Major Project Proposal….

natural materials materialologist

Overview and introduction
The aim of this major project is to rethink how we can use natural materials in innovative ways and to showcase how beautiful these materials can be when applied to a footwear collection. I believe true innovation in footwear will come from biological development of materials and processes. My Unit 1 and 2 structures were feasible because of the properties of natural keratins in the wool. These tangled tubes soaked up the resin and created a bonded structure, which was strong and also elastic thus preventing cracking.

The project is to explore a selection of natural materials and develop low-tech construction methods using higher tech data communications. Mainly, one raw, natural colour material will be used per pair of shoes. The collection will be held together by using a similar design form applied to each pair of shoes in a differing material. By using a similar “design” the focus will be kept on the materials. This unconventional approach to the design of a collection is risky, but will produce an original challenge as it is in contrast to current collection unifying semantic codifiers, colour and materials. Where appropriate the soft/ hard combination structure used in Unit 1 and 2 will be applied.

Potentially new footwear constructions will result in this project because of the different use of natural materials in application to footwear. The collection is intended as research consultation work for the footwear design industry and could be used as advertising and PR.

What inspired the concept?
One of the BBC predicted trends for 2012 was the fast growth of rapid prototyping mainly in the area of laser sintering of consumer products. ( In this utopian vision consumers, after a £1200 investment in a home 3-D printer (the cube image below from site, can go online and buy downloadable files to make consumer goods at home. The great thing about this technology is that it enables a move to demand and supply for ready to wear fashion footwear. Rapid prototyping (RP) was pioneered in the early 1980’s, a time when the appeal of synthetic plastic materials was full of hope. RP is an additive process meaning waste material is greatly reduced. The development of the process was based on another additive process using synthetic thermoplastics, injection moulding. Having experience in the product and furniture industries dating back to the late 1980’s has given me time to understand not only the cost factors of why rapid prototyping is not already in our lives, but the human factors which may be delaying the manufacturing of these visionary production processes. It is the right technology for our times but the material is less desirable.

Innovation reflects our relationship with nature. For example, those who remember the horrors of cholera viewed the advent of pesticides as a great invention, a saviour, and along with this synthetic materials such as petroleum based plastics signified man’s triumph over disease, the shinier more synthetic the better. We owned plastic materials with liberation; and the world was lighter, fresher for this. Forward twenty-five, thirty years, to a new generation we see even the material name of “plastic” become slang for being artificial in one’s personality or cheap.

Today scientists are currently investigating the use of macromolecules to redefine potentially new and more robust natural polymers, which were first used in the earlier part of the 20th century, in the materials such as Bakelite and rubber. There are a growing group of scientists and designers rethinking and revisiting pre-oil based materials to see if from this starting point and we might create products more in harmony with the natural world around us. (

The Dutch based company Studio Formafantasma have been exploring the use of pre-oil based polymers in their collection Botanica, “Commissioned by Plart, an Italian Foundation dedicated to the scientific research and technological innovation in the recovery, restoration and conservation of works of art and design produced in plastic. The objects displayed in the Botanica collection are designed as if historians, Studio FormaFantasma investigated the pre-Bakelite period, discovering unexpected textures, feelings and technical possibilities offered by natural polymers extracted from plants or animal derivatives. The designers researched and hunted for information, digging into the 18th and 19th centuries, when scientist began experimenting draining plants and animals in search for plasticity.”

All images from website – above is shellac and sawdust and below the collection including Rosin, dammar, copal, natural rubber, shellac and bois durci a 19th century material composed of wood dust and animal blood

In a similar, maybe less sophisticated method to the work of Studio Formafantasma Israeli designer maker Yoav Avinoam’s Shavings furniture collection is experimenting with water based resins and sawdust and wood dust. Sawdust is combined with resin and placed in molds in order to create shapes that he then uses to make furniture. (Image and info

Closer to home at Central St. Martin’s Suzanne Lee has been growing her own material. The “kombocha” like stuff is fermented in bathtubs under a specific temperature. Then after a couple weeks is removed, dried out and used as leather. It can be conventionally stitched together. It dyes in one dip. Information and images ( Images below – mixture in the fermenting stage and on this page left – Suzanne’s material constructed in natural material, right – dip dyed once. I was hoping to collaborate with Suzanne on this project but it seems she is in talks with industry that want to develop her work. Proof that the this low tech biological approach has merit and is worth investment.

For footwear it would be ideal characteristics of a natural material without an additive so the support would be structural and the part surrounding the foot would be soft.

