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DDW19 Ambassador: Jalila Essaïdi

22 October 2019

Illustration of Jalila Essaïdi, by Gijs Kast
Every year, Dutch Design Week (DDW) appoints a number of ambassadors who are of great importance to the international design field. This year they are: Studio Drift, Jalila Essaïdi, Alice Rawsthorn and Stefano Boeri Architetti. Each in their own way, they share insights, give answers and reflect on the design world. But who are they and what do they stand for? This time, we ask Jalila!

First, a quick introduction

Jalila Essaïdi is a kind of modern-day alchemist. She is constantly searching for new materials in her laboratory. She seeks the limits of biotechnology and bio-art. She works like an artist, but also as an entrepreneur, providing practical solutions to problems facing our society. During DDW, Jalila’s work, The Symbiocene Forest, can be seen at BioArt Laboratories. 

Your work is often derived from your fascination with materials. You are constantly pushing the limits of what is possible. Which developments in the area of materials do you believe are in the pipeline?

Predicting the future is the domain of astrologists and clairvoyants. Rather than venture into that I would prefer to discuss the developments that are necessary for achieving the maximum social yield from material development. The underlying idea being: new materials are not new. Constructing new materials builds slowly but surely on the findings of predecessors. Sometimes, as was the case with Mestic, an ancient forgotten method combined with contemporary knowledge suddenly provided the answer for a current social issue.

This all sounds fairly reasonable, until you realise that most of our material knowledge is locked inside huge multinationals, or is protected as trade secrets. These same industries often see no advantage in rapid developments within their sector, major investments and manufacturing facilities have to be earned back over a period of many years and then profit has to be made. This all stagnates the sharing of knowledge and in turn material development. Where I was once suspicious of state-issued monopolies for material production processes (patents), I now realise that through the decades a source of knowledge has been laid down that is now freely available and that anyone can build on.

I believe that to achieve the maximum social yield from material development we need to create a new approach to work. Companies such as H&M are already taking the initial steps through providing innovative start-ups within the textile industry insight into their total production chain together with the underlying manufacturing processes. This is an enormous step, but within the BioArt Laboratories foundation we believe that there is still a long way to go. Which explains why we are actively exploring the most optimum systems for sharing knowledge to accelerate future developments in this field.

Social developments have a tremendous influence on material development. Shortly after World War II, society saw plastic as a perfect material: cheap, versatile and easy to process. We now have different ideas about it.

What do you consider the perfect material for the future?

In the description of constructions in the future it is likely that the word and idea of ‘material’ will no longer exist. The management and integration of biotechnology within the material sciences opens doors for possibilities in which the definition of living and non-living will fade. So, what do I see as a perfect material for the future? I think a type of bio-inspired construction with self-assembly and self-repair characteristics.

And leading on from that, how do you envisage the future of modern biotechnology and bio-art?

The 21st century will be defined by biotechnology. The current progress is just the tip of the iceberg. The possibilities for creating and managing life throws up more questions than answers. For example, within biotechnology you can see lots of development in Crispr-CAS technology that can change the DNA in people, animals and crops. So the question will not be: what is possible, but instead: what do we want? Working within the bio-arts with the material from which society is literally composed, goes hand-in-hand with a unique perspective to ask society, to criticise and reflect on aesthetics and ethics, usefulness and necessity of the material and/or related technologies.

Jalila Essaïdi
┬ę Gijs Kast

If we consider the design of an object. How do we translate this material research into tangible objects?

The materials are results, they allow me to tell my story and evolve throughout a project. So they are absolutely not a starting point. With Mestic I did not want to make a plastic or material from cow manure. I wanted to research and understand a complex problem: intensive livestock farming and its impact on our eco system. It is coincidental that it manifested itself in an applied material.

The material is therefore a factor in tabling a social or cultural problem. How do you do that?

Through offering a new solution for the problems or scrutinizing the current approach. In doing this, you must not do too much thinking for your audience, before you know it you will become part of the generation that has become inflexible. A new generation introduces its own new types of solutions, stay open to this and try not to close your mind to them. This is also the reason why at BioArt Laboratories we prefer to work with young, not-yet-established talents, these are still rough diamonds ready to make real impact.

DDW is the stage par excellence for new talents and ideas. What is the importance of DDW in your eyes?

DDW does not just offer a stage for established names within the design world, but also for young talents and recently graduated designers. These makers often have remarkable, new ideas and products, but not yet the network or the financial means for upscaling and presenting them in prominent places. DDW can be a platform for them to present this to the outside world and other designers, offering a valuable step up in their career. In addition, DDW offers many options for connections. By attracting designers and organisations from various sectors from around the world, you lay the basis for numerous new collaborations and crossovers, which I think is fundamental within innovation.

How do you envisage your role as an ambassador?

As an ambassador I would like to create awareness that design can offer more than just economic and aesthetic value. Through design we can secure major gains in the fields of sustainability, inclusivity and ecological value. By putting the focus on this in my own work and in the exhibitions at BioArt Laboratories, I hope to make DDW visitors more aware of the role design can play in this field.

Are you organising specific events?

Yes, there is a lot going on at the BioArt site. The Symbiocene Forest exhibition, by creative change makers from around the world, is on show all week. These creative change makers have produced all sorts of works, which all consider water within the crossovers between art and science. The official exhibition opening is planned for 18 October, featuring a debate with the director of MELiSSA, a European Space Agency project, the chairman of the water board council for the Dommel, and other prominent people who will talk about how we will deal with water in the future.

Within the same theme we will also organise a social ‘storytelling’ event on 23 October. Visitors will be invited to listen to stories from residence permit holders from Iran and Syria, and local young people. The Incubator Debate! about Impact, value, best practices & sustainable accommodation will take place on 19 October. It will feature Desiree Hoving, Eva de Klerk, Bart de Zwart, Victor Gijsbers and Martijn Braamhaar.

We also collaborate with various educational institutes such as Fontys and the International School Eindhoven. And, last but not least, during the weekend we will organise a ‘Tree Antenna’ workshop, teaching visitors the technology behind broadcasting and receiving through trees, a technique applied by the American army in World War II.

Talking about DDW, do you have a personal highlight? Are you looking forward to particular presentations or events?

This might be cheating, but I’m really looking forward to the results of the creative change makers that have been accepted and supervised during the ‘talent pressure cooker’ by BioArt Laboratories.

Finally, the DDW19 theme is ÔÇťIf not now, then when?ÔÇŁ. How would you answer this question?

We are just monkeys clinging to the surface of a giant rock that is hurtling through space, and right now, that rock is on fire.


Jalila Essaïdi is a Dutch artist and entrepreneur, based in Eindhoven. She is specialised in bio-based materials and bio-art. Her best-known project is 2.6g 329m/s’, also called ‘Bulletproof Skin’. This project successfully led to bullet-proof human skin. It is a combination of human skin with spider silk from genetically modified spiders. It shows how new materials can be developed using biology and technology. As an entrepreneur she is the CEO of Inspidere B.V., a biotech Brainport Eindhoven company. In 2011 she established BioArt Laboratories, a foundation to make knowledge about biotech accessible for entrepreneurs and the public.