The experimental design studio Formafantasma has transformed volcanic lava into clocks, bowls, tables, stools, glasses, and textiles. And now, the Netherlands-based firm is launching a new collection of richly colored tiles that were glazed with volcanic ash taken from Mount Etna in Sicily.
The tiles, which were developed in collaboration with the material brand Dzek and were on display at Milan Design Week, are the result of years of experimentation. While Formafantasma had worked with volcanic materials before, in those cases the studio was creating bespoke collections rather than something that could scale. That was Dzek’s charge: to find a new way of using volcanic material and then create a process to manufacture it in small batches.
The project is part of a larger movement to use unconventional materials in architecture and design. Formafantasma has previously made furniture out of e-waste, and other companies have created chairs out of ocean plastic. At this year’s Milan Design Week, the Cairo-based design studio Reform showed fabric made of plastic bags that was woven on a traditional Egyptian loom. Many of these projects focus on recycled man-made materials, but incorporating volcanic ash into products is a way of using nature’s leftovers too.
Formafantasma’s work for Dzek didn’t start out as a glaze. First, the designers attempted to make bricks out of volcanic glass with the idea that it could be used as a building material. To that end, the company commissioned research from an established glass laboratory in Istanbul, which provided them with recommendations about how to proceed. But they quickly ran into problems, the biggest being that glassmakers were wary of working with them because the black glass that volcanic ash would create can easily contaminate a furnace and make its way into other glass projects. “With the glass we had to find a decommissioned furnace that was designated for destruction and use that for our trials because [glassmakers] wouldn’t use it in the standard production furnace,” says Brent Dzekciorius, the founder of Dzek.
At that point, the designers pivoted to painting ash-based glazes on terra-cotta bricks. They discovered that when you crank up the temperature of a kiln to 2,460 to 2,515 degrees Fahrenheit, their ash glazes would activate and create beautiful color textures. But the finished tiles, while lovely to look at, were very rough to the touch–which would work for an exterior building material but wouldn’t be ideal for tiling a bathroom or kitchen.
So they turned to glazing thinner tiles, but these quickly warped at the high temperatures. They mixed “fluxes,” which are special types of chemical additives that lower the firing temperature, into the ash–and finally began to see the finishes they were going for. Eventually, the designers landed on a series of five different glazes, called Ex-Cinere, each of which has a different percentage of ash. The lightest, which have a warm beige color, are composed of about 25% very finely ground ash, while the deepest browns are more than 80% coarse ash that is the consistency of sea salt.
According to Dzekciorius, none of the experimentation was about achieving particular colors. “In the back of our heads we’re thinking we want this to be somewhat referential to the landscape from which the raw material comes,” he says. “That’s the hope: that people will look at it and somehow recognize the volcano in there.”
Currently, the designers are working on streamlining the production process, which relies on significant manual labor, to bring the price of $45 dollars per foot of tile down. They’re aiming to start filling orders by this summer.