Designing with Sugar: In conversation with Martijntje Cornelia
By Abigail Ward
Cubed, iced, powdered, granulated, melted and spun. There is no doubting that sugar, in its many different forms, is an ever-present substance in modern-day society. One way that you may not have seen it represented before, however, is as a material for making. A material so soft it can be likened to a cloud; so dense that one could easily mistake it for a precious stone, and so life-like that it evolves over time–changing alongside its fluctuating environment. The creator of this remarkable material and avatar of sugar is designer Martijntje Cornelia.
With her work positioning itself throughout the worlds of large scale installation, designed objects, furniture, fashion and jewelry, one can only argue that Martijntje is truly an interdisciplinary artist and designer. Despite her diverse portfolio of work, it is all created using just one unassuming form of sugar–candy floss. Who would have thought that something as simple and every day as spun sugar could amount to such an array of artistic genius?
First drawn to the unlikely substance due to its chameleonic nature, Martijntje's work pushes the boundaries of material use past a point at which many others’ work resides, and into the realm of the unexpected. Her imagination allows for an extraordinary number of differing forms to be created–vases made of layered, hardened candy floss, glass furniture that encases the loose material, and site-specific installations where the forms and this signature material are the only spatial ornament–all while upholding the material's identity and remaining recognizable to the viewer.
With a playful, yet sophisticated aesthetic, every one of Martijntje’s creations is highly emotive. Some trigger what can only be described as childlike feelings–evoking dream like thoughts and suggesting magical qualities. These works could belong in the landscape of a fairy-tale or an enchanted garden. Place them in a modern, upscale apartment, however, and they feel just as at home–acting as centerpieces that bring a sense of both play and elegance to their surroundings. Whether it is the strategic and bold use of color, the soft cloud-like aesthetic or the draw of their tactile nature, each piece seems to possess the ability to bring both uninhibited joy and sophistication to a space and its users at the same time.
As part of the ‘Material as Object’ series, MaterialDriven recently spoke to Martijntje Cornelia. Through our conversation, we delved into her journey as a designer, as well as the motivations and processes behind her work. We also discussed some of her projects, upcoming exhibitions, and collaborations.
MD: Martijntje, you say your practice was kick-started when you discovered the possibilities of working with candy floss. What first lead you to experiment with such an unexpected material?
Martijntje: It was during my study of Lifestyle&Design, which is focused on trend forecasting, that I first discovered the possibilities of candy floss. For a special assignment called ‘Candy Lab’ I started experimenting with all sorts of candy–for instance, lollipops, marshmallows, drops and candy floss. The changeable, dynamic aspect of candy floss was something that caught my eye, and I had to discover more about this unexpected and beautiful material.
MD: Did you have any experience exploring materials previous to this?
Martijntje: Yes, I had worked with a lot with different materials–silicon, glue, polyurethane foam, tinfoil, gelatine, fish, flowers with melted marshmallows, ice, rubber and I even printed on cheese. Personally, I don’t like cheese, but it happens to be an excellent material to serigraph on!
My philosophy for craftsmanship is that you have to stay focused on one particular material or craft for as long as you can. This is hard because you have to be patient, you have to be very curious about that one thing. You need to surprise yourself, and you should try never to quit. Of course, you can go in another direction, to clear your head, but I still think you should always go back to that one material muse. Nowadays, designers move fast, too fast. They want to invent so many new things, and sometimes forget that you can learn so much more from a few elements. I like to compare this to the difference between fast food and slow food. I believe that my work is like slow food.
MD: What are the materials or equipment crucial to your design process at the moment?
Martijntje: The most important factor that is crucial to working with cotton candy is the environment. Next to this, of course, is my cotton candy machine, which is something I need to make the cotton candy itself. In my current technique, the role of my hands is important. For instance, my vases are created using a combination of forces of nature and human power. They work together, in tandem, to result in the vases. Lastly, I use more specialized tools to create my jewelry, to work with wood for my furniture, and with glass and light for my light sculptures.
MD: Can you describe the physical processes and techniques you employ to turn such an ephemeral material as candy floss into the structured pieces you create?
Martijntje: First of all, you have to make a lot of candy floss. It’s an eternal physical fight with yourself and temperature. It takes a lot of time, and you have to be extremely patient.
Normally, I begin by making vast amounts of candy floss for a large art installation. This process has to go quickly because every breath of air can change the fluffy shape of the candy floss.
You have to deal with the environment; you can't control it all–it will always be a surprise at the end. It has happened before that I worked on one small vase–which consisted of 100 layers of candy floss–for an entire week, and the last layer broke the entire vase. Inside the layers, there had been an air bubble, so I had to start all over again. Nuances like this make it both hard and exciting to work with a material such as candy floss!
