A/D/O by MINI | Materials Ma-tt-er

Materials Ma-tt-er

Seetal Solanki of London studio Ma-tt-er reimagines materials to improve their sustainability.

We go through our days interacting with a plethora of materials, from the walls of our homes, the sheets on our beds, to the bristles of our toothbrushes. Our experience with the material world around us is generally devoid of context; most objects show no trace of their production, the supply chains which transported them, or the waste that they will generate. For example, it takes over 7,000 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, and at least 25% of an animal hide goes to waste when creating leather accessories. Other types of waste such as corn husks, mussel shells and sawdust are rarely seen as having the potential to produce new value and recent reports on typically recycled plastics show that they are entering landfill.

In an exponentially growing world, where the futures of food, living, dressing and traveling are being reimagined, the thread to maintaining a healthy planet is to redefine our daily consumption cycles and to question the circularity of everything that we touch and see. Through reimagining and redefining the materials that we consume and that we waste, Seetal Solanki and her London-based practice Ma-tt-er are highlighting their relevance and potential in society.

Seetal Solanki graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2007, where she completed a Masters in Material Futures. After her graduation, Solanki developed her creative practice working with companies like Nissan as a color material designer and Alexander McQueen as head of the textile print department, roles which enabled her to deeply explore the characteristics of textile, as well as its future possibilities. “That’s always been my question,” she told The Journal. “What is the past, present and future of textiles and materials?”

When Solanki founded Ma-tt-er in 2015, she wanted to create a home and a place where she and other textile and material designers could belong and feel represented. “There’s a real platform for fashion, for photography, illustrators and graphic designers, but not necessarily for us guys, when we’re really a cog in the wheel that makes all of this turn,” she said. Working with clients like Nike, L’Oréal, the Design Museum in London, the British Council, Politecnico di Milano and IKEA among many, the consultancy arm of her practice is dedicated to advising and supporting “the implementation of responsible materials” across industries, questioning the impact of material applications and processes on a three-stage framework: immediate, near, and far future.

Through the lens of material research, Ma-tt-er proposes solutions for a more purposeful and responsible future, creating awareness through public talks, exhibitions, workshops and events. “[Ma-tt-er] catapulted me in this world of educating, advising, communicating and designing what materials are and can be in the future,” said Solanki, who has since become a key figure in the field.

In light of critical conversations around the state of the planet, the studio’s first published compendium, “Why Materials Matter: Responsible Design for a Better World,” showcases the social and economic innovations materials can achieve. The book presents a new language of materials, moving beyond the usual classifications of “wood, metal, plastic” to propose original interpretations for anything from hair, cow dung and fabric, to DNA, bacteria, volcanic ash or air pollution.

In the foreword, material researcher Liz Corbin writes, “we are never without materials.” This approach justifies the need to make the book accessible and digestible for a wide audience. Wrapped in a clinical green that reflects the color of ecology, the book’s allure and visual codes are designed to reference a modern periodic table with sections, mirroring the language of a science lab or a classroom.

Solanki has curated a book that includes an entire generation of material designers diving into the elements of our world. Some are working with more recognizable materials and techniques, like Jorge Penadés, who is molding leather offcuts from French luxury house Hermès to create furniture, or WooJai Lee, who is recycling newspapers back into compact bricks of a wood-like texture. On the other hand, Solanki stretches the definition of matter beyond the familiar, when she includes research by biodesigner Natsai Audrey Chieza, who developed a dye from bacteria found in the root of plants. Chieza grows the bacteria in a lab before bathing the fabric into the obtained formula, reducing the amount of water used in traditional dyeing techniques by about 500 times.

These “incredible, life changing, and planet changing” methods propose a necessary symbiosis between nature and synthetic experiments; “the relationship between science and design is very prevalent,” said Solanki, “and it shows the way that we can cross-pollinate and cross boundaries, that materials aren’t necessarily in this very siloed sphere, [and that they are] very interconnected.”

In the realm of material exploration, many processes and techniques are small scale or one of a kind: it “takes time, time to learn, time to harvest or cultivate materials.” However, Solanki pointed out that she “was really conscious of making sure that [there were] materials, brands, companies or designers in [the book] that are achieving this at scale.” An example of this is London-based papermaker GF Smith, who has developed a “coffee cup paper,” and grown it at an incredible scale. “Not every material is suitable for mass manufacturing and nor should it be,” said Solanki, “because then we would just end up producing too much of everything.” When working with new, unexpected supply chains, designers and consumers alike need to be “very mindful of how much of these resources we have access to” and whether we want “those to be accessible forever, for a certain period of time, at a small scale, all of that.”

Overall, the book questions the current language of materials, as practitioners are shown transforming DNA, dust, and air pollution into malleable matter to make objects from discarded cowblood (Basse Stittgen), rope from hair (Sanne Visser), sawdust-decorated ceramics (Granby Workshop) and pencils, inks and textile dyes from car exhaust (Tino Seubert). The collection expands the definition of material beyond the physical matter under the umbrella of digital materials, featuring designers like Wang and Söderstöm and Audrey Large: “this idea of something intangible being a material, it’s very abstract but can offer us an opportunity to create without limits.”

In the midst of gloomy futures of climate change and material pollution, Solanki is motivated by the optimism of these material explorations. By letting herself be inundated in the knowledge that she uncovers from her fellow material designers, as well as the work she is doing within her practice to advise companies on ways to become more responsible and sustainable, Solanki absorbs a heap of information and spreads it at the discourse-level in as digestible and approachable a way as possible. “People want to feel empowered, and not guilty,” and materials are the key to becoming more responsible and sustainable as a community and as a global population.

Through the conversations in the book, at events, and on social media, Solanki and Ma-tt-er bring the topic of material research to a much wider audience. “It’s almost like building a community on social media,” she said. People have started hashtagging #whymaterialsmatter on their own, continuing to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of design and materials. “We’re able to have these parallel discussions on social media quite openly,” said Solanki, “and the way that I approach it is trying to always be optimistic in a way. I feel like materials are the vehicle to really shift things, the glue between everything, and social media allows for that conversation to be spread much further and also much more quickly.”