From toxicity to artistry: Agne Kucerenkaite addresses unacknowledged industrial waste
by Purva Chawla
Waste. Of all compositions and sources is dominating conversation in the design world today.
Countless projects are testing the transformation of waste into objects of beauty and value.
In this landscape, in this abundance of experimentation, what sets apart any one project that deals with waste?
Is it the ‘extremeness’ of the waste conquered and successfully morphed by a maker–the toxicity and challenge it presents? Or is it the potential of the resulting design solution–both product and process–to scale up and become more than a collection of beautiful, much talked about objects?
Is it the ability of a project to impact communities, and industries–those that are neglected or ignored–as a whole?
With luck, and much perseverance surely, the project and maker in question today– Lithuanian designer Agne Kucerenkaite–touches all of these chords. Working across ceramics, textiles, products, installations, and architecture, her work brings into use, and into the limelight raw materials gathered from such unacknowledged facilities as a soil remediation company, a water-treatment plant, and a zinc factory.
At the core of her project, begun while at the Design Academy Eindhoven is a focus on metals–reclaimed from industrial waste–and placed once more in a position of functionality and value, despite their current format or toxicity.
As part of our ongoing series of articles which question the role of a designer in the Anthropocene*, we spoke with Agne Kucerenkaite. See a transcript of this insightful conversation below.
MD: Agne, what was your background before the Design Academy Eindhoven?
Agne: Before going to Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE), I did a Bachelor of Interior Architecture at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. It was a great program, but I wanted to work more conceptually and independently. My classes were focused a lot on technical drawing, and I missed working with my hands. At DAE, I felt as though I had discovered a whole world of materials. I worked with ceramics, glass, metal, wood, textiles and organic materials. I also chose classes more oriented to a research methodology. The combination of these two bachelor programs helps me today, especially to implement my ideas for interior/exterior products.
After my last project ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ people tend to think of me as a ceramic designer, but I don't want to put myself in a box. I see ceramics as just one of many tools to express my message. If I could describe myself, it would be as a designer who enjoys working with raw materials, transforming them into valuable products, methods, and systems, and seeks an interaction between design, society, industry, and the environment.
MD: What drew you to heavy-metal industrial waste, and soils polluted by it?
Agne: During my studies, in 2015, I was chosen for a three-month exchange program in Arita, Japan. Arita is one of the first sites to produce porcelain in Japan. Local and traditional materials such as Izumiyama rock, Shirakawa stone among others, used in porcelain and glaze production, fascinated me and became the subject of my materials research project. When I returned to the Netherlands I continued this study through my ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ project.
I had an interest in the methodology I had seen, and an awareness that ceramics is pure chemistry–where metal oxides are the main sources of color in glazes. I found myself searching for further meaning and context, so I decided to focus on industrial metal waste. It was challenging, and it took hundreds of emails before I got positive responses from Theo Pouw (a soil remediation company), Aquaminerals (a non-profit organization, established to find solutions for water companies to deal with their waste) and a project called ABdK. ABdK has, for ten years researched and cleaned an area in South Holland, which has been polluted by a Zinc factory. The latter project has provided me with waste in the form of soil laden with heavy concentrations of metals.
MD: In this project, you noted surprisingly, that the more contaminated the raw material, the greater the potential for designed objects. Which specific waste or contaminated material proved to be most exciting for your work?
Agne: Since the Industrial Revolution, ignorance and our throwaway culture have led to overloaded landfills. Waste is constantly being produced. As a social and material designer, I believe that the Anthropocene brings with it several opportunities– it can generate innovative forms, narratives, and systemic changes.
Metals are crucial to our world, and, unfortunately, a non-renewable resource. My research indicates that they can be reused for their dyeing properties and the load on mining can be reduced.
All the contaminated soil samples I received produced excellent results due to the strong presence of iron in them. For textiles I used non-toxic samples, which were from the water industries’ waste, containing iron, without massive amounts of other metals. These iron oxides can also be different in their colors. Ossendrecht–a village in South West Holland (where the water treatment plant is)– has beautiful iron waste. Its original color is almost bright orange, and I used it to dye yarns. In high quantities in a ceramic glaze, it gives a rich aubergine color.
