“Designers in Residence” at Design Museum London: a thrifty brief prompts young designers to create exciting new materials

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Akin to MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program, which awards a young or fledgling architecture firm with modest funding to build a summer pavilion in the courtyard at PS1, Design Museum London’s Designers in Residenceprogram provides professional and financial support to young designers or design studios “in the often challenging years following graduation as they try to progress in their careers.” Now in its fifth year, the 2012 program chose four designers and asked them to respond to a brief entitled “Thrift,” and investigate the notion that “it is more difficult to produce a refined design for £10 than it is to produce the same design for £1,000,” a fact that may seem obvious, but it encouraged the designers to explore whether “the limitations of economy require more resourceful, inspired and intelligent use of materials and processes.” The four resulting projects and the designers’ commitment to seeking out underutilized materials that are either extremely cheap or free and pushing them to their limits resulted in one of the most fascinating exhibitions we’ve seen all year. Each project is presented in its various stages so that you can see the work in process alongside the finished product. Each display is accompanied by a short, beautifully shot documentary by Alice Masters on each designer and their project for the Residence.

Freyja Sewell, who graduated from Brighton University in 3D Design in 2011, decided to work with wool for its naturally renewable, durable, biodegradable, flame retardant and insulating properties. Taking thriftiness into account, she sourced a wool by-product of the British carpet manufacturing industry available in mass quantities for next to nothing. To make something from the mixed bag of wool fibers and random bits of thread, Sewell tried wet felting, an ancient technique in which the wool is soaked in hot water and agitated until the fibers are worked together into a single piece.

After adding lots of potato starch, Sewell experimented with the thick, gloppy mass by heating fistfuls of it in a sandwich press. The result was a rigid material she named SBW, or Starch Bound Wool, which can be molded into any shape using heat and pressure. So far she’s made a variety of structures, from thin-walled, hollow pieces to the strong, light boards used in the table on display at the museum. No matter what shape SBW is pressed into, it’s 100% recyclable. “Right now there is nothing in it but starch and wool so it would rot completely,” Sewell said.

Though Sewell’s residency is complete, her research on SBW has only just begun. She’s experimented with injection molding different forms and painting the surface, though we rather like the unfinished look of the raw fibers. She’s also looking into ways to incorporate more British materials. The wool already comes from native sheep bred in the UK “that produce a particularly durable, coarse fiber; perfect for use where strength is needed,” but she’s currently buying the starch from America because it’s so much cheaper. Still, she chose potato starch for its potential to be made in the UK in the future in a way that’s more economical, making this one of the most exciting, new 100% recyclable and (potentially) 100% British product on view during London Design Festival.

This article was originally published on Core77.