Just like sea levels and global temperatures, biomaterials are on the rise. Essentially defined as a substance engineered to take a form used to interact with components of living systems, the roughly half- century-old science has traditionally been used for diagnostic or therapeutic procedures. It was only a matter of time before it seeped into the commercial world.
Not to add to the disgruntled folk grousing about consumerism but at the consumption rate we’re speeding through, it’s only natural (ha!) to look to biodegradable matter as a solution to the mounting landfills. Sprinkle a little creativity and these alternative constructs transform into a teeming well of potential. Learn about the intriguing biobased materials from cow blood to cigarette butts, and the creative minds behind them.
BIOMATERIALS: PINEAPPLE LEAF FIBRE AND EGGSHELLS
Having worked across industries with the likes of Swarovski, Moleskine and Nissan, and exhibited at Art Basel, Design Miami/Basel and the V&A amongst numerous accolades, this Hong Kong-based studio has traversed a tough journey to where it is now. Today, The Fabrick Lab is a complex of niche design, R&D and prototyping rolled into one, plus equipped its own mini factory of a variety of looms, heat presses and 3D printers.
“Even now, I sometimes still have difficulty explaining to people what type of work my studio covers,” says founder Elaine Yan Ling Ng, who reveals how competitive the creative industry is, and the further obstacles of growing a cross-disciplinary approach.
“A lot of people misunderstand colour and material development work as simple Pantone swatch matching. In reality, we are much more. We provide smart solutions through understanding each material’s inherent property and devising a formula and system for practical application.”
The main hurdle being the formative years where CMF development was a lesser-known industry in Asia and, at best, an internal department of a big corporation or trend agency. “It’s not popular to design material with this approach because it affects traditional supply chains, and most clients are reluctant to change without seeing immediate results or a tangible product.”
Ng has since used materials such as abacá or pineapple leaf fibre as a base for building or fabrication. In her simultaneous role as chief material innovator at Nature Squared, she created the latest collection Carrelé that harnesses eggshell waste as a calcium carbonate foundation for wall and floor tiles.
“Although we tend to associate it with fragility, the eggshell is actually very strong [when compressed], naturally UV-resistant, and the ethereal chalk-white colour that we have sustainably sourced absorbs natural colours in fascinating ways, making it a wonderful building material.”
Ng almost fell into sustainable design by accident. In the early days, she primarily focused on the alchemy of material properties, accompanied by shape memory alloy research to create an energy- effective building. However, her attraction to nature as a ground for inspiration flourished. Captivated by the natural supply chain and its efficient zero-waste system, her work eventually follows biomimicry design principles.
Besides ensuring that the adopted material has a steady or mature supply, Ng points out that supply chains should account for not just production sustainability, but the people and culture. “If the material is a natural resource or food waste, it is even more complicated as it directly affects diverse livelihoods. It’s beyond just a design curriculum, it also involves many social aspects to be considered.”
She is currently partnering with factories and creating a new B2B platform in China that offers to generate a low carbon footprint manufacturing system and in the inception of a long-term research project dealing with recyclable versus biodegradable filament. Apart from wanting to collaborate with architects and artists like Thomas Heatherwick and Olafur Eliasson to integrate tectonic technology, the dream is to create meaningful interactive design on an oversized scale.
“I always enjoy creating public installations and marvel at how work can spark surprise and connectivity. I think spontaneous human reaction is priceless,” Ng admits. “In the future, I would like to build an interactive experimental architecture that raises awareness of climate change, and at the same time serves as a prototype to examine what could be an alternative building for the future.”
Helming a company led by green thinking, engaged by science and stimulated by traditional heritage techniques and history, one can see that Ng is diligently maximising her reach to contribute to society. “Our planet has finite resources and I do believe learning nature’s cycle is the smartest way to live.”