Canada is producing some innovative artist and designers. Molo design stumbled upon and developed solid felt rocks. “Felt rocks are formed by chance in the industrial manufacturing of large felt polishing wheels. These curious objects are a perfect medium for sharing the story of how felt is made – each wool fibre, a tiny hollow tube with burred sides, curls and entangles in the felting process, forming a strong bond without glues or binders.” (image, info )

In Vancouver the artist Deborah Loxam-Kohl has developed a 3-D felting machine. Although currently the material alone is not structural enough for shoes the machine can create molded shapes as in her Sound of Silence instillation. (Image and information

In the work of Werner Aisslinger Hemp chair we see further exploration into a refined modern treatment of natural materials. “The *hemp chair* has been designed for a lightweight manufacturing process stemming from the car industry: the renewable raw materials hemp and kenaf are compressed with a water-based thermoset binder to form an eco-friendly, lightweight and yet strong composite. The sustainable sheet material of the *hemp chair* allows the use of more than 70% natural fibers in combination with BASF’s water-based acrylic resin Acrodur. Unlike with classic reactive resins, this method releases no organic substances such as phenol or formaldehyde during the cross-linking process. The only by-product of the curing procedure is water. Furthermore, the industrial process of compression molding accounts for low-cost mass production of three-dimensional objects with high mechanical resistance and very low specific weight.”
Images left are of the material, the chairs and Werner showing how light the material is. (

On a personal level I feel the need to play with materials so I can understand the properties and characteristics of a material. Maybe this is only my limitation but I think we might on mass feel the need to understand our world and the materials, which surround us. So this projects aim is not sustainability although that might be a by-product of the project but really the focus is on a more cognitive clarity of the materials we use in unexpected ways. Below is an image of a piece by the furniture designer Tanya Aguiniga and I think it communicates our curiosity on the subject. (Image

Rational for the contextualisation of the project in market terms
The way the current fashion industry is set up is that eastern manufacturers rely on low labour cost. The west cannot compete in this area. Understanding trends in culture and applying these to innovation is where we can lead.

Below is a story recently viral on social media. The cape was created by 1.5 million golden orb female spiders who had to be collected each day in Madagascar, harnessed (as they have cannibalistic tendencies!) and “milked” of their exceeded silk to create the world largest piece of woven silk garment from this type of spider. The colour is the natural colour of the silk excreted. What is so interesting about the artefact is not the amazing man and spider hours used to create it but the world interest in the garment and the way social media can replace advertising. “The spider silk textile was first shown at the Natural History Museum in new York where it broke all records for visitor numbers to a single exhibit.” Does this interest reflect our fascination in understanding the direct line of material creation from nature to a man made object? Can natural materials in low-tech processes be the innovation the Luxury Market needs?

In market terms it is better for conceptual or flagship items to be low investment but can be higher in cost for the good. The project or collection would fit into the market in this way. The collection could then be used for advertising PR for a company choosing to invest in research and development. The collection has a story around it and the potential to go “viral”.

(Images and information’s

Aims for the concept – as a project in itself, academic, who are the stakeholders and markets, what is the personal professional benefit
The Stakeholders are companies who want to promote themselves as research and development in the area of natural materials. This work is aimed to be as a consultation project for designers and to be a beloved object for consumers. In a personal professional level this is where I want to position my work in the industry. Marloes Ten Bhomer works this way and I had the opportunity to interview her last year. Example of her moulded veg tan shoes 2010 are shown below (Image – 2011 Her work is mostly consultation and she gets funding from organisations such as the Jerwood Prize and Nesta. Then she showcases her work as potential processes to be applied to footwear in Museums.

Marloes is a Dutch designer who studied her MA in Product Design at the Royal College of Art. She applies Product and Furniture industry manufacturing methods to footwear.

Evidence of subject knowledge, experimentation, technical competence and skills to be developed Methodology – systems, approaches
My MA proposal work builds on the work produced in Units 1 and 2 where I took the natural material 100% wool felt and formed the work around last and moulds then resin the “insole and heel” to create structure. (Image below photo: Karoliina Barlund). The heel was hollow. At the end of Unit 2 I started to use Rhino with an aim to develop the data for CNC or RP moulds. The moulds will be developed this way. It is feasible to develop these skills in Rhino as I have previous experience in Autocad and Pro Engineer. The manipulation methods of the material will be based on data created in Rhino to make two half moulds. Most of the nominated materials work on a mould based manipulation method as used in Unit 1 and Unit 2 with the felt. The materials are to be keep in as natural a state as possible but finished cleanly. Because a “Line Up” will be based on the material behaviour an early soft mould will need to be created to test various materials out to inform potential shapes.

