Man-made and natural materials have been slogging it out for design supremacy since Bakelite was developed 100 years ago. But a host of new materials on the market today means the boundaries between the two groups are becoming increasingly blurred, and the benefits and drawbacks of each less clear. It’s now possible to source man-made materials that echo the aesthetics of natural fibres but retain the properties of plastics, and natural materials are being used to create bio-plastics. Designers looking to stretch their boundaries have more choice than ever.
For those who prefer going au naturel, there are still new materials to choose from. Decored’s range of wall tiles and wall panels inlaid with shells recently launched in the UK. Manufactured in the Philippines, each shell piece is inlaid on to a ceramic, resin mesh or glassfibre backing and hand-polished to bring out its iridescence and unique patterns. At £1200 per m2 for the top-end South Sea range (of which only 45m2 are produced each month), this is pure luxury – the product was chosen by Philippe Starck when he designed a super yacht for a Middle Eastern prince – and an extremely beautiful, if not highly sustainable, material.
Bamboo is another material coming into its own in furniture design. Often thought of as a tree or bush, it is actually a fast-growing grass, making it a very renewable natural resource. Artek is one company experimenting with it (see case study on page 26) and creative director Tom Dixon says the brand remains committed to working with natural materials. ‘Artek softened the hard lines of Modernism by using natural materials like wood, and it’s my view the brand should continue to be involved in innovations around natural materials,’ he says.
Swedish manufacturer Kinnarps recently adopted 100 per cent recycled paper as a structural material for the desktops of its new office furniture range, Deciso. The paper substrate is formed as a unique honeycomb cellular structure, which takes the place of traditional chipboard, and can be enclosed within elegant veneer boards. The result is lightweight yet robust.
Beyond simple natural materials there is also growth in starch-based plastics and cladding. Wellboard is one such product. A wavy, flexible material moulded from cellulose, it is hot-pressed to form corrugated boards without the use of adhesives. It can be handled like wood and coloured using varnishes and other finishes.
Zelfo, produced by an Australian company, is a solid wood-like and mouldable material made from natural fibres, recycled paper or cellulose raw materials such as hemp, flax and sugar cane. The fibres are mixed with water and other natural additives, without the use of resins or glues, before being sprayed or pressed into a form or mould. The material may be finished, screwed and treated as hardwood and, according to the manufacturer, its ‘strength has been shown to be superior to many other types of plastics and wood’.
But much of the technology around starch-based plastics is still in its infancy and some designers feel it is not yet suitable for the industrial processes required for furniture or interiors projects. ‘At the moment, starch-based plastics can really only be used for bespoke processes,’ says Blue Marmalade technical director Trent Jennings, ‘and that has implications for reliability, quality and quantity of manufacture.’
Blue Marmalade is an Edinburgh-based product and furniture design consultancy that is committed to eco-friendly design. As it was established by two cabinet-makers, Jennings and Tom Marsh, you’d expect the group to be a firm advocate of natural materials like wood, but all its products are manufactured from man-made materials, primarily polypropylene, a traditional plastic.
‘Our research showed that polypropylene is the lowest energy-using product,’ says Jennings. ‘More than 90 per cent of commercially available wood comes from overseas. When you consider the energy and resources used to transport that to the UK, the energy needed to kiln fire and season wood and then the machines that convert it to a useable material, you realise it is a highly inefficient material.’
In contrast, the group’s plastics are created in the UK as a by-product from the oil and gas industry and, says Jennings, take just four minutes of electricity to convert into a finished product. Post use, products are 100 per cent recyclable because there are no screws, varnishes or glues involved. Used wisely then, it seems man-made materials may now have the edge in ecological terms.
In high-use commercial areas, the durability of plastics has always been an additional benefit and man-made materials are now fighting back on the aesthetics front too. Vinyl flooring company Bolon’s range of woven flooring includes a selection of products designed to resemble natural materials like coconut and sisal. Available in tiles or sheets, it is more durable than natural material, but has the same sought-after feel and sound-absorption properties. Light also plays off its woven structure, radiating a warm, natural ambience.
