Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg started her career as an architect, before going on to study on the revolutionary – and, sadly now defunct – Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London. While there, she became fascinated by synthetic biology and set about finding a place for design within this emerging field – bringing together scientists and designers to collaborate on a variety of projects.
More recently, she’s turned her attention to the relationship between technology and nature, producing a string of installations that aim to illustrate what we have, and what we’re in danger of losing, through our own intransigence and our obsession with the ‘new’.
So she has used artificial intelligence to re-create the birds song of the dawn chorus, investigated how Mars could be colonised by plants, and designed a digital version of the now-extinct Northern White Rhino.
Her most recent work has just opened at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Pollinator Pathmaker is a 55m long piece (funded by Garfield Weston Foundation, with additional founding supporters Gaia Art Foundation and collaborators Google Arts & Culture) that has been made quite deliberately for insects using an algorithm designed by a string theory physicist.
In this episode we talk about: her new piece at the Eden Project; working alongside a beekeeper and a string theory physicist; the relationship between pollen and data; coding empathy; dropping out of architecture; stepping into synthetic biology; why she was once dubbed ‘poo girl’; our obsession with ‘better’; colonising Mars and making a digital rhino; the importance of challenging technology.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/materialmatters?fan_landing=true)
Robert Penn describes himself as a journalist, woodsman and lifelong cyclist, who has written some of the best craft-based books of recent years, including It’s All About the Bike, where he travelled the globe finding the best components with which to build his dream bicycle, and The Man Who Made things out of Trees, which told the tale of what he did with an ash tree that he felled in some nearby woods.
The titles tell a personal story, which Penn deftly combines with a broader history and, sometimes, a bit of science. But, really, they are all about the importance of making.
His latest is no different. A little like Ronseal, Slow Rise: A Bread Making Adventure, does exactly what it says on the tin. It has been described by writer, Jenny Linford, as ‘a wide-ranging, gloriously obsessive odyssey’.
Robert lives in the Black Mountains with his wife, three children, two spaniels, 12 bicycles and a collection of axes. He bakes his own bread in a wood-fired oven.
In this episode we talk about: writing a book devoted to bread; his fascination with the ordinary things that surround us; how a three-year, around-the-world cycling trip piqued his interest in baking; the relationship between bread and power; ploughing his own field with a horse; searching the globe for the right wheat seeds; seeking divine intervention; our obsession with white bread; and how industrial farming took such a wrong turn.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/materialmatters?fan_landing=true)
Carmen Hijosa is the creator of Pinatex, a new, non-woven textile made from pineapple leaves.
After finishing a PhD in textiles at the Royal College of Art, she founded her company, Ananas Anam. And subsequently, the new material has been specified by brands such as Hugo Boss, Chanel, and Mango for bags, shoes and clothes. It has even been used for a vegan hotel suite at the Hilton Hotel Bankside.
Meanwhile, Pinatex production offers additional income to more than 700 families from farming communities and cooperatives in the Philippines, where the pineapple leaves are collected.
None too surprisingly, she has won a slew of awards, including the Arts Foundation Material Innovation Prize and the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award.
In this episode we talk about: what Pinatex is and how it’s made; why she came up with the idea to create a non-woven textile from pineapple leaves; her background in the leather industry; the trip to the Philippines that changed her life; growing up in Spain and being a rebel at school; issues around the material’s end of life; starting her new foundation for children; and why the material brings out the best in people.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/materialmatters?fan_landing=true)
Amin Taha has been described as ‘London’s most controversial architect’. This is largely due to 15 Clerkenwell Close, a development that is defined by a single material, stone.
The building (which houses his collective practice, Groupwork, and where he also happens to live) was shortlisted for this year’s Stirling Prize, the UK’s most prestigious architecture award, despite that fact it was finished in 2017.
And it’s fair to say the nomination came as a surprise. This wasn’t simply to do with the timing, nor the building itself – which is a smart, witty, and, it transpires, sustainable piece of work that subtly references the area’s history. But rather because, three years ago, it was issued with a demolition order by Islington Council for non-conformity with the submitted plans .
