Practicing 'Material Thinking': Innovation from Laura-Jane Atkinson, Part 1
While many designers are being innovative with materials today, showcasing that innovation in products and processes, there are certain qualities to Laura-Jane Atkinson's work that set her apart as a 'Material-thinker.'
Going one step further that simply understanding context, Laura's making and experimentation with materials are geared very strongly towards a broader social, economic and environmental context. Responding to pertinent issues such as shrinking nonrenewable resources, declining industries and mounting waste of all kinds, Laura's intent is to reframe materials that we know, and to shake-up existing perceptions of them that we have.
Most interesting of all is the approach that is core to Laura's interdisciplinary design practice, and that of her studio (Rive Studio, co-founded with Eade Hemingway)–Play.
The act of 'Play,' as Laura says, has the potential to not only reveal unexpected and exciting design outcomes but also to alter existing behavior and beliefs (especially as they relate to materials) that are at the heart of many issues we face as a society today.
'Play' has therefore played a crucial role in the innovative design created by Laura, and has even been carried forward into her interactions and co-design with manufacturers and communities.
Among the many materials and surfaces that Laura and Rive Studio have worked with, and unearthed the potential of, are 'healthy materials' such as Linoleum (seen above) and Japanese Knot Weed (below), materials such as Polystyrene, and miscellaneous non-recyclable objects and materials intended for landfills.
Read our recent conversation with Laura, who is currently completing her MA: Design Lab at the Manchester School of Art, as well as teaching at Leeds College of Art, while her practice at Rive Studio continues.
MD: Laura, when did 'material thinking' become significant to your practice? When was Rive Studio formed?
Laura: I did my undergraduate degree in embroidery, and while I enjoyed engaging in traditional embroidery techniques, I wanted my work to challenge the material language that embroidery could speak, and the forms it could take on within the wider design field. I became interested in intervening with the way a material, craft technique or product should be expected to be experienced. It was at this point that I realized I was driven by materials and the relationship society has with materiality.
Since then, I’ve become increasingly aware of the central role that materiality has in enabling us to live our lives–the close relationship between materiality and our social lives; health and well-being; economic future; political position and environmental wellbeing. I’ve found meaning in my making, to challenge what the objects and surfaces I produce could mean outside of design. I’ve also been drawn to the effect this can have in generating new thinking about the issues we face now, and in the future.
Although I have a background in Embroidery and Textiles, I’ve always had a hybrid approach to my practice, which hasn’t come without its challenges. In a sense, I have gradually been framing my own discipline as a material-thinker and maker, guided by materials and the issues or systems they circulate within.
Rive Studio was formed in October 2015. Eade Hemingway and I both opted for a unit on Sustainable Futures during our MA in Manchester. We collaborated within this unit, and have continued to work together and establish our studio since then.
MD: Your belief and Rive Studio’s belief is that play–as it relates to materials–can generate alternative ideas for social and environmental uses. How did ‘Play’ become a crucial tool and philosophy for your work?
Laura: When Eade and I began working together, we realized that we approach materials in a very similar way. We ‘tinker’ with things and ask ‘what if?’; Putting to one side what form or function that material usually takes, and how it should behave. We grasped that we ‘play.'
Adults categorize things and situations as quickly as possible, in order to evaluate what we know and how we should react. Play, however, requires us to unlearn, de-categorize what has already been learned and forget what we should know.
If we apply this to materials, objects or situations that may have been understood by society–in a way that has created perceptions or attitudes that may be contributing to some of the social and environmental issues we face–play allows us to forget such behaviors, and generate ideas in a new light.
When you take on playful behavior, you take on new ways of thinking as your mind wanders away from an end goal. The conversations and ideas that our studio was generating when playing, entered a space that we hadn’t been able to before. This, above all, was how play became central to the ethos of the studio.
Within my own practice, when I play with a material, I hope to not only generate new ways of thinking about the future of the material itself but also for the wider associated scenarios. With every material comes a place; a set of people involved; an industry; a reputation; a known set of experiences; associated issues; a history; and a manufacturing method.
MD: Tell us a bit about 'Lino Lab'.
Laura: During a mammoth trip to a local industrial scrap shop, I had bundled several swatches of what I believed to be vinyl flooring into my suitcase. While unpacking, I noticed it had a woven backing and smelt strongly–learning that I had found some real Linoleum!
Studying the material back then, I learned that Linoleum is made from linseed oil, pine resin and wood flour–all of which are readily renewable in the UK. As non-renewable resources are depleting, and the UK is set to leave the EU, the future of our materials looks to largely depend on renewable and local resources–that which Linoleum makes use of!
However, as it stands today in the UK, there is only one company still manufacturing Linoleum, with only one factory left in Kirkcaldy–the former home of more than ten factories of various Linoleum producing companies. In the last few years, Linoleum has become unfashionable and has been largely replaced with chemically-produced vinyl. The industry is at risk of being left behind. During a time when it is most needed for the future. My aim for Lino Lab is to reposition Linoleum within current and future material climates, to liberate this material and encourage new relationships to be formed
Lino Lab is a continuing exploration. As it stands, Linoleum has only been used in a flat/two-dimensional capacity for flooring or print purposes. I am playing to explore the three-dimensional possibilities of Linoleum, creating samples that could have multiple applications.
I envisage this project heading towards a series of functional products. However, I don’t want the designs to come only from me. I believe that material futures are shaped by those involved in making the materials, which, in the case of Linoleum includes factory workers, Forbo employees (the remaining company producing Linoleum), related industries, Kirkcaldy residents, consumers, flax farmers, and material scientists. I will be holding a series of ‘Lino Lab Think Tank’ sessions with a selection of the above communities, where I will present what I have learned. These sessions will aim to establish relationships, and present an opportunity co-design.
Similarly, I envisage manufacturing my own Linoleum. The way it is manufactured resembles a craft and requires an unthinkable amount of skill. Yet, unlike any other craft, it isn’t taught in an art or design school. I hope to share this craft in the future, to give way to a capable material future.
To learn more about Laura's our projects and upcoming work, especially her reappropriation of Japanese Knot Weed, read the second part of this article here.