly do research and look around as a loner.

 

Tjeerd Veenhoven (TV)

Yes, that’s the way I see it too. For example, it’s important for me to know my way into these systems. Is it top down, through the communications department, through the engineers? The first conversations I have with companies are always about the way they’re able to incorporate innovations into their current system. That’s often the problem area. The companies have a classic design department pushing products onto the market based on the technology, instead of looking at what people really want and whether we can realise it. 

 

CM

For many entrepreneurs, the way it works is that they invent something and then market the invention. They don’t keep coming up with new inventions. As a designer, there’s nothing I like better than spending time in a company like a fly on the wall. What’s going on here? What’s possible? All the peace and space I need to work in freedom. If you have to come up with a research question in advance, you also already have to come up with the answer.

 

TV

That’s right. What I find increasingly important is that people actually do something with my designs. I find it frustrating if it’s just for show and doesn’t generate any impact. Then I need a company that I can come to a compromise with to actually put it into practice.

 

CM

What I like about you is that you’re so clear in identifying these compromises and that it works.

 

TV

Compromises are certainly necessary, but it only works if you carefully select the companies you want to work with beforehand. Most of my time is spent on selecting partners. That ranges from reading annual reports to finding the right person in a company who understands the manufacturing process and immediately sees how you can implement it. This is an active process in which the designer’s knowledge, creativity and broad view is truly unique. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no boundary between material design and product design.

You work with natural waste products, which are characterised by organic imperfections. What’s your experience: how do companies deal with this?

TV

I still see that products have to be perfect. The imperfection that companies do allow still amounts to a definition of what they see as perfection, so I don’t see any difference at all.

 

CM

When I first started as a designer, the tendency was that everything had to be exactly the same. Fortunately, those days are over. I do see a desire for difference in companies, but it’s still very difficult to allow imperfections in production systems. Ultimately, products all have to be the same – unless the difference is part of the design. Not based on the chain, but based on what the designer has conceived – then the imperfections are designed. It would be nice if in the future real imperfections in materials were more accepted.

 

TV

When things develop imperfections through use, people have less trouble with it. 

 

CM

Even if you include the difference in the final design because you’re using recycled material, companies still find it too complicated. It’s simply faster to buy new material and then adjust it. There’s a lack of willingness to change. That’s why I believe in new laws and regulations – it will solve a lot of the problems. Once it’s mandatory, it will become part of the system.

 

TV

Sometimes the production is fine, but maintenance is the problem. My poufs made of mussel shell granulate and wood in railway stations can’t be cleaned with a high-pressure cleaner. You have to clean them with a proverbial feather duster. What’s more, designing for a specific service life is a challenge. Companies think and work in cycles of five to ten years. If the station is rebuilt, the poufs get thrown away. Value chain innovation is about usage, and how you deal with the product afterwards. If companies have to pay for their waste and residual flows, they’re much more motivated.

How do you see the role of designers in this transition period? And do materials and products also play a different role?

TV

The power of products is that they can spark a discussion, so you can get core values such as circularity, locality, actual cost and nature included right from the start of the chain, through the manufacturing process and sales, all the way to the customer. That’s the ultimate product for me. In the olden days it would have been a wooden clog, for example, made from a poplar that had grown in your own village. Our relationship with materials and products already exists, we’ve just stopped defining it. That’s where designers can play an important role.

 

CM

It’s a really great time for designers. That’s what our profession is about: you want to improve things, solve problems and bring the issues into view.

 

TV

I totally agree. For example, we make stakeholder handouts – propositions and pitches for a variety of parties, but then with a different proposition to a farmer compared to an investor at a bank, because they each look at the same value chain completely differently. You bring the parties together by developing items, events or prototypes, which then enable communication between them. I call these ‘boundary objects’, which help people to find the common value.

 

CM

It’s true that getting people in the chain to talk to each other is important. I work a lot with wool, and I want the wool washer to advise the farmer on how best to deal with his sheep to increase the value of the wool. This knowledge has disappeared, because sheep have become a kind of lawnmower, and wool is only seen as an inconvenience.

 

TV

As connectors, designers have got better at this very fast. Some may not even realise what they’re doing. That’s the result of material-driven design, and design research: people who previously weren’t able to communicate with each other are now talking about issues like sustainability and circularity. You can also do this by defining the parameters of a material in advance, before the material has been invented. Come up with the jargon so you can talk about the material to different people. You create a best practice or proof of principle beforehand.