MD: You mention that the toxicity of metals is sealed away on firing ceramics. Could you share a little more about that?
Agne: People who are not familiar with the ceramic-making process don’t know that all ceramics we have in our homes are made of toxic materials. Different metals give specific colors to the glaze; e.g., iron offers reds, browns, and blacks; cobalt yields blues and copper lends greens. Of course this also depends on other chemicals in the recipe and on the temperature or way of firing. One has to careful while handling chemicals for the glaze–using gloves and masks.
When fired at high temperatures (1260 Celsius in my case) however, the glaze becomes glass, the chemical structure changes and there is no way for chemicals to leak if the glaze is balanced. Toxic metals like lead and cadmium are still used in the ceramic and glass industry. For example, Crystal glass contains a minimum of 24% of Lead. Some of my samples also have a little Cadmium and Lead, but these trace amounts cannot affect health after the firing process. The composition of chemicals I use are the same as others working with ceramics or glass; the only difference is that I use waste, instead of buying industrially produced color pigments from these same metals.
MD: Your project sees the unavoidable pollution and waste of our society differently. Do you think your methods and ideas can be scaled up, so that entire communities or industries can productively engage with metal pollution?
Agne: At the moment several designers are working with waste. But as Marcus Fairs (design journalist and entrepreneur) says “It is not good enough just to do something with it; waste needs to be re-conceived in our cultural views.” I believe that sustainability and a Circular Economy is the future. A lot of designers aspire to create a dialogue through their projects, but I think that dialogue is not enough anymore. We need to bring our ideas further than that by working together with the public and industries.
Regarding my project, I am confident that I can recover the value of a currently ‘valueless’ and even toxic waste material in an efficient and scalable way. ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ is not about beautiful objects, rather it is about new methods and systems. Toxic metal waste can be used with materials such as ceramics and glass where it can be “locked.” Non-toxic metal waste can be used in combination with any other material.
I am currently in touch with several companies who produce materials, but I should say that up-cycling ideas are still new for them, and examined carefully. My primary concern is how to make sure that waste pigment is always the same color? To be honest, it will likely never be 100% the same, and there will have to be a change in the perception of industries and people. From my perspective, imperfection is more playful and unique.
MD: You created beautiful tiles for a restaurant and bakery in Rotterdam using this process. How did that come about?
Agne: When I exhibited my work at Dutch Design Week last year, I had some architects and interior designers ask me if I was planning to produce tiles. That was a very natural step, and shortly after the exhibition, my former teacher asked me to design these tiles, using my research, for a friends' restaurant. This was challenging–requiring more skills and research. The tiles were handmade by me and glazed 100% using metal waste from the industries I collaborate with now. It became central to the character of the restaurant and the owners are very happy. Visitors notice the tiles and their colors, are interested in the idea, though externally, there is no way to know that the tiles have been colored with waste.
MD: How are you continuing to work on this project right now?
Agne: I am still working on my porcelain tableware. The designs, glazes, and colors are set, but I am working on the communication of the idea and its packaging. Testing different markets also take time. I will soon be selling these works in Tokyo, Japan.
I am also working on expanding my waste-dyed textile collection. I do need more skills, color research, and equipment for textile dyeing. I would like to combine these textiles with crafts like weaving or carpet making. But my primary focus is starting the large-scale production of my tiles. I have the support of a financial advisor, and we are working on the business plan for this, looking into possibilities for funding and analyzing the ways of making production as circular as we can.
I was recently invited by the Dutch Design Exchange platform to show my project at Interior Design Week Cologne, Germany. I will be showcasing the project at Maison & Object in September as well. Interestingly, I am collaborating with some chefs who are using my tableware for special dining events. This really represents my ethos– I believe in interaction rather than competition, and my goal is to grow and innovate through collaboration, so I am always in conversation with people regarding my project.
Recently, I have also begun to explore the potential of a new waste material. The water company I work with, which provides me with iron sludge waste, has proposed a unique industrial material–consisting of 60% cellulose and 40% residue from sewage treatment. This is exactly the technical investigation and search for design potential in seemingly unattractive and industrially driven processes that I find most interesting.
With the abundance of mostly costless waste material globally today, I wish to continue with my experimental design approach and reinstate the value of waste.