So-called smart textiles have garnered the attention of designers who are incorporating sensors, lights, and other wearable electronic devices into fabric to reveal its environmental and user-driven transformations over time. Berlin design studio Blond & Bieber, however, developed a low-tech alternative to producing environmentally responsive clothing by printing with microalgae.
Founders Essi Johanna Glomb and Rasa Weber developed their algae-printing process, called Algaemy, after encountering freeze-dried algae during a visit to the Fraunhofer Institute for Microalgae. The Fraunhofer labs maintain the colorful material in the form of a fine powder, similar to a pigment. Intrigued, Glomb and Weber requested samples to screen-print prototype textiles and subsequently developed a mobile textile printer for use on larger fabrics.
The patterns on the Algaemy textiles change color over time, particularly in the presence of direct sunlight. The green algae pigment becomes blue, for example, while the pink pigment changes to red and orange. And different species of microalgae reveal different hues. "The fashion industry is always busy with producing light-stable colors," said Glomb and Weber in an interview with Motherboard. "But products change just like people. If objects are only used for a very short period of time before people get bored by them, why shouldn't textiles change its [sic] color after a time, just as well? It's a trace, a story in the object.”
Since electronically-augmented clothing receives the bulk of attention in the smart textiles arena, it is intriguing to see responsive apparel made with living cultures rather than circuitry. Although digital technologies still offer vast potential for exploration, a growing interest in life science–related fields, such as synthetic biology, holds significant promise for design applications. After all, it seems logical that the more designers are intrigued by responsive phenomena in nature, the more appropriate it is to use natural materials for responsive functions.
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.