Welcome to the design atelier of the future

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The design world on the eve of a revolution: all kinds of recyclable and organic materials are making an entry, in an effort to oust less sustainable materials such as plastic. For example, chairs made of cork, urns made of mycelium or light fittings made of mown grass.

At Campus Kortrijk (faculty of Engineering and Architecture) industrial sciences: Industrial Design students are already working hard with tomorrow’s materials. And third-year students get involved in a really interesting project ‘Circular prototyping’. Here, they share ideas on a circular approach to making prototypes. By working with recyclable or organic materials, some of which they even cultivate themselves! It is this circular mindset that students aim to adopt throughout the programme, by persuading professors to devote attention in lessons to materials that they can use to experiment in the workshop.

Circular design therefore has many challenges in store for students. But they are not alone. Help is at hand from professor Francesca Ostuzzi and scientific assistant Louise Dumon. They are really delighted with what their students have achieved over the past few years.

Some students become so enthusiastic about sustainable product design that a number of designs have even be marketed! And that’s Francesca’s and Louise’s very ambition: preparing a new generation of designers to work with the materials of the future towards a sustainable world.

What do you mean by making prototypes?

Francesca: “A prototype is a way to bring your design to life. The students design objects that don’t exist yet, and prototypes make them tangible. Before ending up with the customer, all kinds of things are tested using first versions or prototypes. How users handle the product, the feel of materials, the required packaging, assessing strength, … In doing so, they immediately see the feasibility of what is in their mind. Yet sadly, prototypes are often made with polluting materials. And that’s a shame, because these prototypes are usually only relevant for a week or two. In the course of a term, students can make dozens of prototypes, which meant they were hardly sustainable. Change was necessary.”

Which materials are students using now?

Louise: “Something really fun for students is the bio-circular workshop, where students cultivate their own materials for prototypes. The grow-your-own materials are mainly mycelium - as fungal hyphae of mushrooms - and kombucha. These materials cannot simply be taken from the cupboard and take weeks to grow, making the design process slower. But also more mindful. If they don’t wish to wait that long, they can also work with other bio-based and organic compostable materials, such as material made of the leftover wood from the workshop or 3-D prints made of eggshells. Depending on the specific nature of their product, they can even combine materials. For example, adding wood chip you more rapidly achieve a harder material.”

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Can these new organic materials replace the traditional materials?

Francesca: “The new organic materials do not meet all criteria: they are not necessarily beautiful, or hard, strong or long-lasting. That means that they cannot simply replace the traditional materials. But does such imperfection matter? The fact they must consider the ‘imperfect’ nature of materials means they must also reflect on the products best suited to the materials. That’s a challenge for our students, who have grown up with the idea that they should always choose the best materials for their products.”

Do students easily manage this out-of-the-box philosophy?

Francesca: “Some find it hard to let go of their specific expectations. We challenge them to become more creative: to look at things differently and, in doing so, come up with alternative uses. We aim to stimulate such fantasy as much as possible.”

Louise: “In fact, some students really blossom in our bio-circular workshop and have enormous fun during their explorations. That makes it a great experience for us as well.”

"We want to prepare a new generation of designers working on a sustainable world with the materials of the future."
Francesca Ostuzzi and Louise Dumon

How much liberty do you allow the students?

Louise: “We naturally do not leave them to sink or swim, and are always on hand in the workshop. Also, they do not work on their explorations alone, as we set assignments on a material in teams. This year, for example, they could choose between four organic materials and each team received a specific goal to work towards in the workshop. For example: can you replace silicone moulds with moulds made of coffee grounds?”

Francesca: “First, they must understand their organic material to discover how they can use it. They can only make a prototype once this insight is acquired. That learning and experimenting process is very important, which is why teams share their progress on our Instagram page, organise workshops for students and teachers, … In order to discover step by step how to do better.”

What are the biggest challenges for students?

Francesca: “I see three mainly practical challenges. The first is that organic materials are different to what you expect. Students still need to make lots of discoveries and be brave enough to experiment. And definitely not be afraid to do something wrong. In any case, experiments will fail, that’s almost unavoidable. A second challenge is timing: rather than making their prototypes with an off-the-shelf material they first need to grow it themselves. So this needs to be allowed for in their planning and organisation. Another challenge is that students sometimes struggle to grasp the potential of the material at first. We aim to open their eyes by encouraging their creativity.”

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The project has now been running for several years: do you remember any particular examples of student projects?

Francesca: “Last year a student developed a foam material… from leftover bread. He discovered that bakers are left with lots of waste bread, which ends up in the bin. He developed a formula to turn this bread into a foam material that is well suited to form studies.”

Louise: “His bread foam is an ecological alternative to the chemical PU foam that we currently use in the workshop.”

Francesca: “A former student is keen to commercialise urns made of mycelium, which are completely compostable. They are perfectly aligned with the trend towards natural burial grounds. His concept will therefore become a proper product, and we are really proud of that.”

Are you also keen to work with kombucha or mycelium?

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