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Sioban Imms talks us through her London Design Fair Materials Tour

Stylus’ senior editor of Colour & Materials reveals the 10 designers she believes are shaping the evolution of our material world.

Ahead of London Design Fair, which opens tomorrow (September 21) at the Old Truman Brewery in London, Sioban Imms – Stylus’ senior editor of Colour & Materials – talks us through her Materials Tour, whose 10 exhibits reveal how our material world is evolving.

Where did the Materials Tour idea come from?

“It was something London Design Fair discussed last year, but we only decided to do it this year. The organisers wanted to draw out some of the most interesting exhibitors – of which there are thousands – pushing boundaries with materials.

“As somebody immersed in the materials, colours and trends world, I seemed a good fit for the person to curate it.”

How did you go about selecting the 10 designers?

“I had a longlist which included exhibitors I would have loved to include, but I decided to make a tighter edit so people could digest the information quickly and easily.

“I also wanted to get a nice balance of different materials: textiles, metal, plastic, conglomerates and digital. I also tried to represent designers from around the globe.

“In my work as a colour and materials trends editor I’m always on the lookout for aesthetically interesting designs with hidden layers of material innovation.

“The really interesting materials sources and methods of making are not always obvious when looking at a piece, so it’s my job to spend time uncovering hidden stories and to work out where our material world is headed.”

Why are these designers important?

“They all reveal a theme: resource scarcity. I didn’t consciously select exhibits on a theme, it just came together like that. That’s always a nice moment as an editor, when you realise you have a coherent selection that’s tied together. Then you can start to analyse why this is the case.

“Nowadays, consumers value experience as much as – or more than – products, so the stuff we surround ourselves with needs to work harder to earn a place in our homes. The materials a product is made from is one way of infusing it with meaning.

“Most of the exhibitors at London Design Fair are small-scale producers, but their approach indicates where design on a larger scale is headed. Dutch Invertuals’ show, for example, is called ‘Harvest’, and although it was presented in Milan earlier this year, it’s the first chance for a London audience to experience it.

“Wendy Plomp, the curator, has brought together a group of artists and designers whose work explores how pressures on resources and the economy might shape our future material landscape.

“Ikea is already all over this idea. I heard Steven Howard, the brand’s head of sustainability, saying that he’d like to live in a future where we can actually eat the products in our home, because they won’t contain any nasty chemicals, pigments or residues from manufacture.” 

How do some of the other designers explore resource scarcity?  

“The selection is loosely bound by this idea, but it’s more about exploring the peripheries of what sustainability means and where we can go with it.

“For instance, South Korean collective Craft Combine uses atmospheric conditions to influence the finish of its planters. The products have a relationship with the surrounding environment – they’re not isolated inert things, but formed from metals dug from the ground and finished using water and sunlight.

“I think it’s interesting to see how designers search for raw materials. Carmen Machado, for example, combs coastlines for washed-up fishing nets which she weaves into textiles for upholstery. These strands of synthetic yarn, when upcycled into a textile, really draw people in – and of course there’s a more serious story behind the beautifully upholstered chair you’re sitting in.

“Also, Danish designer Nanna Kiil takes by-products from the Danish pork industry and investigates where they go. Pig bones are crushed and used in animal feed; if they’re contaminated for any reason they’re used in cement production because they contain calcium. So pig bones actually find their way into the very fabric of the buildings that surround us.”

Which of the designers excited you the most?

“It’s really difficult to say because they all complement one another in some way. But there has to be special mention for Carmen Machado. What struck me the most was the sheer difference in all of the colours and samples she’d manage to collect.

“It’s not just the odd bit, but a huge range of fishing nets from around the world, all of which have been drawn to tidelines. She’s sorted them and made them into beautiful textiles that have a darker story behind them. This is a nice way of drawing you in to the real meanings behind the products we surround ourselves with.”

What’s the format of the Materials Tour?

“It’s an online tour available on the London Design Fair website, and visitors can take it along to the show. It’s by no means a definitive selection but it gives a good starting point for those interested in materials and trends to explore the thousands of exhibits.”

What do you hope visitors will get out of it?

“The idea is to inspire product designers by highlighting people who are doing things a bit differently. Some of the materials used are quite shocking, and some of the stories we learn about – like Nanna Kiil’s – are quite difficult to digest, but they’re important to know about.”