Harnessing the potential of hair as a material, Sanne Visser unveils innovative products from 'The New Age of Trichology’
by Purva Chawla
The biggest shifts and most dramatically impactful design projects of our time have emerged from lateral thinking–from designers and makers who see limitless potential where others see unreachable, hopeless waste.
The case of designer Sanne Visser is no different. Visser seizes heaps of discarded human hair, from salons and barbershops in London, and transforms them into a spectrum of utilitarian products, each evolving further in the scale and complexity of applications for this material.
Unlike you or I, who see an unusable substance, laced with traces of other human beings, Visser sees the tremendous tensile strength of human hair (a single human hair can hold up to 100 grams of weight), its flexibility, its ability to serve as thermal insulation and absorb oil.
In short, Visser’s perspective, research, and techniques have repositioned human hair as a natural resource that keeps growing in its supply. Flipping the idea of renewable and nonrenewable resources on its head, Visser illustrates how the 6.5 million kilograms of human hair collected in the UK annually can become a valuable raw material for multiple industries all while keeping this ‘waste’ away from the environment, preventing the detrimental impact to it, and to human health.
Aside from designing a truly circular, closed-loop system (from collection to sorting, making, applying and then disposing of again), what is incredible about Vissers project ‘The New Age of Trichology,' is how she has incrementally scaled up the structural and functional outcomes possible from this material. In addition to that, Visser's project does not suggest inventing brand new technology or methods (time and resource intensive), to deal with this new material. Instead, she employs age-old crafts to bring the discarded human hair to functional formats.
Visser first spins the hair into yarn of varying grades (based on the hair type), then turns the yarn into rope, before using these ropes to create functional objects such as shoulder straps, bungee cords, water bottle holders and large bags.
For Form&Seek’s Age of Man exhibit at Milan Design Week this year, Visser went one bold step ahead of her past work–she created a beautiful and robust swing, steered by these ropes of human hair. ‘The Swing,' installed in the heart of the Form&Seek exhibit at Ventura Lambrate, was a curious, interactive, immensely engaging, and thought-provoking experience for viewers.
Not only did viewers marvel at the structural strength of the material, and its ability to withstand weight, they were also left incredulous about the aesthetic possibilities of the spun, rope-like material created from human hair.
The New Age of Trichology is among our favorites from this year’s Milan Design Week, and we’re thrilled to share insights into the project and Visser’s work, through a recent conversation with her:
MD: Tell us about The New Age of Trichology, and your most recent work for Milan, ‘The Swing’?
Sanne: The New Age of Trichology started during my MA program in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins in London, and I have continued extending the project with new outcomes, material experiments, and system developments. The project explores the pure potential of human hair as a raw material, by maximizing on its inherent qualities and properties such as tensile strength. This serves to reduce waste, environmental problems, and the pressure on other non-renewable materials.
The project consists of a range of functional objects that helps create a system all the way from the collection of the hair, through to the end application of the objects. For Milan Design Week this year, I showed ‘The Swing,' which is a swing made out of human hair rope. In Milan, visitors were able to engage with the product closely, and see the miraculous qualities of this material. ’The Swing’ has evolved from previous objects that I have made before within the project ‘The New Age of Trichology.'
MD: The theme 'Age of Man' captures our relationship with the environment and our age–both in what has passed and how the earth has already been impacted, and in the ways in which design is responding and adapting to it. How did this theme express itself in your work?
Sanne: The New Age of Trichology fits very well with the theme ‘Age of Man’ since the project uses a natural resource–human hair. There is currently an abundance of this material, and there always will be in the future. I believe that mankind has to use the resources that are around us, and we will have to use them in the most efficient way to sustain our material future. Surviving on the planet should not involve only extracting natural resources, but also giving back by using our own bodies as a resource.
MD: Tell us about the processes involved in appropriating human hair in this project?
Sanne: Since the project is all about the human hair waste stream, I have created a circular system, which begins with the resource of this material. I first started by collecting human hair from hairdressers in different areas in London. From there onwards, the production process began for me, by making yarn out of the human hair waste. For this, I collaborated with a professional spinner, who has years of experience spinning and knitting. Even though she has never spun human hair before this project, she managed to create yarn out of the short bits of human hair. After she had carded the hair, it was spun into yarn.
With these yarns in hand, I decided to make ropes, to exhibit the high tensile strength of this material, together with a rope-maker and knot specialist. Since I didn’t have any experience in either spinning or rope making, I was completely dependent on experts in these ancient crafts. It wasn’t particularly easy to find these craftsmen, since there aren’t many people that have the right skills, and are also open to new materials and working together on a larger project with tight deadlines.
For me, it was an eye-opener–seeing and learning these skills. But it also made me wonder as to the difficulty of passing them onto the next generation. With upcoming ideas and developments I have in mind, I hope I can inspire other people to get to know the process behind these crafts, particularly instances where handmade and machine-made methods tie together.
MD: What reaction to your design had you hoped for, from viewers in Milan?
Sanne: My goal was that visitors at Milan Design Week would rethink our material environment and how we can re-use and recycle a material like human hair. By showing an object that asks for immediate engagement, visitors were (hopefully), able to get over their fear by intuitively interacting with it–the feeling of excitement for an object, by aesthetics and play, before even realizing where the material comes from.
I think innovations in materials need to be as sustainable as possible, but also still need to be appealing to viewers, otherwise, it becomes difficult to implement the material in our current lifestyle.
MD: How does this project respond more broadly to our global context?
Sanne: I take a fairly non-technological approach to problem-solving, by using an everyday material, and craft techniques and processes that are readily available to everyone. Human hair has been very popular amongst other artists and designers, but their main goal so far has been mostly to be either provocative or to make a statement. Hair is a material that has previously been overlooked for its functionality. The material is available in huge amounts and in any locality worldwide, and could potentially replace other existing fibers, such as cotton.
Also with this idea, I am inventing a new system of making and production that doesn’t require huge set-up costs and is quick to implement globally. Similar systems of recycling are done today with other waste materials such as coffee, plastic or food waste. These circular systems could, therefore, be applied in the same way, for human hair waste, at the place that it has been collected, produced, consumed and lastly recycled or composted.
MD: You showcased your work with design collective Form&Seek. Tell us about this experience:
Sanne: I think it’s a great opportunity, being involved with the Form&Seek Collective. First of all, to be able to show amongst other great artists that share the same interest in new materials, innovations, and development in design is fantastic. Even though everyone presents projects individually, we all show our work together as a whole, a fact that connects designers with similar interests and ideas together.
Secondly, this experience allowed me to meet more creatives from my field that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to interact with easily. These interactions can lead to potential collaborations, next exhibitions or broader connections. And finally, I think to exhibit as a group makes a show stronger as a whole, diverse work encapsulated together within the same theme.