A cookbook with a difference: how to make biomaterials at home

The new CHEMARTS Cookbook from designers and scientists at Aalto University offers readers experiments to create and work with plant-based materials.

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown has forced many to get creative with the time they spend at home. Some have turned their hand to DIY, others baking or binge-watching – but a new recipe book from Aalto University in Finland is encouraging people to take up an entirely different hobby.

The Chemarts Cookbook, the product of an almost decade-long collaboration between the university’s School of Chemical Engineering and School of Arts, Design and Architecture is no ordinary collection of recipes – it offers readers a selection of science experiments to play with and create plant- and wood-based biomaterials.

Across four sections, the book takes readers through the necessary processes for creating biomaterials. Beginning with the basics of wood-based material research, readers are then given lessons in the tools, ingredients and methods required to safely conduct the experiments (while some are recommended for the home, others require more special equipment and are not).

From there, the experiments are split across different themes including: hard, soft, flexible, transparent and printed materials, as well as papermaking and fibre making. There is a further section on “growing” materials.

Recipe 9: Pulp foams

“The current way of using materials is unbearable”

Behind the book is the hope that a greater understanding of where materials come from will lead more people to rethink their own material usage. As the book’s editor Pirjo Kääriäinen tells Design Week: “The current way of using materials is unbearable.”

She goes on: “To be able to make a change, people need to understand where the materials come from and how they could be used in the emerging circular economy.”

Kääriäinen’s own induction into being a “material enthusiast” began with her childhood in the Finnish countryside and was further supported by her later career as a textile designer. Both aspects of her life, she says, gave her an awareness of the “meaning and importance of materials”.

“The world might become digitalised, but our need for materials will not disappear; they will nurture us, cover us, comfort us, delight us and keep us alive,” she says.

Recipe 4: Common reed panels

“Collaboration is crucial to change our material world”

There are more than 25 recipes in total, with each having been developed by the cross-departmental team and students of the three-month long CHEMARTS summer school programme.

The summer school programme has run since 2015, and reflects the growing number of designers interested in the search for alternative materials, according to Kääriäinen.

“Many designers are becoming engaged in innovative material research and development processes,” she says. While some experiments require more specialist equipment or ingredients, she adds that she hopes the overall effect of the book is to inspire not just designers, but scientists and engineers too. “Collaboration is crucial to change our material world.”

When asked what her favourite experiment featured in the book was, Kääriäinen explained she “loved them all”, but that right now, she is “personally exploring” Recipe 25 (Bast Fibres from Willow Bark) in lockdown. And when the team return to the lab, she says she looks forward to taking up nanocellulose painting (as explained in Recipe 23).

Recipe 25: Bast Fibres from Willow Bark

Design Week’s pick of biomaterial recipes for the home:

Recipe 4: Common Reed Panels (developed by Päivi Lehtinen in 2017) – common reeds, usually found growing along waterfronts, have traditionally been used for crafting roofs and carpets. This experiment shows readers how to essentially glue reads together to form sturdy panels.

Recipe 9: Pulp Foams (developed by the Chemarts team in 2017) – according to the Chemarts team, foaming is a way to add air to a material, thereby making it both bulkier and softer. This recipe uses just three ingredients: pulp, water and washing up liquid.

Recipe 21: Dyes from Nature (developed by Aleksandra Hellberg and Jenny Hytönen in 2019) – This recipe looks to explore the varying colours that different plants can be used for, and requires two steps: a pre-treatment stage and a dyeing stage.

Recipe 25: Bast Fibres from Willow Bark (developed by Tapani Vuorinen and Jinze Dou in 2017) – willow bark naturally peels easily, especially in late spring, according to the team. Following this process will produce long fibres for readers to use for crafting.

Recipe 26: Paper Making (developed by the Chemarts team in 2016) – This recipe requires no chemicals and requires just pulp, water and any natural materials readers want to add in. The recipe requires mould and deckle frames, or else the team suggest buying a papermaking set from a craft store or trying to make the frames yourself.

The Chemarts Cookbook is now available for purchase and download from the Aalto University Shop.

Recipe 17: Wooden transparency
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