Designers look to nature, to landfills for new decorative materials

At first glance, Nina Edwards Ankers’ candlesticks and chandeliers look like ancient scrolls of parchment or slabs of butterscotch, wrapped around LED bulbs.

Come closer—or ask a New York designer/architect—and you’ll discover they’re actually made of algae.

She came up with the idea while working on a PhD research project on materials and lighting at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, and has now created a collection of sconces, lamps and even a chandelier called ‘Chlorophyta’.

Ankers chooses not to mask dry lashes – her shades have all the imperfections of their natural state and a honey-toned, translucent color.

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A chandelier made from dried algae by designer Nina Edwards Ankers.
Image credit: AP

“From the beginning, we wanted to preserve the integrity of the material and show its unique properties,” says Ankers.

She is one of many designers who are thinking beyond traditional materials and looking for ways to combine design with sustainable sourcing and production methods.

Ankers and her team at NEA Studios are also experimenting with other natural materials.

“In terms of lighting, we are interested in red/orange algae, sustainably sourced feathers, crab shells and crushed seashells, as well as rubber made from corn residue,” he says. “For furniture, there are organic materials such as lentil beans, buckwheat and other fillings for upholstered furniture, as well as natural rattan, cork and bamboo.”

Huge strides have been made in turning recycled plastic bottles and wood and plant fibers into materials that can be used by the home and fashion industries as they seek to address the negative environmental impacts of cotton production, plastic pollution and more.

Heimtextil, a showcase of what’s new in global textile design and development, opens this week in Frankfurt, Germany, with an emphasis on recycling materials to make new products in a more environmentally friendly way.

“We will see companies demonstrating how inorganic materials such as nylon, plastic and metal can be reused – for example, carpet tiles that can be dismantled at the end of their life and used as raw material for new tiles,” says Olaf Schmidt. Vice President of Heimtextil for Textiles and Textile Technologies.

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Ankers is one of many decor and fashion designers who think beyond traditional materials.
Image credit: AP

Others work to recycle organic materials such as linen and raffia.

“And there’s seaweed that’s used to make acoustic mats and panels that provide great insulation, fire resistance, and good moisture management,” says Schmidt. “At the end of their useful life, the panels can be crushed and reused.”

At last summer’s fair, innovative materials included cork and fibers from recycled PET (plastic) bottles.

“Cork is breathable, hypoallergenic, antibacterial, insulating and tough,” Schmidt says, adding that it can be harvested more sustainably than many other materials.

Home decor products made from cork include trays, tables, wall panels and lighting. You can buy rolls of patterned Portuguese cork sheets on, for example.

Cork is also ground up and applied to fabrics to create a soft, vegan leather that some designers use to cover chairs and sofas, while others transform it into jackets, trousers, hats, bags and umbrellas. For example, Svala makes bags, totes and clutches from a cork-based fabric.

“The most important trend is sustainability,” says fashion industry analyst Veronika Lipar. “The industry is trying to minimize its impact on the environment and no longer be the biggest polluter.”

Patagonia, North Face and Timberland are among the companies that are now using natural materials from renewable sources.

The recycled PET bottles Schmidt mentioned are being turned into a mesh yarn called Hydroknit by Canadian shoe maker Native Shoes and into lightweight shoes and boots the company calls “leg sweaters.”

Italian brand Kampos offers swimwear and rainwear made from PET bottle filament yarn, which is quick-drying and soft.

The yarn itself is sold in the Unique Yarns Etsy shop. Lightweight, flexible and strong, it can be knitted, crocheted and woven into items such as handbags or textile art.

Italian company Frumat has developed plant-based leather derived from the waste generated by apple juice producers.

Two Mexican innovators, Adrian Lopez Velarde and Marte Cazarez, have created a leather they call “Dezerto” using Nopal cactus leaves. Cacti are of interest to developers of new materials because they tolerate drought, heat and poor soil.

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Cactus leaf on canvas fabric, a vegan alternative to leather made from prickly pear cactus.
Image credit: AP

Pinatex helps support farming communities in the Philippines by using waste from the pineapple harvest to produce material that is sold to manufacturers of footwear, accessories, clothing and upholstery.

And California-based Bolt Threads created Mylo, a mycelium-based leather used by brands like Adidas, Lululemon and Stella McCartney.

Finally, some glass panels used in homes started life on cars. Companies crush discarded windshields and then bake the mixture. The powder slurry becomes a strong, opalescent material called sintered glass.

“Sintered glass is now one of our four main tile lines. There’s an incredible range of colors and high durability,” says Ted Acworth, founder of Boston-based mosaic tile manufacturer Artaic.

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A kitchen backsplash design by Annie Hall, made with a mix of clementine, sky, and robin blue fused glass tiles, in a home in Medford, Massachusetts.
Image credit: AP

Annie Hall, a designer from Cambridge, Massachusetts, used a mix of clementine, sky, and robin’s-egg blue glass tiles on a recent kitchen backsplash project.

“I always hope to find sustainably produced products for my design projects and I was happy that sintered glass was just that,” she said.

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