'Material Alchemy' proposes radical design hybrids
April 7, 2015

Author Jenny Lee discusses how a new breed of innovators are mixing the natural with the synthetic to reinvent our everyday materials for the future

It is the age of the Anthropocene, where man finds himself at odds with his own impact on the earth’s ecosystem. A synthesis of the natural with the synthetic can be seen in the emergence of new man-made materials, taking hold amidst the technologically tapped-in design world. Seeking solutions to reduce the impact of our human activities, many have stripped back their speculative investigations to the bare ingredients of our daily lives.

This unravelling of the fabric that makes up textiles, food production, biology and design as we know it is explored in a new book by Jenny Lee, ‘Material Alchemy’. A new breed of innovators are taking to the laboratory to repurpose and reinvent our everyday materials, uncovering everything from fabrics brewed from live bacteria to in-vitro meat. Technology and craftsmanship meet, offering a new perspective on the implications of the industrial when incorporated into small-scale, radical means of production for the future to come.


A new breed of innovators are taking to the laboratory to repurpose and reinvent our everyday materials, uncovering everything from fabrics brewed from live bacteria to in-vitro meat.


POSTmatter: What first captured your interest in understanding the materials we use?

JL: For me it’s all about the materials, the look, the feel, and the construction. It was through my research into production methods and craftsmanship that I learned that behind the material is a character and personality. It’s these subtle qualities that can resonate with the user. All materials engage us on an emotional level, and as designers we can make choices around how we want the user to respond to our products simply by selecting appropriate materials.

PM: Your book includes contributions from creatives working in science, technology and design. How did you make this selection?

JL: Each designer’s work had to demonstrate cutting-edge research in material innovation. I also wanted to showcase relatively new and up-and-coming designers whose work hadn’t necessarily been seen before on an international level. It was integral that the work demonstrated our response to materials in the 21st century. We no longer are utilising materials from a purely functional or aesthetic standpoint, but questioning the emotional value we ascribe to it.


We no longer are utilizing materials from a purely functional or aesthetical standpoint, but questioning the emotional value we ascribe to it.


PM: You cover projects such as in-vitro meat and a lab-grown mini brain. How do you tackle the ethical implications involved in progressing towards an increasing use of bio-technology?

JL: Bio-tech certainly holds a great deal of potential. Regarding in-vitro meat, arguably it could be considered more ethically sound. Today we have sentient animals effectively locked in cages, leading short lives only to be slaughtered for food. In-vitro meat is just the protein, with no pain or fear. What humans have inflicted on nature over the course of the last 50,000 years: industrialised farming, selective breeding of animals and plants that now bear little resemblance to their naturally evolved predecessors, and which certainly wouldn’t survive in the wild, leaves us in a very difficult position to take the ethical high ground. Ultimately I think bio-tech has the potential to solve more ethical problems than it creates.

PM: You write in ‘Material Alchemy’ that “natural mimics synthetic, and vice versa, in a sensitive intermingling of tactility.” What are the implications of this blurred line between the two?

JL: I find it remarkable that not only are we able to create materials that mimic the natural so well, but we are becoming less concerned if the material is authentic or not. Instead, we have become more concerned with understanding the value and ethical implications of the material. Consumers are taking more social responsibility in what they buy. We see designers such as Matteo Fogale and Laetitia de Allegri who wanted to create a collection that gave the illusion of stone-like materials, but made predominately of reclaimed post-industrial waste, as it is often the case that not all natural processes and materials are the most ethical, or even sustainable.


I find it remarkable that not only are we able to create materials that mimic the natural so well, but we are becoming less concerned if the material is authentic or not.


PM: There is no doubt that in this digital age we are becoming increasingly reliant on our technological devices. What do you think about the role of technology today in our lives?

JL: Technology facilitates more opportunities and in some ways makes our lives easier, but it can also cause an imbalance. We can easily become too connected and struggle to disconnect, finding ourselves lost in an ocean of meaningless connection. Isabel Pradilla did a fantastic piece of work on this theme titled ‘Future Amulets’, where she looked at future social dynamics. She hypothesised a scenario where technology and superstitions interact and co-exist, enabling us to create a stronger sense of control, and thus allaying our future ‘techno’ fears. One of her proposed amulets was the ‘digital voodoo’; simply it enabled the user to discreetly disconnect their cellphone.

PM: What would you personally like to see, and not see, in the development of technology and design?

JL: I see biology as the most untapped area of design at the moment. It offers excellent efficiency in areas currently dominated by clunky machinery, and we need to evolve our technology beyond a reliance on limited fuel sources. An example can be seen in the shift from CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) to OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) over the last decade, so I can see this as a realistic possibility.

What I wouldn’t like to see is sentimentality get in the way of progress; we needn’t be afraid of change, and we should be able to embrace progression while retaining the value of what we have. The online world is a big and exciting place; it started as an exclusive area available more to the specialist or the expert, but today it is widely used by people of all abilities. As it becomes more accessible, so should what it is used for. Technology is a tool, not a crutch.


For more information on Jenny Lee's 'Material Alchemy', click here.

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