 

CM

You can describe the chain in a handout or a prototype, but unfortunately I realise that I don’t have much patience for that. I prefer to go through the chain and experience it first hand! I was asked by the municipality of Rotterdam to do something with 6,000 kilogrammes of wool from 2,000 sheep. That’s truly a dream project for me. My graduation project was the One Sheep Sweater, knitted using the wool from a single sheep. Now, almost 20 years later, I’ve got this contract, and my clients completely understand what it’s about! It’s great that you don’t have to come up with marketing stories, but that the value of the material speaks for itself.

 

TV

And sometimes the value of a certain chain isn’t even visible! We’re doing a project for ProRail [the organisation responsible for railway infrastructure in the Netherlands, ed.]. They have 3,000 kilometres of track with a piece of land on either side with all sorts of things growing on it. We said you’d be crazy not to make that part of your value. ProRail’s luck is that they own the entire value chain – there’s no argument about who owns the land, which makes the stakeholder discussions very simple. 

Something you have in common is that you both use locally sourced materials. You’ve given them a stage. How can local production be part of the solution for sustainable production?

CM

In my career I’ve seen a lot of great local manufacturing companies disappear. Although people do have a desire to make things, and to be part of manufacturing processes, it’s simply not feasible anymore in terms of cost. The disappearance of these companies means that some great specialist knowledge about materials has been lost. We need to get this back, because it’s a natural part of society.

 

TV

Local production is the most complicated topic I’ve come across in my work. I don’t entirely believe in it. We work a lot in China and India, where everything is set up for manufacturing. When things go wrong in the global chain, it’s often due to issues related to the flows of materials. At the same time, there are a lot of things we can’t do in the Netherlands anymore. So is it worth manufacturing here? I also miss the connection with consumers. It’s important that they know where materials and products come from, and who the products have been made by. As a designer you’re constantly torn between your intentions and what happens in practice. But with a bit of luck, it will trickle down and get better. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can distinguish between the organic and synthetic value chain. The organic one can be local but not the synthetic one, because it’s produced globally.

 

CM

With wool there just isn’t much knowledge anymore, so you have to try to make a new chain. And as for flax, I spent two or three years sending e-mails before I could even make a start! I under-stand that entirely local manufacturing isn’t possible, but it’s important that part of it is local. We have one planet which we all have to share, in terms of raw materials, food, and so on. If things go wrong, we’ll be dividing it even more unfairly. It’s important to have a common understanding of what it means to use materials. Now we’ve outsourced everything, and I think collectively we don’t understand what products mean anymore.

How do you see the changing role of material design now we need to take major steps towards sustainability?

TV

The issue I run into, because I also work in India and China, is the difference between rich and poor. We can live in a sustainable world in the West, but the costs are paid somewhere else. We need to fix this on one planet. When things go wrong, somewhere the price is paid. And just because it isn’t in your backyard at first doesn’t mean it won’t reach you in the end.

 

CM

Yes, that’s true. We simply need a better understanding of materials and chains so we can improve them. Often things are simply wrong – the way companies are greenwashing, and squeezing their way into the circular world! Sustainable companies come up against the less pretty side of manufacturing, but they don’t want to talk about it, because it would put everyone off – people just want to hear a simple story. But that’s not possible if you don’t want to see the negative or uncomfortable side. Everything needs to be more transparent and open.

 

TV

Still, I think greenwashing as a phenomenon is important – one way or another, it’s a phase we have to go through. It’s also a way for the consumer to develop a jargon and make a choice between good and bad. It’s important that we accept that companies greenwash, it’s part of the transition. We just have to get through it really quickly.

 

CM

Perhaps we first need to feel the scarcity – that there really isn’t that abundance anymore. We’re so used to high quality at low cost. But if you calculate the consequences, it’s all wrong.

 

TV

In the future, the field of design will be more about ethics. That means taking responsibility. A designer within a company could also be the sustainability officer. Sometimes the truth isn’t up at the front end, it runs right through the complexity of a system.

Imagine, we’re 10 years in the future. What would you like to see in the field of design? What do you wish for the future? What do we need?

CM

My wish for designers is that they merge more easily into different parts of the chain, and make connections more easily, both in the production chains and on the financial side, so they become part of the whole process.

 

TV

I hope that when designers design a product, they’ll automatically assume that you shouldn’t cause any harm. Whether that will actually happen is another matter. I’m the last person to say it should be compulsory, but I do think it should be part of the design brief.

 

CM

Yes, I think that’s a really good one too. You should design based on the idea that you’re not causing harm, but adding something good. But you have to be able to learn within a process. This is about ethics, so you should be allowed to make mistakes, or to correct them. You have to be able to go through a process of development. Don’t forget: the whole of the Netherlands is virgin territory! There are so many interesting things to discover in terms of materials, craft and design. You only have to step outside and you’ll come across something.