MD: Do any of these pieces have an expiry date, so to speak? Do they change or evolve over time, or do they remain in the state we see them in now?
Martijntje: Cotton candy is so unique as a material. Every minute can add another dimension to this substance. When you expose cotton candy to its surroundings, for instance, air and humidity will transform its fluffy shape to a flexible and soft substance. After that, a piece of candy floss remains as is, but can vary from fragile to robust in its structure. It completely depends on the environment you expose the candy floss too.
These works don’t have an expiry date, but it is possible that they change over time in color as well, like say leather. The hard pieces will remain in their final state, but if you were to put the unvarnished pieces in water, they would dissolve and vanish entirely. In my studio right now, I have 6-year-old unvarnished candy floss pieces, so you can imagine how strong sugar really is as a material!
MD: In your project ‘Layers,’ you talk about how one needs to accept change and rethink the way we look at what is considered ‘broken.' Is this re-utilization of damaged materials important to you?
Martijntje: Yes, re-utilization is certainly part of my way of designing and working. I never throw anything away. Every work I make is part of a bigger picture. In my project Layers, you can see this re-utilization clearly. It’s about the acceptance of change in material treasures which are very dear to us. We have to accept that things can change and have to learn to give the change a new meaning.
For instance, I gave a new life to the vase that had broken: It became a piece of jewelry. This work process, working with broken things or leftovers, is a regular practice for me. I never throw a piece of candy floss away. All the jewelry I make use leftovers from other projects, like art installations or larger objects. I do strongly believe in the power of material change. I believe that people are too focused on one form–for instance, they love their tea cup the way it is, but they can’t deal with it if the tea cup suddenly turns brown or breaks. They throw it away easily. I want people to embrace the changeable aspect of materials! This can be something surprising, instead of something sad.
MD: What enables you to create work that stretches the limits of traditional design?
Martijntje: My material is already out of the box (the way I’m working with it, that is), so for me, that helps in making things outside the ordinary. So even if I use a traditional technique or shape, my final product will always be different because there will always be the role of candy floss in it.
Working with an unusual material and seeing the functionality of this material helps me, of course, to see in every other daily material an opportunity for design. For others, it might be something normal–for instance tinfoil–but for me, this can be an excellent design material.
MD: Are there designers or practitioners from other disciplines that you would like to collaborate with, and work with in the future–to further the reach of your work?
Martijntje: There is an amazing candy floss maker in Los Angeles–Bon Puf–I would really like to collaborate with her, on the aspect of taste!
I would also love to work with a chef! I have this idea to let people choose their design on the basis of taste. I can't say more because it’s a little bit of a secret, but if there is a chef that is interested in working on innovative new projects and materials, I'd love to connect with them.
Additionally, I would love to work with the brand La Collerete, towards an extension of my jewelry into fashion. They make incredible and simple collars, and I think my candy floss pieces could be an exciting fit there. I would also, rather wishfully, love to make a wearable piece of candy floss for Lady Gaga. She would be the perfect muse for my designs! Last but not least, I am hoping to collaborate with a designer specialized in furniture making with glass. I’m seeking to work with a craftsman(woman) who has the same passion and focus on one material, as I have for candy floss.
MD: And finally, where do you see your work going in the future?
Martijntje: I really want people to know my studio as a specialist in candy floss design. I want them to be amazed by this material. In a perfect world, I hope to make lots of large art installations made of candy floss, work together with professionals of other disciplines, make functional design objects, experiment a great deal and make a living out of all of this. But making a living is a not my biggest goal. My goal is to show people candy floss as a new design material, and to make them wonder!
MD: What resources or support do you feel your practice needs, to enable you to reach large scale projects as well as the wider audiences?
Martijntje: Support from bigger companies which appreciate what I do. Maybe a sugar factory or a brand would be a good fit! For me, as with my other colleagues in design, this is the hardest part–finding the right support. I know that I, personally, would benefit tremendously, from collaborations and support that would let me and my studio grow!
MD: Any upcoming shows and exhibitions that you would like readers to be aware of?
Martijntje: Yes, absolutely on the 27th of October at Mixed Art Gallery in Amsterdam. I will present new jewelry pieces.
I’m also very excited to be a part of the upcoming exhibition ‘Sticky Business’ at Stedelijk Museum Schiedam in early 2018, with a living sculpture entirely made of Candy Floss (of course). I frequently post about upcoming shows on my website, so readers can definitely follow updates there. Aside from this, I have consciously chosen limit the shows I do this year. I think it’s important to slow down and take time to learn more about the material which you are working with.