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The power of solar design

29 September 2022

Marjan van Aubel © Martin Dijkstra
As an ambassador of Dutch Design Week 2022, Marjan van Aubel is looking forward to new encounters, connections and surprises that the week always brings her. “I am positive and optimistic and DDW is too.”

“For me, designing is researching. I always start with a fascination for how something works and then I try to add functionality to that. A window not only captures light, but can also generate energy.” Solar designer Marjan van Aubel (37) sees solar energy as a material and thinks about how it can be applied in our daily lives: “I make things that are self-sufficient. For me, the starting point is always how something works in terms of physics. What does light do, which colours work best in a certain place? I always combine aesthetics and functionality. Orange, for example, works really well indoors and I also happen to like the colour.” 

“I try to move away from what we already know. Blue is traditionally the colour of solar panels, and they have a rather technical image. That’s a shame, because it’s about energy, which is an essential thing and there is an increasing urgency to put it to good use. I try to make a complicated story more understandable by making it more accessible and involving people in my designs.”

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Design that get things moving

“For me, design is successful when it gets people moving. First, I analyse what I can do with the material, the form follows. There is always something new to discover. Just take plants, for example. They are fascinating. I designed a greenhouse with transparent glass and played around with red, blue and pink light, which not only created a beautiful effect, but also helped the plants grow better. When I first started out as a designer, I had lots of different projects on the go and I can clearly remember thinking at a certain point: ‘I don’t want to add even more things to the world that will end up in museums or rich people’s houses. That’s when I started designing differently.”

“Sunne is an example of a lamp that you hang in the window so that it captures energy, and which many people now have at home. What I love about an object like this is that it almost becomes a living thing for people, something they want to take care of and feel a connection with. They discover that it generates even more energy if they hang it in a different place in the afternoon. They start to play with it and discover how solar energy works, even things I hadn’t thought about beforehand. It makes me feel grateful that solar energy can play a valuable role in the energy transition. Once you experience how it works, you might also look differently at solar parks at sea.”

‘I am very optimistic. Otherwise I’d never be able to make what I make. If other people find something too complicated or ambitious, it gives me extra drive’

Marjan van Aubel, ambassador DDW22

“We want a product or object to deliver on many different levels: it must work efficiently, be easy to produce and look good. And then there are the limits of what is possible. As a designer, I navigate between these boundaries, but the following applies to me: the more restrictions, the better a design often becomes. I am very optimistic, otherwise I’d never be able to make what I make. I am often asked why I should do something or am told that a certain idea is too complicated. That just gives me extra drive. A good example is the Solar Biennale that I organised for the first time this year together with fashion designer Pauline van Dongen. People thought our plan was too ambitious, but in the end we achieved even more than we originally thought we would.”

Back to the future

“As a DDW ambassador, I want to showcase solar design as a discipline and inspire other disciplines to integrate it into everything they design. We focused very specifically on this during the Solar Biennale. I show different techniques and look both to the past and the future. How did we design with the sun in the past? By positioning a house in a certain way, for example. This is something we’ve lost. I also look to other designers, at how they are taking huge steps towards a future in which we will embrace that again, like Hella Jongerius and Lightyear One. I explore this in depth in my book Solar Future.”

Solar Pavilion at DDW22

“Together with V8 architects, I will sketch a new perspective of solar energy during DDW22 in the Solar Pavilion. The Pavilion consists of a canvas on four poles, that is covered with coloured solar cells. You step into a kind of pastel-coloured world, where you can feel and explore that energy. Lie down on the large, mirrored sofa, where you can see how it works and at the same time enjoy the warmth of the infrared panels.”

Sunne Experience

“There will be a large version of the Sunne Experience in the Klokgebouw, accompanied by a soundscape. It is a lamp with three modes: sunrise, sunset and sunlight. Walking through it, you will experience those different worlds. All the while you can hear the sound of the sun, in the form of a piece of music that we had composed based on sound fragments from NASA. Sunne started last year as a Kickstarter project and we will be launching this new design label this year during DDW, with new solar design products.”

‘We must move away from short-term thinking and fast returns. Do you know how much a flood costs?'

Marjan van Aubel, ambassador DDW22

“Dutch Design Foundation is also a partner of the Solar Biennale, which shows clear support for the mission to design for the future. This kind of cathedral thinking is something we share. It is quite complicated, because it is always about reviewing systems. You have to look at the bigger picture and collaborate with different industries and parties. I can never make something alone. If I want to put solar panels behind a window, it starts with applied scientific research, so I go to TNO."

"Sometimes I think something is very logical, but the sector in question thinks very differently about it. When I designed Power Plant a few years ago, I spoke with universities and just about every horticulturist I could find. For me, it seemed completely logical to cover greenhouses with transparent solar cells. But for them, one per cent less light meant one per cent less yield in the greenhouse. Nowadays, I think people would react differently, but we often think too much in the short-term. Only in the Netherlands am I almost always asked: what does that cost? While I think: do you know how much a flood costs?”

Think big

“We really need to think differently, less focused on the short-term and fast returns. Of course, recycling is great, but I hope there will be no more waste at all in the future. This means thinking now about how things will be in a hundred years. I learned to think big like this in London, where I lived for a long time. DDW is another place where you can find this mindset: it is very open and future focused. It is a place where a huge amount of energy comes together, literally and figuratively. After all, energy is also created by people and the fact that we come together every year to share new ideas and make new connections is a positive, hopeful thing.” 

“Design is so good, not only at telling a story, but also allowing you to experience it. This emphasises the urgency and you can feel that we are really changing. I see this reflected in many more collaborations and collectives in the design field. In any case, I think it is important to stimulate the concept of solar design and to help other designers to develop it further, especially the younger generation. We have recorded a podcast for DDW with Fides Lapidaire, whose Shitshow expo is located next to the Solar Pavilion on the Ketelhuisplein. These are great connections.”

Get ready

“For me get set means: get ready. Something I’m definitely not yet ready for is climate change. But nobody is, and at the same time we are right in the middle of it: it has already started. And that is a challenging realisation. Unfortunately, we are already talking about climate adaption: how are we going to live with it? This is what we must get ready for, because as humans we are able to take on change. Technically, everything is possible; it is our mindset that must make the difference. Let’s translate all the energy we put into DDW and yield what we normally only use in times of crisis into decisiveness and communal effort.”