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Practicing 'Material Thinking': Innovation from Laura-Jane Atkinson, Part 2

Practicing 'Material Thinking': Innovation from Laura-Jane Atkinson, Part 2

While many designers are 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.' 

We continue our two-part discussion of Laura-Jane Atkinson’s work below.
To follow the first part of this interview and study of her work, read Practicing 'Material Thinking': Innovation from Laura-Jane Atkinson, Part 1.


MD: Tell us about the ‘Japanese Not Weed’ project by Rive Studio.

Laura: Rive Studio is currently looking into how the impressive behavior of Japanese Knotweed (JKW) can be harnessed in a way that could be beneficial to society. JKW is notorious for being incredibly durable and spreadable, able to break apart buildings and destroy house values. It can grow up to 20cm a day, and its roots can span 7 meters in every direction. It can spread from tiny cuttings, and reports suggest that no 10 square km in the UK is without JKW. 

For these reasons, it has several pieces of legislation written in an attempt to abolish it And is regularly demonized amongst members of society. However, our studio is looking at how this plant, which costs the UK economy roughly £166 million annually to treat for removal–yet is still in abundance–could be perceived as an asset rather than a pest. Its ability to grow in extreme climates and the fact that it does not need bees to propagate makes it a plant that will survive as the effects of climate change become more severe. Rive Studio is in the process of exploring the potential of JKW as a resource within this context.

Japanese Knot Weed (JKW) is at the heart of Laura-Jane Atkinson's Japanese Not Weed project, which paves the way for this resilient resource to be used and celebrated rather than demolished .

The studio is researching JKW through playful experimentation and aims to explore new ways of thinking about the plant, with the hope of changing people’s perceptions of JKW, and pave the way for this resilient resource to be used and celebrated rather than demolished 

The project is ongoing and emerging with every conversation we have with landscape architects, scientists, gardeners, council members, craftsmen and other designers. We have been dissecting, boiling, burning, heating, soaking, blending, stripping, drying, dipping, unpicking and crushing the plant to explore its material limits.

MD: ’Making our Futures’ by Rive Studio seems to have generated intriguing composite materials. Tell us more.

Laura: For Making Our Futures, Rive Studio was working with homelessness charity ‘Emmaus’ to find alternative solutions for the small percentage of their waste that goes to landfills. These are materials or products that can’t be reused, resold, recycled or upcycled. As resources deplete and landfills continue to grow, the Studio was considering the potential of landfill waste as a raw resource for the future.

In Making Our Futures, Rive Studio worked with materials and objects such as mattresses without fire labels, broken electrical goods, smashed ceramics, soiled fabric and used packaging, and were able to create a series of composite materials that have the potential to be applied broadly.

In Making Our Futures, Rive Studio worked with materials and objects such as mattresses without fire labels, broken electrical goods, smashed ceramics, soiled fabric and used packaging, and were able to create a series of composite materials that have the potential to be applied broadly.

By playing with objects such as mattresses without fire labels, broken electrical goods, smashed ceramics, soiled fabric and used packaging, we were creating a series of composite materials that have the potential to be applied broadly. The aim was to produce material outcomes that challenge the aesthetic preconceptions of upcycled or eco-friendly products. 

'Polytone’–a hardening plastic-like material formed by mixing polystyrene with acetone, as part of Rive Studio's Making our Futures project.

'Polytone’–a hardening plastic-like material formed by mixing polystyrene with acetone, as part of Rive Studio's Making our Futures project.

A composite we found particularly interesting, and are eager to return to, was one that we named ‘Polytone’–a hardening plastic-like material formed by mixing polystyrene with acetone. Polystyrene is a huge contributor to waste–known as the material that never disappears. Although Polytone requires chemical input in its production, it also acts as a carbon sink–reducing polystyrene by roughly 90%. The studio used this method to bind together the waste materials we had broken down into small chunks. 

We applied three of our composite materials to bespoke table tops to illustrate one of the applications that such waste derived composites could take on.

The three composite materials (from landfill waste) in Making Our Futures, are seen here applied to bespoke tabletops

The three composite materials (from landfill waste) in Making Our Futures, are seen here applied to bespoke tabletops

MD: Regarding types of materials and processes, what would you like to explore next?

Laura: I am eager to explore Industrial felt. It is widely used to create products such as ring pads, washers, or furniture pads, all of which are punched out of a large overall sheet–a process that leaves behind negative offcuts. Yet it is so easy to unpick and revert these offcuts back to their raw, natural wool material, resulting in nearly twenty times the initial felted volume. It is an industrial waste that has the potential to fulfill a cradle to cradle system completely.

MD: What is coming up next for you, in terms of projects and collaborations? 

Laura: Rive Studio has recently been working with the LiFE (Living in Future Ecologies) Research Group, towards publishing ‘Fruitful Futures: Imagining Pomona.' This book–which embraces the spirit of activism, and whose purpose is to question and challenge the neoliberal agenda for urban development–is available to buy online, at HOME in Manchester as well as the Architectural Association and RIBA in London. 

I will also be exhibiting the outcomes of Lino Lab at the Manchester School of Art MA Show this September, and hope to spotlight this further at Dutch, Milan, and London Design weeks in 2017 / 2018.

MD: Are there interdisciplinary collaborations you can imagine, or would like to have, for your work someday?

Laura: I believe that every discipline in one way or another, impacts or is affected by material cycles and the social, political, environmental or economic systems that are circulating simultaneously. Sociologists, psychologists, politicians, environmental scientists– they although may not be directly designing with materials–think in a way that is extremely valuable for the future of materiality within a design context. I’m keen to collaborate, think and make with the minds of any of the above!

My practice has become non-discipline specific –it doesn’t come under Textiles, Ceramics, Product Design or any other discipline within the traditional design discipline boundaries. I’m driven by materials rather than the type of product I will end up making. Working in this way requires me to ‘borrow’ processes or knowledge from lots of different areas of expertise, to generate ideas and understand what may or may not be possible. A lot of the processes I re-appropriate or find fascinating take inspiration from makers that we may not recognize as 'makers'–such as bakers, gardeners, engineers, butchers, electricians, factory workers, plumbers or landscape architects. They are all engaged with material processes, just not as we may know it from a design perspective.


An Anthropology of Materials

An Anthropology of Materials

Practicing 'Material Thinking': Innovation from Laura-Jane Atkinson, Part 1

Practicing 'Material Thinking': Innovation from Laura-Jane Atkinson, Part 1