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Making beautiful designs from dirty materials is a trend

18 October 2018

DDW Partner VICE asked designers from Dutch Design Week why in the world they use piss, smog and sewer.

The time we thought we could just exhaust the earth has been over for a while. That also has consequences for designers: where they always have been able to use precious metals from petroleum and used semi-slavery precious metals for their design, we now know that this is a finite strategy. Durability! Upcycling! Circular design! These are the magic words that are buzzing in the design world. There is even a prize awarded for the most innovative material that does nót exhaust the world.

At this moment, everything can be a material, including the mess that we produce as humanity. At the Dutch Design Week, you now can find products that are made of fine dust, water and urine. All good things that apparently are still good for something. The question is only for what exactly, because also in terms of application possibilities one dirty thing is certainly not the other.

To get some insight in this, I asked the three designers who work with these three filthy materials how they deal with dirtiness, and what makes their substance so valuable.

Creators: Hi Nienke, you paint textile with sewer drain.
Nienke Hoogvliet: It is a bit more complicated than that. If wastewater is purified, that is converted by bacteria into a biopolymer named kaumera. I use that again. Furthermore, it has nothing to do with feces or something.

But it is still a dirty little filthy.

How did you ended up work with this?
I have been working for three years with the Energy and Raw Materials Factory, an initiative of the Dutch water boards that is engaged in extracting raw materials from wastewater. They give me the material, because they think it is important that designers get started and explore the possibilities. That's what I do, together with two other designers: Jeroen Wand and Billie van Katwijk. We have all designed a possible application. Jeroen uses the kaumera as glue to connect different materials and Billie glazes ceramics with it. The water boards also want to bring the material to market with commercial partners, in the form of a kind of colorless gel. Then it can get even more applications.

Don’t you find it annoying to work with waste material?
I find it interesting to play with that perception. To make something of that dirty brown mess that is valuable and beautiful. And that people see the beauty of it, I think that is an interesting field of tension. In addition, the sustainability aspect is also important: I want to do something that contributes to the world.

If you did not have to take the environment into account, what would be the material you would prefer to work with?
I think I would still be in this corner, frankly. Even if the environment does not play a role, I would still like to make it better. I like the challenge aspect of it.

So actually you don’t mind that things do not go well with the environment?
Well indeed, then I can make this kind of design! No I’m just joking of course, but if you're going to design with gold for example ... That's not really a challenge for me, because everyone likes it already. So what kind of story can you tell about that?

So you do have a love for the underdogs in the materials.
You can say that, yes.

At the Dutch Design Week, a lot of new materials can be seen. Sometimes I ask myself: why do we actually need all these?
I hope that these materials will be a replacement for the harmful materials we use now. So that you do not provide more consumption, but a different kind of consumption. Textiles are now, for example, dyed synthetic. That is polluting, but they do so because the color does not appear. But why should a T-shirt that you wear for no more than a year have the same color for a hundred years? If you paint textiles vegetal, as I do now, the color will change, but we can just start to appreciate that. Then you do not have to buy something new all the time.

Are there any other dirty things that you would like to work with?
I would like to work with seaweed. I have been working on that for a long time, but I would really like to realize it and ensure that it can be used in the industry. I really want to achieve that.

Seaweed is not that dirty, right?
No? Many people find it dirty.

You can eat it.
I use washed up seaweed, and that is already rotting for a bit. You can not eat that anymore. It is pretty dirty, it also stinks very much.

Okay, fair enough. Thanks!

Nienke Hoogvliet exhibits her project in Veem during DDW.

Creators: Hi Iris, you’re coloring crockery with smog?
Iris de Kievith: With precipitated particulate matter. We do not catch it out of the air ourselves.

So normally everyone gets inhales this too.
Yes, that is also the reason for us to work with it. We live in Rotterdam in very dirty air, which we especially notice it when we return from holidays by the sea or in the mountains. When we are back in Rotterdam, we have to cough right away. In campaigns about the environment we heared that the air in Rotterdam is just as bad for you as smoking seven cigarettes a day. How is that possible now with something that you do not see?

You wanted to make it visible?
Yes. We link the quantities of smog we use in the glazes to the quantity that one person inhales in a number of years. In ten years you breathe about a whole gram, and then we glaze one cup with it. And also with what you get in 25, 45, 65, and 85 years. These are recognizable periods for a lifetime. 85 years of age is of course very dark brown.

Don’t you think it’s dirty to work with a substance you want to get rid of?
Well, it's exciting. And we protect ourselves; we also have an extra good dust cover. In Dutch cities the life expectancy is 1.5 years shorter because of the air quality. And these are still small concentrations compared to big cities like Beijing. It is a very common mean because it is super small: ultrafine particles. That even goes through your skin. But once it is distilled, it is under a layer of glass and it cannot hurt you any more.

Aren’t you starting to like fine dust as well?
Well, I do like the colors that we can make. I am now at my test that just came out of the oven, we have made a matte variant. That is even better.

So there is a certain joy in working with smog.
Wonder, I would say. With something that is deadly. That’s very contradictory, and maybe that should be the case, because otherwise it will not work. We make beautiful tableware, but from a very filthy material.

Imagine that there would be no environmental problem. Would you then rather work with other materials?
Then I would still reuse materials, and Annemarie as well I think, because of her fascination for residual materials. In addition to the importance of the subject, it often yields surprising results.

You must have a strong sense of responsibility. You can also think: who cares, I'm just going to make something that I like myself.
I would like to contribute to a better world in a creative way. We want people to change their behavior, and more often take the bike or train instead of the plane or car.

The SerVies by Iris de Kievith and Annemarie Piscaer are nominated for the New Material Award, and can be seen here during the DDW.

Creators: Sinae, you glaze ceramic objects with people's piss. Why?
Sinae Kim: I do not know. It was very natural. I have been fascinated by human waste for a while, since I started studying at Central Saint Martins. I had done something with poo before as well. When I started presenting my project, my teachers also knew that I would probably do something with human waste.

Where does this fascination with urine come from?
There are few designers working with it, while a lot of us are peeing. Scientists and biologists are trying to extract valuable substances from urine, so I thought there should be something fascinating in it. I find it interesting to find undiscovered value in human waste.

Why do you think that so few people work with this?
Many people do not want to have anything to do with it. But I think it is great to work with piss. Poop was much worse.

But you don’t think urine is dirty.
Not really, I didn't feel anything like that so far. Except when I was going to distill it. Then there were times when I found it disgusting because of the smell. When the water evaporates from the urine, it smells terrible.

Should we really use this?
Yes, I think so.

There is so much human waste because of the growing population. After we go to the toilet we simply flush it, so we have to put a lot of energy and money into water purification. That is not sustainable. I've often been asked why I make ceramics, and not something really useful. Then I say that we first have to get rid of the idea that urine is worthless and dirty. As a designer I am saying: what you see here is made of human urine, and it is beautiful.

At the same time, I do not want my project to be just art. I also really want to think about how you can create a system for recycling human waste. Then, for example, the water can be purified, and with what remains, you could glaze this kind of objects.

If there would have been no overpopulation or environmental problems, would you also use urine?
Hell yes. I like to use discarded, abandoned things, that is fascinating. And it is challenging. What do you actually think about your urine?

Well, to be honest, I'm happy when I get rid of it.

Sinae Kim graduated from the London design school Central Saint Martins "This is Urine", a project that you can see at the United Matters - MA Material Futures CSM exhibition in Veem.