Seetal Solanki of research design studio Ma-tt-er talks to Crafts magazine
Can you introduce your new book?
It’s called Why Materials Matter. It tries to challenge ideas about what materials are and can be. It looks at specific issues, for instance pollution from corn farming, and then explores how a material might enable positive change, hopefully offering a strategy or solution. And it’s about belonging, too, in a way. I think materials designers don’t really have a defined role or place. We’re a cog that makes the design industry turn, but we’re also kind of non-existent. So I wanted to bring value to what we do because I think it can really change things.
How did your interest in materials come about?
I studied textiles, and then did the Textile Futures MA [now Material Futures] at Central Saint Martin’s. I was one of the earliest students on that course, and it enabled me to see a wider sphere of what textiles could be. I ended up working in architecture and automotives, and in fashion and sportswear, across all these different industries but with the same thought process, of how textiles and materials might become a vehicle.
Where is your interest in design from?
My mum studied fashion design, so that had a huge influence on me. And my dad is a really great fixer of things, so I learnt a lot on the making side from him. I grew up in Leicester, and my parents owned a shop with my grandfather.
It sold anything and everything, a bit of an Aladdin’s Cave. From that I learnt about different people and communities. Culture has become an integral part of my practice as a designer – something I embed through everything.
What drives your work?
I’ve always been interested in how things are made, and unexpected applications. The kitchen has always been a place of inspiration for me. Growing up, we never threw anything out – it was a kind of principle. And my mum and grandma taught me a lot about how to reinvigorate and transform a dish, to make it unrecognisable from the day before. It was this idea of repurposing, reusing: it’s a language I think we’ve adopted now, that had always resonated with me.
Who has inspired you along the way?
René Redzepi, the guy who created the Danish restaurant noma. He’s an amazing example of someone carving a path for themselves within an established industry, and making it their own. And he’s done it with such integrity, using the indigenous ingredients that he wanted to explore. And Douglas McMaster from Silo Brighton – a zero waste restaurant. He’s an ambassador for this way of thinking and creating. People who create with honesty, without being apologetic for who they are.
You’ve mentioned two figures in food. Is design lagging behind?
Yes and no. Food is direct delivery to the customer, you know who they are and you can see them. For a designer that’s rarely the case, so it’s hard to have the same feedback or connection with the person using your product. But in design there are so many innovations being created for the future, whether speculative or imaginative – there is a lot of great thinking out there changing the landscape and responding to the issues facing society and the planet. That makes it an exciting time for design. And as designers, we aren’t designing for one sector any more.
Which designers embody this idea of conventions falling away?
Roos Meerman is one. She uses air as her material to create some pretty incredible pieces. And Formafantasma are definitely an example. I recently heard them talking about their Ore Streams project, where they dissect and disassemble electronic products to see how they were constructed and manufactured, and where the materials come from, where they are mined, where they end up. They said a lot of fascinating things about how we’re living that really hit home. What they deliver is visually exciting, but their research and methods are also thought-provoking and meaningful, which validates everything they produce. There’s this element of artistry but ultimately they want to shape people’s lives in a more meaningful way.
‘Why Materials Matter: Responsible Design for a Better World’, Prestel, £39.99 hb.