Fatconomy: could we build a new design system from waste fat?

The Design Museum’s Designers in Residence exhibition explores the possibilities of new materials, inspired by Mars exploration.

Designers are probably not confused for health and safety workers very often, but it’s not often that designers turn to fat for inspiration. Although this is exactly what happened to Robert Johnson during the research phase for his project, entitled Fatconomy.

Johnson began studying the uses of fat waste around two years ago. While it’s often been used as a biofuel – an industry worth millions – Johnson was interested in whether a new system could co-exist with the existing one. That’s what led him to research London restaurants, Johnson tells Design Week, noting that Asian restaurants in particular were fearful of his initial inquiries about their waste systems.

Fatconomy products
Fatconomy products

Throughout history fat has held a changing status. In the 18th and 19th century, around 250,000 whales were killed for their blubber for use in heating, soap and candle wax. And in society, fat has changed from a sign of wealth to being seen as a problem in the obesity epidemic. Now the industrial process looks a little different – an aspect that Johnson highlights with a film he made about a ‘cooper’, someone who collects FOG (fats, oils and grease).

The materials that he’s produced so far have been made into prototypes of protective clothing; an apron, a croc-like shoe, and also packaging materials like cable ties.

During this process, Johnson explains how different restaurants produced different types of fat. Chicken shops that used jerk seasoning, for example, created a fat that’s darker and more durable. Indian restaurants had waste rice in their product, which created a material that resembled cork (it’s what the top of the croc is made from). Exploring the different properties of these fats is a priority as the project moves forwards, Johnson says.

Fat samples

The project is laid out like a trendy London pop-up shop; outside the exhibition ‘Fatconomy’ is backlit in a retro typeface, more closely associated with a fish and chips restaurant. Petri dishes of fat samples – from Korean to Italian cuisine – are displayed on one wall. There’s also an explanation of how fat is currently corrected, in ‘fat traps’, a product design that hasn’t changed since it was invented in the Victorian era.

It is an area that seems ripe for redesign, though Johnson wants to keep it on a relatively simple level. He currently works by extracting the material from restaurant fat waste, and he wouldn’t want to get involved with fatbergs – like the one displayed at the Museum of London – as that requires another layer of technical ability for exploring the sewer system. Johnson wants to keep the project, as he says, “local”.


Designers in Residence

Johnson is displaying his project as part of the Design Museum’s Designers in Residence showcase. The annual programme asks designers to respond to a theme and work in-house at the museum, and at the end of an eight-month residency, present their work in an immersive exhibition. This year, in honour of the Moving to Mars exhibition, the theme was cosmic.

The exhibition was inspired by the growing interest in travelling to Mars and how designers have reacted to that ambition; considering new ways to build a “more sustainable and inclusive future” than on Earth.

The ‘salt wall’

“Designers are actively questioning the means by which these planetary and interplanetary issues are identified and addressed,” the museum says. Part of our renewed interest in space stems from the “indelible impact” on earth. And climate change has also accelerated us into space exploration, according to the museum.

The Designers in Residence programme is now in its twelfth year, and traditionally focuses on a wide variety of disciplines: alumni of the programme include Asif Khan, Yuri Suzuki and Sarah van Gameren.

The cosmic brief inspired a focus on materials among this year’s crop. For example, Male Uribe Fores, a Chilean designer, looked at another food group: salt. Specifically, Fores explored how salt from Chile’s Atacama desert could be used a possible material of value.

She developed a ‘salt wall’, consisting of salt and plaster which was inspired by a 10-day research trip to the desert, and the architectural surface is on view at the museum. While conceptual – Fores wants viewers to consider their relationship with natural landscapes and issues around mining – it also shows how architecture could develop more sustainable practices, if “natural disregarded materials” could be used to create new structures.

Marta Giralt, looked at ways to take the relatively new material graphene from laboratories into “everyday life”. Graphene was discovered in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kosta Novoselov at the University of Manchester and was heralded as a ‘wonder material’. It’s 300 times stronger than steel but also flexible.

Giralt collaborated with scientists and people working within the design industry on the carbon-based material to create a new range of products, like a breathable trainer and more efficient solar panel. The aim of her project, she says, is to “find new ways of making graphene more accessible and visible to the public”.

The reimagined birthing suite

Stiliyana Minkovska did not look at materials but instead explored an alternative design for a birthing suite, after she found her own experience in one to be “hostile” and “clinical”. A mix of product and interior design. Ultima Thule presented three chairs to support different stages of childbirth presented in a “sanctuary-like” environment. The Labour Silia allows women to climb and squat during labour, the Parturition Stool provides a space for a midwife or chosen partner to support the woman, and the Solace Chaise is an “inclusive space” for woman to recover following birth or any other pregnancy-related operation.

In the exhibition, a meditative soundtrack – recalling a baby’s experience in the womb – played and soft lighting fell on the pinks and purples of her birthing suite.


“You don’t get more daunting than cosmic”

A graphene face mask

The exhibition is the first of Tim Marlow’s tenure at the Design Museum. Last year it was announced that the museum’s co-directors would step down after over a decade and be replaced by Marlow, who had been artistic director of the Royal Academy of Arts since 2014.

At the exhibition’s launch, three weeks into his new job, Marlow said: “You don’t get more daunting, or opportunities, than the theme of cosmic. It’s the broadest possible brush.”

“Each of the designers have brought their individual rigour, imagination, sense of research and possibility,” he continued.

Marlow stressed how all four designers had been drawn toward London and also the collaborative nature of the projects – between the designers and academics, scientists and other creatives. “Design in its most successful form is collaboration,” he added.

Designers in Residence: Cosmic runs at the Design Museum until 10 May 2020.

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