Chrystina Schmidt of furniture company Skandium chose Bolon for the retailer’s new store, which opens in London’s Brompton Road in September. Schmidt has decided to move away from wooden floors because ‘the maintenance cost is prohibitive’, she says. ‘We wanted something long lasting and a [man-made] material is more able to maintain a high-quality appearance.’
Given this plethora of options, many designers are choosing to work with a cross-pollination of materials and processes. Furniture design group Fredrikson Stallard unveiled its latest range in May, a collection created from a mix of materials and processes, including chairs made from urethane with liquid-like wraps of polished stainless steel. Dixon has experimented with layering a micro-thin skin of chrome on to wood surfaces, and his latest product, the CU29 chair, which launched in New York in May, is a polystyrene chair that has been ‘pickled to grow a skin of copper on it’.
‘I’m basically playing with the idea of growing furniture,’ says Dixon. ‘Each chair is slightly different because the copper skin grows in a crystalline fashion.’
Brazilian designers Fernando and Humberto Campana echo the theme with Transplastic, a project that sees the brothers ‘growing’ natural fibres on plastic (see case study below). ‘We don’t prefer natural over man-made materials, we prefer what surprises us more – the possibilities of inverting the material’s function, the chance to point out new uses,’ they say. It seems then that the way forward lies not in choosing either man-made or natural materials but in using a judicious mix of both and experimenting with processes to create something entirely new.
The Campana brothers
Long known for their inventive and challenging use of materials, Fernando and Humberto Campana have chosen to work with a mixture of natural and man-made materials for their latest range, Transplastic. The range is inspired by Brazilian terraces and outdoor cafés, which were historically furnished with wicker pieces,
but over time have substituted these with more practical and long-lasting plastic versions. The Campana brothers have chosen to play with this idea and revisit the tradition of wicker furniture in a hybrid way.
‘The Transplastic series tells a fictional story: in a world made of plastic and synthetic matter, a fertile ground is laid for transgenic creations,’ they say. ‘As natural fibres cover the plastic, nature grows from the plastic and overpowers it.’
All the pieces in the Transplastic range are handcrafted from a Brazilian fibre called Apuí. The fibres are removed manually, without any tools or processes that may harm the trees and the extraction of Apuí helps preserve the biodiversity of the forests as the plant suffocates and kills the trees on which it grows.
Starting with a base of plastic chairs and water containers, the Campanas added Apuí fibre extensions and used the flexible nature of the fibre to alter the original form. The result is a series of organic chairs and lamps alongside more whimsical creations such as illuminated meteors, clouds and islands. The series will be on show until 17 August at the Albion Gallery, London SW11.
Artek has been conducting materials-oriented research since its appointment of Tom Dixon as creative director in 2003, and the evidence of that work was on show at the Milan furniture fair in April this year. The company’s pavilion, designed by architect Shigeru Ban, was made of UPM ProFi, a wood/plastic composite made from scrap plastic and paper. Ban has been a trailblazer in experimenting with materials technologies, using products including paper, cardboard and bamboo as construction materials without losing his signature clean-lined and contemporary architectural aesthetic. With its elegant skeletal lines, the Artek pavilion bridged the gap between the man-made and natural, feeling simultaneously organic yet constructed.
The company also launched its Bambu furniture range in Milan, made from bamboo harvested from forests in South East Asia. Bamboo is a new material for the company and Dixon says he saw potential in using the product ‘beyond its traditional woven-flooring uses’.
‘In the past, bamboo has been a handcrafted rather than processed material but we investigated three or four materials that had the potential to be mass-produced as bentwood furniture, and bamboo was clearly superior in terms of its sustainability, strength, engineering and technical properties,’ he says.
• Albion Gallery, www.albion-gallery.com, 0207 801 2480
• Artek, www.artek.fi, +358 10 617 3460
• Bolon, www.bolon.com, +46 321 53 04 00
• Fernando and Humberto Campana, www.campanas.com.br
• DecoRed, www.decored.com, 07730 577 605
• Fredrikson Stallard, www.fredriksonstallard.com
• Material Lab, 020 7436 8629
• UPM, www.upm-kymmene.com, +358 204 15 111
• Wellboard, www.well.de, +49-511-92881-10
• Zelfo, www.zelfoaustralia.com