A/D/O by MINI | Marlène Huissoud: The Bee’s Knees



Marlène Huissoud: The Bee’s Knees

French designer Marlène Huissoud works with and for the insect population, creating both collectible objects from their materials and habitats for them to thrive in urban areas.

A dark sticky antiseptic substance called propolis coats the wax surfaces and fills the cracks of beehives. This mixture of sap and pollen is processed by bees, using their saliva, into a weather-resistant resin. Heralded as an antibacterial, wound-healing miracle cure, propolis is often sold as a health product. But seeing the architectural potential of the material, “experimental” designer Marlène Huissoud began to create objects out of it.

The daughter of a beekeeper, Huissoud has always been acutely aware of the interdependence between humans and insects. As pollinators, composters, and food, insects are a critical piece of a thriving ecosystem that is often dismissed and challenged by humans. Through her ongoing insect-focussed creations, Huissoud has become an advocate of their value.

Marlène Huissoud uses materials created by insects, like propolis from bees, to create design items.

Originally viewing the insects as sort of “collaborators,” Huissoud began an investigation into the materials created by Indian silkworms and honey bees. Through using discarded cocoons and meticulously extracted propolis, she developed a durable, sculptural, and – due to the chemical composition of propolis – unusually sweet-smelling material.

As part of the Central Saint Martins Material Futures course, she created a series of amorphous, almost animate, objects and talismans – all in her now-signature jet black hue. In her piece Of Insects and Men she worked with propolis like a glue, while in From Insects she worked with a glass blower to treat propolis – which melts at 100˚F and hardens below 68˚F – like glass. Through exploring various treatments, Huissoud developed an elegant and evocative material study made without harming the insects.

The designer worked with a glass blower to shape propolis.

She describes her work as translating the experience of people looking at insects, and her pieces as seeming very alive. “[People] have this attraction to them as well as this fear,” Huissoud told The Journal. Each handmade item is a statement as well as a piece of art. Her 2017 design Cocoon Cabinet is a critique of the silk industry. “Within the silk industry, most of the Bombyx Mori are killed in order to extract the silk from the cocoon. What if we let the worm become a butterfly? How can we use this material differently and celebrate the morphosis of the insects?” she wrote.

As Huissoud exhibited her creations at design fairs internationally, she was approached by companies commissioning editions. But to make a mass-produced chair was not inline with the meticulous process she had developed – she makes about eight pieces a year from her Paris studio – nor inline with her values. A growing sentiment in parts of the design industry that she shared is: “the world does not need another chair.” Though after years of resisting pressure to create commercial furniture, she finally made a chair. The cheeky catch was that it was for insects. “I always try to provoke the establishment but in a cute way,” Huissoud said.

For Please Stand By, Huissoud created insect habitats shaped liked furniture pieces, exhibited during London Design Festival 2019. Photo by Bernardo Figueroa.

“All my work is about the notion of slowing down. Rethinking the way we produce, rethinking the way we make and thinking for whom I make,” the designer explained. In her case the “clients are insects.” In the past few years there have been numerous reports of insect decline, attributed to factors such as habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change. Citing one study that showed 40% of insect species are in decline, Huissoud began to create environments for the insects themselves.

Collaborating with scientists Robert Francis and Mak Brandon from King’s College London, Huissoud created Please Stand By, a set of objects – including the chair – that acted as a refuge, nest, and shelter for insects in the city. Commissioned by Jane Withers Studio for last year’s London Design Festival, the pieces were placed in the urban landscape of London. The white bubble-like structures are made through a layering of unbaked ceramic and wax to be attractive to insects, and durable yet ultimately biodegradable.

Huissoud's furniture for insects was hidden among greenery in South Kensington. Photos by Chloe Bell.

Huissoud acknowledges that insects are not the most charismatic creature and people are generally creeped out by them. Through her work she aims to give insects a voice and to create opportunities for education. During the 2019 London Design Festival, Huissoud also made a beehive for the Science Museum. Beehave is an organic wooden hive coated in propolis resin, designed to counter the ubiquitous linear panel system used by industrial bee keepers for easy honey harvest. Placed in the setting of the museum, it is an unusually handmade looking item; a tool for curiosity and for learning.

These pieces are designed to present the circumstances and to educate a multigenerational public through provoking conversations around ecological change. “I have a fear of people being afraid of the situation,” Huissoud said, worried that all the alarming information makes people defeatist or depressed. She hopes to “make people think about what we want to become, how do we want to behave with this ecological crisis and how we can all come together.” As Huissoud dreams about the future, she sees herself starting a school, one that has an interdisciplinary curriculum and touches on issues of ecology.

The Beehave project involved the creation of an organically shaped beehive for London's Science Museum. Photo by Petr Krejci.

She recently bought a farm outside of Paris to transform into her studio and a residence. Eventually she plans to expand this site into a place to host gatherings and share knowledge within her community of scientists, artists, and farmers. She described the vision of this space as “a cocoon to bring people together to think of ideas and share experiences.” For Huissoud it is not all about design and art, and in her next phase of work she is interested in broadening the audience and participants.

Last summer Huissoud had the opportunity to scale up her work at Domaine de Boisbuchet, a workshop retreat in the French countryside, where she led a program called Slow Down Please. Oriented around the ecological crisis, she asked the participants to reflect on what the world really needs right now and to make something for the earth. Together they utilized clay, bamboo, and other natural materials to construct a large sculptural cocoon. Since then, Huissoud has been interested in how her work could become larger and more architectural, and would like to design a facade of a building. An insect hotel. It would be a vision of how multiple species can coexist.

Photo by Neige Auguste Celeste.
Huissoud led a program called Slown Down Pleae at the Domaine de Boisbuchet workshop retreat.

As images of animals returning to cities have disseminated over the past few weeks, there has been an exuberant enthusiasm for watching nature “reclaim.” Though many of the images are fake or misleading, they do reveal a public curiosity and a legitimate longing to be closer to nature. In spaces designed for and by humans, is there room for interspecies cohabitation? Huissoud thinks so, taking this moment as a chance to slow down and rethink. “We can’t continue like before, adaptations and changes need to happen.”

Marlene Huissoud. Portrait by Trent McMinn for Crafts Magazine.
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