Happily, Taha won his appeal and has taken the thinking behind the building – which uses limestone as a structural frame, rather than as a facade for steel and concrete – to investigate how we might build carbon negative towers in the future.
As architecture writer, Tim Abrahams, has pointed out what sets Taha’s practice apart is his ‘fundamental rejection of style as an orientating device in favour of structure’. In other words, this is an architect for whom materials really matter.
In this episode we talk about: the controversy around 15 Clerkenwell Close; being shortlisted for the Stirling Prize; learning to build in stone; why it’s a sustainable material; the nation’s planning system; beauty; being born behind the Iron Curtain; growing up in Southend-on-Sea; studying under Isi Metzstein and working for Zaha Hadid; designing 30-storey stone towers; and how the construction industry could become carbon negative.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/materialmatters?fan_landing=true)
Did you know that, for years, paper was made from rags rather than wood pulp? No, me neither.
Mark Cropper is chair of the extraordinary paper manufacturer, James Cropper PLC. And it’s fair to say that the material has dominated the life of his family for over 175 years. The company has been based in the picturesque village of Burneside, near Kendal in the Lake District since 1845 and Mark is, rather remarkably, the sixth generation to run a firm that currently employs around 600 people.
He also has unique insight into the company having written its official history, entitled The Leaves We Write On, in 2004. James Cropper has long specialised in making coloured paper but, in more recent years, it has also branched out with a division devoted to technical fibres – think carbon fibre paper – as well as Colourform, a new packaging solution which the company hopes will replace single-use plastic. It has also developed a process to recycle used coffee cups into paper.
Not only that but Mark has also launched the Paper Foundation, on a site a stone’s throw away from the main factory, where he is creating paper the traditional way, by hand, using over 700 moulds that he has tirelessly collected.
In this episode we chat about: the history of making at Burneside; why the railway revolutionised the company; weathering economic storms; coping with COVID; how the company started making paper from rags (rather than wood pulp); creating carbon fibre paper; the importance of looking after the material’s heritage and making paper by hand again; and attempting to unite the local community through paper.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/materialmatters?fan_landing=true)
Claire Wilcox is best known for her work as senior curator of fashion at the V&A, where she has staged shows such as Radical Fashion, Vivienne Westwood, The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-57, and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, as well as launching the groundbreaking, Fashion in Motion in 1999.
She is also professor in fashion curation at the London College of Fashion and is on the editorial board of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture.
More recently though, she has written a genuinely original – and I’m delighted to write, now, award-winning – memoir about her life, work, family, and her relationship with clothes. Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes is funny, unself-conscious, thought-provoking and elegiac in roughly equal measures. It is an extraordinary piece of work.
In this episode we talk about: the importance of clothes; how garments store memory; why she decided to write Patch Work; what the book reveals about her relationships with her parents, friends, and family; her fascination with buttons; dealing with the death of a child; why she feels at home in the V&A; creating Fashion in Motion; refusing to name (fashion) names; ricocheting between uncertainty and doubt; oh, and getting fired from a sex shop.
Piet Hein Eek is a world renowned Dutch designer, who made his name when he graduated from the Academy for Industrial Design Eindhoven in 1990 with a cupboard made from scraps of wood he found in a lumber yard.
He set up his own practice three years later creating furniture that, in his words, was designed from ‘available possibilities’, with pieces using waste from other processes and, sometimes, waste from that waste. Products are created around the materials the practice has in stock – whether that be a vast number of huge wooden beams or metal pipes – and the machines it possesses.
Craft is vitally important to everything he’s produced. And production is at the heart of his enormous studio in Eindhoven that also includes a shop, restaurant, an art gallery, and, in the very near future, a hotel.
During his career, the designer has also branched out into architecture, starting by creating extraordinary garden outhouses and expanding into pieces of urban planning, as well as collaborating with brands such as LEFF and IKEA.
I caught him just as he was preparing to exhibit at the Salone in Milan, arguably the world’s most important design festival.
In this episode we talk about: being a bit of a rebel; the studio’s new boutique hotel; his fascination with ruins and how that feeds into his practice; the story behind his iconic Scrap Wood series; his love of Eindhoven; why making is vital to his studio; splitting up with his long term business partner, Nob Ruijrok; embracing failure; and collaborating with the behemoth that is IKEA. It's fascinating stuff.
