'Growing' designed objects–Karlijn Sibbel's innovative model of working with natural resources
by Purva Chawla
Can a bowl or stool be made from grains of salt?
Can the growth of Algae be directed–through movement, temperature, and sunlight– towards a specific shape?
Can we ‘grow’ our designed objects, unobtrusively, from within a landscape of natural resources, employing nature’s own processes? Rather than extracting raw materials from nature and channeling them to conventional and unsustainable manufacturing?
These are the questions that Karlijn Sibbel both raises and answers through work as a creative researcher and designer. In many ways, the young Dutch innovator straddles both the future and the past in her work. At the heart of her investigations are the disciplines and technologies of biodesign and biomaterials, both oriented to humankind's future. On the other hand, her work brings back into play several simple, grounded ways of making that belong to our distant, more sustainable past.
Take, for example, her project SEAt. An elegant, but robust stool created by Sibbel using the natural crystallization of salt grains around a cotton wireframe. This salt, or sea salt here, is an abundant and underutilized natural resource. Sibbel taps into this material, along with the tools of natural heat, temperature control, water and gentle, incremental movement, to 'grow' her object, a stool–almost as though it were rising seamlessly out of the sea.
Today, the intersection of biotechnology, design and material science is creating a sea of innovation. Designers, researchers, and manufacturers are working at light speed to bring biomaterials and biodesign into our daily lives. In spite of this hubbub of activity, Karlijn Sibbel's work and her intuitive approach to natural resources and processes stands out.
Recently, MaterialDriven spoke with Karlijn, to learn about her journey a designer and researcher, to trace her path to innovation so far, and ponder over what lies ahead for her. Here is an extract of that conversation.
MD: Karlijn, you have trained as a Product Designer. What brought to your interest, and now expertise in biodesign and biomaterials?
Karlijn: Before I studied Product Design at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem and delved into the arts, I had studied science subjects for the better part of my education. That interest and background in the sciences never went away for me and began to find its way into my school work. While at ArtEZ, I was part of several interdisciplinary masterclasses. One was an ‘exchange of views’ with the MIT Media Lab and Radboud University Nijmegen (NL) which resulted in an object–Aurora– created by my team, which used sensors to connect hand movements to changes in lighting. Simulating a flight of fireflies that one could control by moving one's hands, it created a sense of nature through technology.
During this time, I also interned with Marjan van Aubel in London. Together, these experiences brought the worlds of design, science, nature, and technology into an intersection for me. Following my graduation from ArtEZ in 2015, I set up my studio-cum-lab at the Kleefse Waard Industrial Park–a Dutch industrial complex near Arnhem, which has become a hub for sustainable enterprises and clean-tech innovators. My space is housed within former laboratories of the old industrial park, and the diverse group of professionals in the complex–an interdisciplinary mix of designers, start-ups, management, energy companies and manufacturers–makes this an exciting and immensely supportive environment for my work.
MD: Was 'Industry by Nature' the first project to emerge from this independent studio?
Karlijn: Yes, It was. As you know, it has always been my endeavor to reimagine how we can create objects, and use nature not only as our materials but as our tools as well. This has been core to my practice. I have also been most fascinated with Growth. Growth allows natural materials to move towards a more complex state.
It was these concepts of growth and using natural processes as a toolkit, which became the basis of 'Industry by Nature.' I began by working with Algae, using a machine I had created, to direct its shape and direction of growth, by controlling only the illumination (sunlight), water, nutrients and rotatory movements of the machine. Using this machine, and later drying the resulting end product, my intent was to turn the living Algae into a usable biomaterial.
To provide me with the technical insights that I needed for this project, I was fortunate to collaborate with two bioprocess engineers from AlgaePARC Wageningen University. They armed me with the knowledge and tools that were crucial to the project.
MD: You then took these ideas of growth into the second phase of 'Industry by Nature,' with salt as your raw material this time. Why Salt?
