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Turning trash into treasure: London Design Biennale features gorgeous pieces made from waste

Designers responded to a catastrophic year with idealistic products for the future.

Turning trash into treasure: London Design Biennale features gorgeous pieces made from waste
[Photo: courtesy Jade Echard]
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The London Design Biennale is launching in the midst of a catastrophic year. Its main theme, Resonance, has artists grappling with issues like climate change, privacy, and technology, while its online exhibition asks artists to address these issues even more head-on.

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Design in an Age of Crisis: Radical Design Thinking is an online gallery of more than 500 submissions from artists around the world. The work responds to the many crises that COVID-19 has exacerbated, from healthcare and poverty to inequality and rapidly shifting labor needs.

It’s no question that the coronavirus pandemic has spurred designers to question existing systems and recalibrate how we live. As senior curator of the department of architecture & design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York Paola Antonelli told Fast Company last September, “Crises are like spark plugs for innovation.” One clear way that’s playing out in these submissions is a rethinking of source materials themselves, shifting away from harmful plastics and reusing or repurposing biodegradable, natural, even waste materials. Here are some of the most compelling concepts and projects we found.

Animal-free, planet-friendly leather

[Photos: Kajkao]
Kajkāo by Lakò is an Italian-Ecuadorian material research and design studio making biodegradable, compostable materials like plant-based leather, bioplastic, chipboard, and insulation out of waste from cocoa pods. According to the studio, just 50% of the cocoa pod is used to make chocolate, and the rest is discarded. But as they so clearly show, it doesn’t have to be. As of now, this is an ambitious proposition for a more sustainable future, but they’re actively looking for investors to help make it a reality, according to their website.

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Dystopian biomask

This conceptual mask by Millicent Sutton “is a notion to futuristic living on an uninhabitable Earth” due to climate change, but it has new immediacy as we live through the current global health pandemic that requires them. The mask features an algae printed cage with an algae bio-gel interior, which is meant to highlight how wasteful practices will make our world even more inhospitable in the years to come.

Accessories made from kombucha byproduct

[Photo: courtesy Riina Oun]
This is certainly a new way to get in on the kombucha trend. For her submission, Riina Õun made an entire accessories line. The designer turned leftover Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) into a paste, then added black pigment and spread it into thin layers to craft a new material that looks just like leather. The result is an array of black accessories with a decidedly punk feel.

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Waste seashells -> tableware

[Photo: courtesy Jade Echard]
Another example of green material innovation comes from Jade Echard. For her project, called Ostra, Echard uses oyster shells that restaurants typically shuck straight into the waist bin and grinds them down into a rough powder that she then uses to make gorgeous, minimalist tableware similar in look to ceramics.

Ceramic seating

Speaking of ceramics, Yi Yin’s project, called C x 5, similarly takes one production line’s trash and turns it into treasure. Yin focuses specifically on industrial ceramics waste, which he says can top 22 billion tons globally, nearly half of which comes from China. His work is a small step toward mitigating the excess. He takes unwanted byproducts that others dump and makes designs of his own, giving a mosaic twist to outdoor furniture that’s also water and fireproof.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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