New Materials for a New Age: Metamorphism by Shahar Livne
by Purva Chawla
How does one create a new material today? Can one mimic the mechanisms of nature in artificial material making? And with ingredients that are anything but natural–such as the unwanted, harsh remains of our industries?
Indeed, how do we collectively generate materials and processes that speak to the distinct age and geologic epoch we now live in–the Anthropocene* or the Age of Man?
Enter Lithoplast, a new, speculative material, and composite developed by Eindhoven-based designer Shahar Livne.
Born from the union of waste material of three kinds and diverse industries–plastic bits that cant be consumed by the recycling industry, dust and solid residue from coal-mining and powdery remains from stone masonry–Lithoplast is an easily moldable material. It is also the end product of a process that mimics natural metamorphism.
Metamorphism is a natural process of the earth where a change in "the structure or constitution of a rock comes about due to natural agencies, as pressure and heat, especially when the rock becomes harder and more completely crystalline." Materials familiar to us such as Marble, Slate, and Quartzite are among the many rocks created through Metamorphism, and the transformation of existing rock types.
In mimicking several thousand-year-old processes, and arriving successfully at a glossy, rock-like material with its own kind of foliation and texture, Shahar triggers several questions. The first–what is natural and what is man-made? What tense or convivial relationship exists between the two? The second–If materials of functionality and beauty can emerge from the most toxic of our wastes-are they really 'bad'?
As one learns more about Shahar’s project–'Metamorphism', and her material Lithoplast, one sees that is fueled by a desire to shift the perspective on such waste materials, especially plastic. Shahar suggests that instead of responding to and treating them as pollutants, we think of them as precious materials that might one day be mined in the future.
Shahar isn't alone in championing the fact that a ‘miner's' perspective to today’s most troubling pollutants could hold the key to an optimistic future.; especially when these pollutants are omnipresent and unavoidable today. At Dutch Design Week 2017, where her project was launched, design for the 'Anthropocene' loomed large, as did 'Good Design for a Bad World' (Dezeen's series of talks in Eindhoven during this period).
*What is the Anthropocene?
“There is a growing consensus today, that we are living in an age where the earth has been so profoundly impacted by humanity, that a new geologic epoch–the Anthropocene–needs to the declared. The Anthropocene, or ‘Age of Man’ can be visualized as a distinct and massive footprint on the earth–one that is defined by our industrialization, technological advancement, and rampant consumer culture."
– Purva Chawla, Foreword to ‘Age of Man,’ by Earth Issue and Form&Seek
Shahar is among a new breed of designers who are using an awareness of this new epoch to reflect deeply on their role as a designer, and as a springboard for new ideas, products, and design process. The goal? To shift cultures, mold resourceful, neutral attitudes and transform today’s wastes into tomorrow's opportunities.
Metamorphism for the Anthropocene
Metamorphism by Shahar Livne: The process of transformation of plastics within the earth's layer, envisioned and illustrated by Shahar Livne
Shahar's is an exciting, holistic thought process–one that can open both makers and consumers or users up to many more possibilities. Moreover, it is exciting to envision how the thinking at the root of her material Lithoplast, and new Metamorphism, could be embedded in communities, and even young learners, to create a dramatic impact on our future.
As she begins a crucial residency and creates new work for Milan Design Week, the MaterialDriven team caught up with Shahar, wanting to learn more about her take on Metamorphism and her material Lithoplast.
Read the conversation with Shahar below:
MD: Shahar, core to your project, is the suggestion that we have to think about materials in a non-binary way. As nature does. Not as good or bad; nor as pollutants or resources, instead simply as catalysts for future change. Tell us more about this.
And what response have you seen to this suggestion?
SL: In the last few months I have had the opportunity to hear varied responses to this project, from diverse audiences at Dutch Design Week and through comments to publications it has been featured in. Surprisingly, I found that the predominant response was defensive or narrow-minded; that most people seemed to miss picking up this new attitude, and were not open up to the idea that notions of good and bad might not exist at all.
People also struggled with the fact that while this a project that deals with plastic pollution, it is not about recycling. I can understand that, especially with the growing attention plastic pollution gets in the media, and it’s effect on humans and the environment. The need to have a certain order, so that we can understand our surroundings is very rooted in human behavior, and here I am, asking us to think differently. The project is not about imposing an opinion but giving space for thought, yet many who saw the project tried to avoid this by repeating what they already know about plastic, and it’s adverse effects–sadly I didn’t hear one person say something positive about plastics.