A diary will be kept to chart progress in both the form of a sketch diary and an edited blog. This is important because systems to manipulate materials will be kept. This will help the rigour, reliability, professionalism and systemization needed to maintain critical reflection to ensue research is conducted in as open and transparent a way as possible in terms of it’s intentions, methodology, analysis and findings. Below is a record of the Unit 1 and 2 methodologies. The major project methodology will use more sophisticated internal and external moulds as Marloes Ten Bhomer’s work previous page.

Suggested selection of natural materials to work with
In Unit 1 and 2 I worked with Resin, 100% wool Felt, Shellac and Fiberglass formed around moulds I made. The MA Major Project is to build on these materials adding natural rubber, veg tan leather, moulded paper, Acrodur, copal resin, and flax to name a few.
Initially I hope to collaborate with designers who have already put in the work to develop various natural materials and then apply and develop these materials in the design and construction of footwear. I am not sure how feasible this will be. However this will not interfere with the progress of the work. After a short consultation and analysis period the selected materials will be chosen.

A suggested line up is below…

sketch study line up

Critical theory and rational – what is the potential originality in the work and how will the work be analysed and assessed

The Critical theory in this project is observing the emerging rise of the biologically based materials work of scientist, artist and designers in juxtaposition to the synthetic materials offered in the innovative manufacturing methods rapid prototyping machines.

The Rational…
In the framework of the MA project I have limited time and resources. Given these constraints the strategy is to explore the behaviour of a selection of natural materials applied to footwear using low tech methods of mouldings but with the polish of high tech communications i.e. Rhino. The rational for 3-D computation is the forms need to be clean and elegant, in short “modern”. Otherwise the work will appear too craft based and not be taken seriously in the industry. The work needs to be taken seriously so it can be showcased, because the rational for this collection in market terms is to promote and bring awareness to the critical theory issues. Further rational to the project in the context of fashion is that as fashion designers we can produce desirable objects. So if the projects are desirable it will strengthen the attention to a showcase of work using the college as a platform of attention to the industry. Then hopefully people and organizations with funding might start to invest in theses issues.

The originality of the work is in using materials tried and tested in other disciplines and applying them in a way to footwear to produce original footwear constructions. The proposal is imaginative in the revival of unexpected natural materials applied to footwear, and how this approach might impart on forms and constructions, which emerge. It is also conceptual in using the general form to hold together a footwear collection. There is a covert rational for this choice because it is a move away from the fast fashion business model of colour, material and choice details to hold together a collection.

How the work is to be analysed and assessed
The project is experimental and a risk, ultimately, we cannot predict if material innovation will come out of the project. So the project should be assessed on…
• A consistent of methodology – This will be evidenced in the diary blog
• If the material properties and characteristics are respected but pushed to produce a well reasoned structure
• If it can be the manufactured low tech but the data to produce the work is computer technology driven enabling a clean professional finish, i.e. where the finish is clean in the moulded areas.
• If it “feels” to use mostly one type material per pair of shoes so the solutions are more elegant and focused
• If the general form holds the collection together as textures and colours vary
• If the shoes are “desirable” objects
• If the concept can be clearly showcased to a professional level

Ultimately the project is successful if it leaves people a bit more open to the possibility of testing in research and development the use of natural materials in the application of the footwear industry.

Bibliography and resource list of both primary and secondary sources list on collaborations contacted
Blaxter, L. et al. (2006) How to Research. Maidenhead: Open Press University

Farmer, J. (1999) Green Shift: Changing Attitudes in Architecture to the Natural World. Oxford: Architectural Press



Collaborations contacted
Suzanne Lee – bio culture (response – no)
Studio Formafantasma – natural resins (awaiting response)
FormFeltLab – 3-D felting machine (yes but unsure how)
Aisslinger – hemp materials (awaiting response)
Basfe – Acrodur supplier (yes)
Diego Vencato – wooden mesh (yes but he no longer has a manufacturer)

Molo design
Freedom of creation
Marloes Ten Bhomer

Further meeting for advice
Marloes Ten Bhomer – meeting 31 January
Jess Lertvilai – CSM materials Librarian – meeting 31 January
Rebecca Shawcross – curator Northampton Museum – to visit archives 6th Feb – research natural materials