Today, designers are experimenting with biological media more frequently. This method of exploration and the resulting products raise some interesting points for further consideration. For example, Dutch designer Aagje Hoekstra has unveiled a new bioplastic composed of the shells of deed darkling beetles. The new material, called Coleoptera, is made from chemically-modified chitin, and is both heat-resistant up 200°C and waterproof. It is also environmentally beneficial from a reuse perspective. However, it also clearly retains the imprint of its original form, and appears to be an assemblage of heat-fused, compressed insect hulls. Although Hoekstra declares that this form-retention is intentional, the bumpy, uneven surface that results may limit the functional applications and shape-making potential of an otherwise intriguing new substance.
Another example is a new book entitled Naar Inkt Vissen, or Fishing for Ink, produced by Today Designers—also based in the Netherlands. The book's distinguishing feature is its ink, which came from squids at the Dutch seafood market of Scheveningen. The use of squid ink is a resourceful idea—the designers were able to screen-print 1,000 books from 1.5 liters of the liquid. Moreover, squid ink is clearly a 100% natural resource and biocompatible, which cannot be said for all inks. However there is one major problem: the ink stinks. Not afraid to undermine their own marketing campaign, Today Designers refer to their creation on their website as "the first Dutch book that smells like hell."
Despite the limitations of Coleoptera and Naar Inkt Vissen, their designers' efforts are commendable for both their fearless experimentation and ecological ambition. However, they also raise some intriguing questions. For example, how much more processing or manipulation would be necessary for these types of products to make them palatable to a larger consumer market? This question presumes that a wider audience is necessary to make a significant environmental impact. Conversely, how much of a cultural transformation would be required for a broader consumer base to accept the products as-is, if the designers are attempting to limit processing and retain traces of the original substances?
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.