A/D/O by MINI | Materials: Human Hair



Materials: Human Hair

Our investigation into new design materials comes closer to home, as we comb through projects that use human hair to create ropes, textiles and collectible objects.

Hair has always been used for creative expression. The A-Z of Hair, directed by Partel Oliva, shows some of the lush and varied ways we can decorate using our locks. Hair gets its structure from keratin, the same protein found in hooves, fingernails, whale baleen plates, and horns. Used for protection, warmth, and as a receptor, keratin is a non water soluble polymer similar in some ways to chitin, which gives shellfish their strong structure. It is once the hair become a byproduct of our appearance that the material becomes more complicated.

Designers like Sanne Visser are turning human hair into usable products.

A multi-million-dollar industry, human hair is already a highly valued resource with a thriving economy. But at the same time that there is a market for long hair that can be used in salons or for wigs, human hair is otherwise gathered up by the bagful at barbershops, swept up and sent to landfill, where it occupies space for centuries if not exposed to air (Egyptian mummies have been found with their hair still intact). Human hair is a strong fiber with applications beyond the beauty industry, yet while people are willing to wear the hair of another animal – in the form of wool, cashmere, or angora – utilizing our own somehow feels different or even taboo. 

There are a few past examples of resourceful applications using human hair, such as the story of building Kyoto’s Higashi Hongan-ji Temple. There was a shortage of rope strong enough to hoist the beams needed to build the 17th-century temple, so the female members of the temple banded together to cut off their hair and weave it into a rope. The long tenacious cord is still intact and on display at the temple.

Visser has woven hair into a strong rope that can carry heavy objects. Photos by Tom Mannion.

 Today, designer Sanne Visser similarly turns hair into woven nets, swing cables and ropes – showcasing the advantages of the fiber before an audience or user even knows what it is. She described people’s shock upon discovering the origins of the pieces to The Journal: “The material is still alien to us and not accepted as a normal function fibre,” though, she continued, “as soon as the audience notices the advantages and the beauty [...]; they have a lot more respect for the material.”

Over the course of her ongoing project The New Age of Trichology: Harnessing The Potential of Hair, Visser has seen a growing openness to use of waste material – especially amongst the younger generation, which has been raised into an awareness of ecological imbalance.

Visser's hair rope could be used as an alternative to synthetic rope and fishing nets.

Visser noted that unlike other natural fibers, hair doesn’t require any extra land, water, or energy to “grow”. But, like every other material, she stressed the requisite work of making sure the production process and afterlife of the material is safe, and that it can be recycled or decompose. Looking at the entire lifecycle, she insisted, is the responsibility of the designer.

Over the past year, Visser has been working on KNOT to create gear for the fishing industry. Through collaboration with marine biologists, fishermen, and trichologists (hair dermatologists), Visser sees a way for hair to be functional as a net that could replace some of the synthetic versions that litter the ocean. Hair is a durable material that takes a long time to biodegrade, but will eventually when exposed to the right conditions.

Zsofia Kollar weaves blonde tresses into textiles, as part of her research into hair rituals.

For her project Human Hair Transformation, designer Zsofia Kollar utilizes blonde tresses to create textiles. Kollar began her work with research into the rituals and traditions around hair, noting that it is so intertwined with culture and that despite its bounty, there is a stigma against viewing it as a material. While the complex relationships to hair vary, all pose limits on acceptable use.

“People often question the ethics of human materials, in my opinion, we became too arrogant thinking we own this planet and its resources that we cannot think of ourselves as materials,” Kollar told The Journal. This isn’t a new material, but a change in perspective. Stressing the harmless harvesting and low environmental impact of hair, Kollar is currently working on an industrial-scale version of her textiles. “I’m curious to see how the process will go and how much the industry is willing to adjust to develop such a material,” she said.

Studio Swine's Hair Highway project involved tracing the journey of sellable hair in China.

Having noticed a “Made in China” label on ponytails being sold in London, Studio Swine embarked on a journey to reveal the source. In their project Hair Highway, they explored investigated the material’s economic journey from source to production in Shanghai. A richly visual video follows their quest tracking hair from its initial cut in salons, to piles of thick ponytails being sold, and then weighed and resold at markets where men barter with cigarettes hanging from their lips. It is then taken by motorcycle to be processed in factories, sorted and woven into weave and wigs. At the end of this process, Studio Swine cast the hair fibers in resin to create textures that mimicked tortoise shell or tropical wood. With these surfaces, they created a range of combs, mirrors, and boxes inspired by designs from the Qing Dynasty as a nod to the ancient Silk Road goods exchange route. 

While the pieces make use of what they describe as an “abundant and renewable alternative”, the project also uncovers the economy of hair that is otherwise obscured. In most material chains, from cell phones to mass-produced t-shirts, Studio Swine acknowledges how people are exploited for cheap labor or put in dangerous conditions for the sake of profit. The fact that hair comes from a human source makes the links between those value exchanges more direct. This project also began a chain of research investigations that chart the origins and properties of materials.

Studio Swine then cast hair in resin to create sets of patterned collectible objects.

“Atypical materials change perceptions, we are really interested in the line between repulsion and desire and how fluidly perception can flow back and forth between these and how design and materials can affect that,” Studio Swine told The Journal. “We are interested in the future of resources, alternatives to over tapped or ecologically damaging materials are already out there, it's all a question of desire, sustainability without desire is not sustainable.” Creating desirable items out of waste materials is one way to fuel the change.

When hair gets wasted and sent to landfill, we are discarding a durable fiber with legitimate uses. Many of the new materials studies make obvious a need of a dramatic reframing of consumption patterns like this. As Studio Swine aptly put it: “Materials change the world, the exploration of the possibilities in the materials around us is the story of our civilization. You can't have a stone age without flint or an Industrial Revolution without the 'big three' – oil, iron, and rubber.” Are we ready to enter the waste age? Because in many ways we may not have a choice.

This article is part of a series exploring new materials in design, linked to the A/D/O 2019 curatorial theme Future Matter(s).

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.

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