For my work, I am inspired by the Asian symbolism of nature, such as the philosophy of Wabi Sabi and Zen gardens. I often use these examples to explain my work and train of thought. I believe that the act of gazing into processes (as these philosophies pave the way for) surrounds us with no judgment. Instead, it inspires us and becomes a tool for channeling ideas.
MD: Plastic is one of the key ingredients in your project and material Lithoplast right now. Are there other materials–those being regarded as waste or pollution today–that you see as mined or being regarded as fossils in the future?
SL: My use of plastic at the moment comes from the idea of malleability. Plastic is one of the first materials to be molded by humans at the molecular level, and to exist as a hyper-object; in that sense, it is unique to our environment. Recent studies (R. Hazen, 2017) are pointing to the fact that new natural materials will come into existence, due to intentional and nonintentional human actions, and will become an embodiment of the cultural habits of our time–a sort of frozen capture of our actions in time.
For me, the concept of materials representing time capsules is fascinating, and I believe in the future they will be mined as materials not only for their physical properties but as narratives in themselves. From the present day, I like the example of Fordite–it is “mined” for its beauty, but it carries within its colorful layers a great deal of information about long-gone technology and past practices in the auto industry.
MD: Having illustrated a new form of Metamorphism and created Lithoplast, what functions, forms or industries have you found this new material aligned with? And what ideal future context, shapes, and applications do you see for it?
SL: As Lithoplast is a completely new material I have seen that people try to equate it with existing applications, such as decorative surfaces or building materials, which is very understandable–we look for the familiar in new things so that we can understand them better.
At the moment I am in the process of understanding it’s possible applications better, and I think it will be a subject I will investigate for the coming year or years. In my wildest dreams, however, I see it as a medium of expressing natural phenomena. It should also materialize as objects that people can relate to, and interact with easily, such as furniture, as long as its thought-provoking ideas and processes can still be expressed. I am excited about where further investigation and people’s reactions will lead me too.
MD: Linked to your work as a designer, and material investigator, is your new role as educator, and creator of a materials-focussed course. Can you tell us a little more about the course?
SL: The course was created for the Experience Days at the Design Academy Eindhoven, which is a one-day activity for prospective students. Some of the participants have a background in, or knowledge of design, while others do not. So it is fascinating to see how, in such a short and intense period (3 hours), most students manage to grasp a new perspective on working with materials.
I ask them at the end of the day what they learned, and find that many have changed their perspective from what they knew about the design process, and now see the possibilities of materials as a tool for expression. The fact that this was inspired from small material samples or via creating a quick materials library gives me hope that the field of materials design can develop further and that there is a place for it in the design community, but also in the lives of the general public.
From my short experience with the education system, budget determines viability, so I hope I will be able to continue and implement the course at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the future, or at other design education institutes as a long-term course, to investigate further possibilities in the field of material design.
MD: Tell us about what you are working on right now, including your upcoming work for Design Ventura in Milan.
SL: At the moment I am doing a design residency at the Materials Experience Lab in the Department of Materials Engineering at TU Delft, and creating new work as a member of the collective Dutch Invertuals. Both projects will be shown in Milan this April, the first in the “Venture Future” exhibition at Future Dome by Ventura projects, and the second as part of the Dutch Invertuals exhibition.
I see both projects as chapters within my ongoing research of Metamorphism. Each will explore a narrative and path related to the possible future of Lithoplast and the idea of transformation within the materials world and nature.
As part of my residency, I have an excellent opportunity to study the method of Material Driven Design, developed by Professor Elvin Karana (who leads the lab) and her colleagues, from TU Delft and Politecnico Di Milano. It is a method which investigates how a material should elicit meaningful experiences in and beyond its utilitarian assessment. This requires qualifying the material not only for what it is, but also for what it does, what it expresses to us, what it elicits from us, and what it makes us do.
For me, this is a fascinating way to explore my way of work as a conceptual and intuitive designer, within this scientific environment, and see how these two worlds can interact.
MD: Are their contemporaries, in our field, whose work you admire and relate to?
SL: For many years I have been inspired by the work of FormaFantasma, and I was lucky to have them as my teachers at Design Academy Eindhoven. Their in-depth investigations of materials at different scales has influenced my way of work and thought
Another influence is my former teacher Guus Kusters, he encouraged me and supported my interest in poetic conversations with materials, and I admire the sensitivity in his outlook and work with materials. I also follow keenly the work of Marlene Huissoud–I like the way her body of work has developed, and it feels like a very interesting self-investigation and reflection process paired with constant interaction with natural phenomena.