Human Nature, designing the equilibrium
a collaboration between Creative Holland and Connecting the Dots
Text by Viveka van de Vliet
Portrait by Boudewijn Bollmann
The potential of the water world
Studio Nienke Hoogvliet
Water rushes through the work of Nienke Hoogvliet like a red thread. Whether it’s the Mourn urns made of bioplastic from waste water; SEA ME, the carpet of algae yarns hand-knotted on a fishnet; Waterschatten, objects of recycled toilet paper; or the Fish Leather Book. Her fascination for the way in which humans, nature, and society relate to each other leads to smart and poetic designs that carry the problem – the ugliness of polluted water – and the solution – the beauty and potential of the water world.
Nienke Hoogvliet loves the sea and the underwater world. She grew up in The Hague and often went to the seaside. When she attended the Willem de Kooning Academy, she noticed how polluted the beach at Scheveningen was, despite regular cleaning. That vision combined with a dose of idealism and activism, and her interest in natural materials, sustainable and traditional production processes, and the need to make people aware led to a stream of sustainable products.
Designs in which ugliness is mixed with an aesthetic beauty. For example, her SEA ME carpet – a carpet of algae yarn knotted by hand on a discarded fishing net – refers to environmental problems like the plastic soup in the oceans and seas, and shows that the solution is also in the water. After all her research projects, the textile, product, and concept designer thinks it’s the right time to find partners to scale up production.
Because the Netherlands no longer has a significant textile industry, Hoogvliet was finally able to find a partner in Taiwan. This company continues to develop yarn out of the Dutch seaweed, so that Hoogvliet can bring the knowledge and production method back to the Netherlands. ‘It doesn’t really exist here yet, but there is an increasing need for it’, she knows. ‘More companies want to change and consumers become aware that textile production is one of the most polluting industries and that they have a choice to buy or not to buy things’, she says. ‘I think that algae yarn can contribute to the improvement of the textile industry. After all, algae yarn is one hundred percent natural and algae purify the sea during growth.’
The client with whom she shares her idealism is the Nederlandse Waterschappen (or Dutch Water Authority). This government organization developed a sustainable treatment plant as a solution for the toilet paper of which we flush 180,000 tons down the toilet every year and for which an equal number of trees are cut. Used toilet paper can now be recovered as cellulose. Nienke Hoogvliet turned the negative association with toilet paper into a positive one. She made an aesthetic series of handmade objects: lighting, a table, and bowls called Waterschatten. The Nederlandse Waterschappen asked her for a new project since it was able to recover a new sustainable material from waste water: a bioplastic called PHA (Poly Hydroxy Alkanoate) that completely dissolves itself in nature in contrast to other (bio) plastics.
Hoogvliet combined this with a topic that is all over the news: the sustainability of burial and cremation. ‘The large amounts of scattered cremation ash causes soil and groundwater contamination in cemeteries and on spreading fields. Our body is a trash bin full of toxic waste that we cannot use or process, such as heavy metals and phosphates, which can over-fertilize the soil ‘, Hoogvliet investigated. ‘The earth cannot process such a large amount of scattered ash that quickly.’ Hoogvliet’s solution: Mourn, a sustainable urn that mixes ashes with the bioplastic. The earth can absorb this ‘bioash’ at its own pace. The soil remains clean, and you can return yourself or your loved one to nature in a responsible way.
During the Dutch Design Week, Mourn drew a great deal of interest. Now the designer hopes to produce the urns mechanically instead of by hand, she hopes. ‘Because, as a designer, I want to do more than come up with a concept and create awareness. I also want to make a difference and change things, together with my clients and partners.’
This interview belongs to the project Human Nature, designing the equilibrium. Part of this project are live interviews and an exhibition during the Milan Design Week.