Coal: In all likelihood, that word conjures an image of the black, dirty fossil fuel that has contributed to global environmental destruction. What would coal look like if it were used as a high-end material–like marble?
That’s the premise of a new project on display at the London Design Biennale by the artist and designer Jesper Eriksson. The exhibition, called Coal: Post Fuel, transforms the fossil fuel into shiny tiles, which he used to create tables and benches. “If you didn’t know it was coal, you’d think it’s just bathroom tiles,” Eriksson says. “The idea is for people to be able to accept it and relate to it within our material culture.”
Eriksson began to think about coal and its potential as a material within design back in 2015, when the last deep coal mine shuttered in the U.K. and the government announced its aim to stop burning coal as a source of energy by 2025. “I find the material fascinating because it’s so contradictory,” Eriksson says. “It’s enabled so much technological progress, but at the same time it’s harmed the environment.”
To create the series, Eriksson visited a few mines before finally settling on one in Wales, where the coal produced is a form called anthracite. Anthracite is between 90% to 95% carbon, which makes it harder and thus easier to work with than other forms of coal.
But it’s also prettier: Anthracite stains less and is easier to polish, enabling Eriksson to change its appearance from a matte black to a shiny black. He says that coal also has some properties that could make it desirable in an interior design–he describes it as “almost between wood and stone” because of its texture and how it holds warmth.
Figuring out how to work with the coal was the biggest challenge of the project: Eriksson brought on a geologist from the British Geological Survey to help. He describes loading pieces of coal into the back of his car before driving to a nearby quarry to experiment with it. His first attempt to cut the material instantly dulled the metal hacksaw he was using; to create the final pieces for Post Fuel, Eriksson had to use a diamond-edged blade.
Eriksson hopes to highlight the unconscious way we place value on certain materials over others–what he calls “the social relations between us and materials.” After all, coal eventually becomes diamond. Post Fuel points to the tension between what we perceive as luxurious or beautiful and the reality: that marble and coal are both ultimately elements that have been mined from the earth.
“The grand ambition… is to completely change the perception we have of coal from a dirty fossil fuel that’s harmful for the environment, that’s cheap, to something of high value and aesthetic,” Eriksson says. “After all, it’s we who have decided as a society that coal is a fuel and we should burn it.”