Sustainable Mastermind #5: Dr. Elvin Karana


Sustainable Mastermind #5: Dr. Elvin Karana

You know the feeling when you're in love and want to know e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. about the object of your desire? That's kind of the connection materials expert Dr. Elvin Karana, Assistant Professor in the Department of Design Engineering TU Delft, has with sustainable materials. She not only loves the look, she wants to fully experience them. More about that in a few minutes...

Elvin is a researcher and assistant professor design engineering at TU Delft. She is on a mission to promote sustainable design materials, such as natural fibre composites, and to release them from their shady boxes, into the limelight. To boost the image of natural materials, she's co-founded the Natural Fibres Composites platform and is involved in a nationally funded project on designing with Biobased plastics.

Let's break the ice with something personal. What curious behaviour reveals that you're a material lover?
I like smelling materials. I sniff at almost any new material I see. Of course I touch everything as well. When I enter a space the first thing I do is looking for interesting materials in the objects, I'm very, very curious.

Ha, it must be fun going out with you! And which environmentally sensitive materials are your favourite?
I like coconut fibre composites; I especially appreciate it when its roughness and imperfect aesthetics are kept. I also love and appreciate the materials made from waste, like the fruit leather that's been recently developed by students from Willem de Kooning Academy.

Fruit, coconuts, yum. Are those the current musthaves in sustainable design materials?
Coconut fibre composites have been in the market for a long time; you could say that materials made of wasted fruits or food are getting more trendy. Coffee ground is kind of 'trendy'; some designers have been experimenting with it and you can see the results in design magazines. It's a clever base material for natural fibre composites.

Please enlighten us, what exactly are 'natural fibre composites'?
They are natural fibres, like kenaf or sisal, combined with matrix material, like natural latex, to turn them into very strong composites. They have been around for many years but have mainly been used as inner, structural materials, out of sight. You would find them for instance in the seats of cars.

Why did you become an expert in designing with such sustainable materials?
When I was studying industrial design, I found it really difficult to understand materials; I wanted more information, because there are so many things to consider before choosing the right material. Materials should make sense when applied in a product. So, first I wanted to improve the way we teach materials; then I inevitably became interested in exploring the ways we understand and mobilise materials in design. Over the last decade, the deployment of sustainable product design has led to a dramatic increase in the use of biobased materials and materials made of waste, as an environmentally-sensitive substitute for petroleum-based ones. Being in the materials and design domain for a considerable time, I was naturally tempted to explore the roles of materials on a sustainable future.

What projects are you most proud of?
My book Materials Experience: Fundamentals of Materials & Design. It brings a lot of experts together who talk about materials from many different perspectives- for example materials’ social impacts, their meanings, their role in sustainability, how they are understood today. Another thing is the Material Library for the students, it has been at TU Delft for four years now. Recently we've changed the concept; we now aim to present material stories instead of a collection of material samples, because that's more interesting for our students. It's open to the public so feel free to visit it.

Please name some inspiring companies you've been working with.
I have been working with Innventia in Sweden; they make really nice eco materials. We have currently submitted a research proposal for a project with Professor Han Wösten from Utrecht University, who develops composite biomaterials by growing mycelium of mushroom. Officina Corpuscoli is also involved in it. And this semester my students and I are also doing a project with Dave Hakkens from Precious Plastic.

And who's on your collaborations wish list?
Neri Oxman from MIT Media Lab. She's got a very different approach to biomimicry and materials; she sees materials as living and growing matters. In general I would love to merge art, design and science in the future. Yes, I know, this sounds rather challenging! For instance, I'd love to work with Iris van Herpen on different materials and their expressions.

What is the most common misunderstanding about natural fibre composites?
People think that every composite material based on a natural fibre is 'green'. That's not true. Whether or not it's 'green' depends on the way the material is processed and applied in products. For this reason, I usually hesitate to use the term ‘sustainable materials’. I would prefer to use environmentally sensitive instead; which emphasizes that the intention is ‘green’.

What would you change in people's attitudes towards natural fibre composites if you could?
I'd love to change our perception of beauty in ‘materials of daily products’. There is some resistance to the use of NFC's. A lot of designers think the materials look cheap, amongst others because the colour may remind them of MDF, made from low quality fibres. People are used to the smoothness and bright colours of the 'perfect plastics'.

Ouch, that must hurt for a natural fibres lover. So, how to boost that image?
We're working on changing the general mindset and show people the beauty - of imperfection - in natural fibre materials. We produce example design cases illustrating how NFC materials can look beautiful when meaningfully applied in a product. We are also exploring the underlying reasons behind the acceptance or non-acceptance of certain materials. I believe this will generate useful guidelines for the design practice.

What's the biggest struggle for designers when they want to move towards sustainability?
It's still a small part of society that's truly interested in sustainability, so as a student you will have to decide whether you'd want to be famous and please the majority, or follow the sustainability path and please a minority group. Choosing the second and still being able to reach the majority that would be the key I think!

Who would you consider a true 'Sustainable Mastermind'?
Ezio Manzini. He's a famous Italian professor. Years ago he wrote the book The Material of Invention; which is one of my bibles. Later on he moved towards a specialisation in sustainability and is currently publishing some pioneering work on this topic. I enjoy reading his work!

Favourite sustainable products. Name one.
The Herman Miller Setu chair. It got the "Best Sustainable Design Solution" from the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) in 2010. The designers have taken the principle of ‘honesty in materials’ as a key component in their design, avoiding the use of any kind of toxic coatings. Setu is 93% recyclable. I have a Setu Chair, and I’m incredibly happy with it.

We're all homo sapiens, so what's your not-so-sustainable guilty pleasure?
I'm fond of luxury cosmetics from famous brands. I don't look at the list of ingredients or how it's made but I know they're not sustainable...

Got a tip for Sustainable Masterminds-to-be?
In order to be real sustainable designers, it's important to understand the whole picture of your design; what will happen during production, what is the impact of your design on society and the environment.