My thanks go to the American Hardwood Export Council (or AHEC) for sponsoring this episode. To find out more about its new project at London’s Design Museum, Discovered, go to: https://discovered.global
Emma Witter is an emerging artist who has forged a reputation with her delicate sculptures that often resemble flowers but are created, rather intriguingly, from animal bone, such as oxtail and chicken feet. Her pieces straddle our sense of beauty and the macabre. As she told one writer: ‘I am fascinated with the diversity of death and burial rituals across the world… In the floral motifs, I do like the balance of representation of life and death, fragility and strength.’
Emma graduated in performance design and practice from Central Saint Martins in 2012 and has subsequently won a fistful of awards and column inches. In 2019, she had a solo show at London’s Sarabande, the Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation, entitled Remember You Must Die, while her work has been exhibited with galleries such as the Mayfair-based FUMI and Ting-Ying, as well as at the recent group show, Triggered Economics or How to Commit to the Inevitable on an empty floor of an office building on Bruton Street.
In this episode we discuss: working with animal bone; the response her work receives from its audience; finding use for London’s empty spaces; why she doesn’t draw; being expelled from her primary school; discovering she has ADHD and dyspraxia; making in a ‘blissful’ state; her fascination with beauty; oh, and working with a certain Kylie Minogue.
Chris Day is an emerging artist with a fascinating hinterland. The glassblower was a plumber and heating engineer in the Midlands for two decades before deciding to change his life.
Since graduating from Wolverhampton University in 2019, his rise has been startling. That same year, he received a special commendation at the British Glass Biennale, which was followed by a solo show at Vessel Gallery in London’s Notting Hill.
And at the moment he has an extraordinary, and genuinely moving, installation at All Saint’s Church at Harewood House, just outside Leeds. This is glasswork like you’ve never seen before. Day employs materials he used in his previous career, such as copper piping and wire. His pieces tackle the black experience in both Britain and the US, based around his own mixed race heritage – often focussing on the history of the slave trade in the eighteenth century, as well as events leading up to the American civil rights movement.
The artist says that his main purpose is to ‘engage the audience on issues that are hard to confront on many levels, using art to help overcome some of the traumas that haunt our collective past.’
His work is already held in a number of private collections, as well as the V&A, the National Museum of Scotland and The Chrysler Museum in the US.
In this episode we talk about: his new installation at Harewood House; how he discovered glass; growing up mixed race in Derby during the ’70s; why his pieces are concerned with slavery and the black experience; dyslexia as a super-power; becoming a successful engineer; and his urge to be seen as a role model for emerging black glass blowers.
My thanks go to leading glass specialist, Vessel Gallery, for sponsoring this episode. To find out more about them go to: www.vesselgallery.com
My final guest of the latest series is Emily Johnson, co-founder of the Stoke-on-Trent-based, ceramics company 1882 Ltd. Clay is part of the former TV executive’s DNA. She is the fifth generation of Johnson to work in the industry, with her father and business partner, Chris, spending over 30 years as a production director of Wedgwood, after it bought the family firm in 1964. Since launching a decade ago, 1882 Ltd has worked with an eclectic roster of designers including: Max Lamb, Faye Toogood, former Material Matters guest Barnaby Barford, architect John Pawson and fashion designer Paul Smith. According to the company’s own official blurb, at its core is a combination of ‘progressive design and industrial craftsmanship’. So why did she decide to leave television and return to clay? And what’s it like to launch a new manufacturing company in Stoke-on-Trent in the 21st century?In this episode we talk about: making through the pandemic; opening a brand new production unit (or factory) at Wedgwood; why she initially eschewed clay for TV advertising in the US; the pain of watching Johnson Brothers wither; launching 1882 Ltd; keeping craft skills alive in Stoke-on-Trent; the social and economic issues the city faces; working with her father and why a piece by Barnaby Barford changed their relationship; Brexit; and the joy of the common language of clay.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/materialmatters?fan_landing=true)
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