A/D/O by MINI | Ephemeral Objects



Ephemeral Objects

In an era of excessive waste, designers are inventing materials and products that can vanish without a trace after their useful lifespan is over.

Nir Meiri uses mushroom mycelium to create the shades for these lamps

Whether an object becomes defunct, degrades, or decomposes, in an era of extreme quantities of material waste, planning its death has become an obsessive force of innovation. At one extreme are single-use plastics, which average two minutes of convenient service and infinite years of negative impact on the planet. At the other extreme are objects like algae cups, made to degrade and, if properly placed, can feed back into natural cycles. When considering the material legacy of an object, is the goal for it to disappear after its window of use? 

As evidenced by the new materials being developed to disappear, impermanence does not degrade the value of an object, but actually increases it. Object lifecycle has come to be synonymous with values attributed to the manufacturer, designer and the consumer. Two popular methodologies: modularity (meaning an object can be disassembled easily and repaired) and circularity (which considers the entire lifecycle of an object) are predicated on the notion that an object at its optimum should not generate waste. In the current design paradigm, disposability is understood as a failing while being regenerative, biodegradable, or reusable is considered a success. Ephemeral objects, those that leave no trace, are the ones that many designers are striving to create. 

Nikolas Bentel built this igloo from triangular sheets of ice, which would melt away after use

Marta Giralt, a tutor in the Material Futures program at Central Saint Martins in London, describes how they now prepare students to consider this circularity by examining the source, method of processing and the biological cycle of a material. “It’s a flaw that we’re designing materials which A) cannot be disposed of and B) are unable to decompose or be reused in another cycle,” she told The Journal. “If we look at nature, all its materials serve a purpose, and once they end their initial purpose they are transformed/decomposed into another form.” 

In that vein, Giralt’s students have taken on issues of pollution, waste, fossil fuels, and finite resources, often generating concepts that outpace industry. One student, Elissa Brunato, developed a Bio Iridescent Sequin, made of a processed wood as an alternative to the typical petroleum-based paillettes used in fashion. Another of her students, Mi Zhou, tackled packaging through developing a glowing set of toiletry containers from soap, meant to be used up after the contents are finished. Both of these require fewer resources to produce and less time to decompose than their conventional counterparts. When designing for circularity, almost every object must be reinvented.  

In her project Circular Species, designer Fernanda Dobal created a toy to introduce 8-11 year olds to the carbon cycle and biodegradation. The toy, a wooly mammoth, is designed to be buried in soil and once its exterior biodegrades, students can excavate the bones alongside a digital learning tool. Dobal explained that the lessons imparted should outlive the object. In a plastic-dominated industry, this is a radical concept. While Dobal sees biodegradable products serving an important role in decreasing waste, many objects labeled biodegradable cannot be composted and require specific circumstances to break down. “There is a tension between finding materials that will simply allow us to keep consuming short-lived products and knowing we need to change our way of consuming (and, more uncomfortably, our way of living),” she said. Circular Species playfully introduces children to concepts of materiality that they will ideally incorporate into their adult lives. 

Colorful corn husks become veneers for these products by Fernando Laposse

Similarly, industrial designer Nikolas Bentel has an inquisitive and upbeat approach that invites a wider audience to examine pressing material issues. In one project, he built a geodesic dome out of ice that would last only as long as he needed it as shelter. While his work is lighthearted in tone, it is a poignant inquiry of permanence. The now-melted design remains only as digital images and lives on as an inspiration. “I hope the ideas of my work continue on for as long as they are useful to the next generation,” he said. “And if the ideas are no longer useful, I hope they also disappear It is unfair to take up space on our planet with limited resources for future generations and ideas.

Many of the ephemeral materials being used today are engineered to decompose, but designer Fernando Laposse uses familiar plants almost as they are. In one project he drew attention to biodiversity loss of native Mexican corn by turning the vibrantly colored fiber husks into a luminous veneer for furniture. For another, he used agave leaves to create a shaggy bench. Through creating elegant objects using materials with minimal impact, he exemplifies the ways this work could integrate into ones home. “I am very concerned about the afterlife of the pieces” Laposse said, adding that he uses a reversible glue so that the corn can be composted. There is an appetite for materials like Laposse’s husk veneers, perhaps because the concept of impermanence turns an object into a fleeting and unique occurrence. 

Laposse employs a reversible glue for his veneers, so the husks can eventually be composted

While designer Nir Meiri also uses conventional materials, he has found an enthusiasm for the elegant lamps that his studio makes out of mycelium. One of the most popular ephemeral materials today, mycelium is the vegetative body of fungi (the white part below a mushroom stem). It has been heralded for its ability to be cast, grown, formed, and then eventually decompose, and has been used as a building material for objects ranging from bricks to entire buildings. “Nothing is made to last forever but I do try to create products that will grow old throughout time, natural materials will eventually decompose, like us, but I hope our products will age gracefully and end their life leaving behind a less polluted planet,” Meiri said. Like many of the other designers using temporal materials, he is not concerned about a physical legacy, and affirms that his work may live on digitally: “The internet never forgets.” A dense digital record is a certain artifact of this growing school of designers.

The increasing variety of materials that can safely break down and re-enter natural cycles reflects an earnest desire to lessen human impact on the earth. It is evident that the majority of these new ephemeral materials and their applications are huge improvements on the status quo, and familiarize consumers to the concept of participating within a circular economy. However, under the pretext of “earth friendly,” many “alternatives” enable a high rate of consumption and a culture of disposability to continue. There is still a huge amount of energy, resources, and effort that goes into creating any disposable object at a large scale, whether it is single-use or compostable. By only focussing on the materials and not on the system, we overlook the immense waste of energy required to satiate desire for convenience, speed, and constant consumption. The challenge is not only how to make an object vanish without a trace when it is no longer useful, but how to limit the production of objects in the first place. 

Laposse is one of a growing number of designers concerned with the "afterlife" of their pieces

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.

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