Karlijn: Salt–by virtue of it's crystallization–shares that same quality of growth as the Algae. Salt also possesses several immensely valuable properties–among them its ability to preserve substances and form strong structures. So that made me keen to explore Salt as a material for this project.
I began investigating the properties of salt, and in parallel I created and adjusted conditions of salinity, temperature, and time, using which I was able to first create spherical bowls and vessels, and then a stool–SEAt, using the idea of salt crystallized into a shape.
For the bowls, I seeded a concentrated saline mixture with a spherical form, and for the stool, I inserted a flexible cotton wireframe into the saline solution, and by controlling its shape with weights, I created a foundation for the crystals to secure themselves onto.
I was surprised by the strengths of the material this process resulted in, and I am now working on developing the structure and material (salt as a textile hardener), to make such a stool even more usable.
MD: You also spent time researching biomaterials at Genspace, a community bio-lab in New York. Tell us about that experience.
Karlijn: After graduating from ArtEZ, I understood that I would have to make my own tools in order to work with biomaterials. I needed to develop my technical capabilities and knowledge as well, in a way that my experiences at the labs in school could not equip me.
At this time, an excellent opportunity came my way in the form of the ‘Design Stipend Award'– an award I won from the ‘Groote Sociëteit Arnhem’ for my project ‘Industry by Nature.' The award granted me the opportunity to spend a research period at Genspace in New York City.
At Genspace, I experimented with several biomaterials and organisms, with the intent to control their growth (a continuing interest for me). A material I worked with most during this period, was bacterial cellulose from Kombucha (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). I experimented with multiple techniques–including sound vibrations (Cymatics), different depth and shapes of containers, and the use of smart textiles–to influence the formation of structures, colors, shapes, and patterns of the bacterial cellulose.
This was valuable learning for me, and the technical know-how from this experience is feeding into my current work and continuing research.
MD: Interdisciplinary partnerships seem to be key to your innovation. Is that so?
Karlijn: Absolutely. Interdisciplinary collaboration plays a crucial role in my work. From my work with bioprocess engineers at AlgaePARC to partnering with a chemist to comprehend the properties of Salt, for Industry by Nature. Two platforms that have influenced my work tremendously have been Genspace (New York City) and the masterclass with the MIT Media Lab–both of which created an interdisciplinary and collaborative working environment.
This fall, I will begin my Master in Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College in London. The program–which is a cutting edge creative product development course– is largely based on multidisciplinary collaborations. I think that collaborating, connecting disciplines and professions is the future for us. To address the challenges of the coming century–climate change, water and food scarcity, waste surpluses–we have to make cross-overs between design, science, and industry.
MJ: What are you working on at the moment, and what is next for you?
Karlijn: My research into Salt as an abundant and viable natural resource for design is ongoing. For instance, the bowls of salt created during 'Industry by Nature' have the potential to serve as storage for food–preserving it, without the need for refrigeration. This is something I am researching among other projects.
On the other hand, I am investigating the impact of working with Salt at a larger scale. I was recently part of a 5-Day workshop held at the vast Salin de Giraud salt harvesting fields in France. We were a group of professionals and researchers, all of whom are investigating salt as a material. I would like to return to this area, and impact the existing conditions and contribute to the economy of the area through my work.
In addition to my continuing passion for Salt, I am currently investigating Sugar Beet pulp–a by-product of Sugar production. As part of a research project titled C6H10O5, I am conducting experiments with this pulp, in order to create a flexible material that can be used for foldable and biodegradable packaging. This interest in Sugar Beet pulp coincides with the fact that the European Union is due to abolish its sugar quota in October 2017. With no restrictions on the amount of sugar to be produced, the cultivation of sugar beets, and so the generation of its by-product–the beet pulp–will increase massively as well. This abundant biomaterial represents an enormous opportunity to create packaging and objects sustainability, and tap into a natural resource.
MD: Thanks so much Karlijn, for speaking with us! We are excited for what comes next for you. Readers, you continue to follow Karlijn's work here.