When it comes to circular design, materiality matters. Understanding what things are made of and why — whether we’re talking about toys or clothes, solar panels or single-use packaging — is key to reducing its impact, especially in terms of resource use and waste. Materials also shape culture and behaviour in less tangible ways, and it is these everyday encounters that drive the work of creatives like Kaori Akiyama and Shubhi Sachan.

As founder of Tokyo-based STUDIO BYCOLOR, Kaori has spent much of the last decade studying the role of materials and colours in product and spatial design. In a similar way, Shubhi has become an advocate for material literacy through her work as founder of the Material Library of India (MLI). We’re thrilled to have both Kaori and Shubhi as part of the Selection Committee for this year’s Redesign Everything Challenge, and recently spoke with them about the approach behind their creative practice.

We’d love to know more about your work. What drives your passion for material design and research?

Kaori: I am a product designer. When making something new, I always want to know how it was made in the past. Why was it made in the colour it was and the material it was made from? I think it is very important to rethink and reconsider the way things have been made in the past for the future. There are many possibilities in various fields where materials that have been taken for granted actually have problems, or where new materials are created as a result of technological advances, which could lead to the creation of even better products. Encounters with new materials and technologies, as well as dialogues with developers and craftspeople, stimulate my curiosity and motivate me.

Shubhi: MLI is the first material library in India. It is a research and design studio that focuses on waste-related challenges. One can call it a think-tank for the circular economy. We are working with materials of the future while helping people to manage existing waste. We believe that before too soon, when our natural resources become scarce and waste accumulation reaches a tipping point, waste streams will become the future quarries for mining materials.

“We are working with materials of the future while helping people to manage existing waste.”

What are some material challenges we need to address right now? 

Shubhi: I think people really need to understand the materiality of the things they consume, make and promote. It can be extremely alarming to realize the hidden materiality of products you have been consuming with the utmost conviction of safety (think about certain foods or cosmetics, for example).  Bridging these gaps in everyday living is important, and is what we aim to do under our Material Literacy programme. 

Kaori: I worked as an in-house designer for an office furniture manufacturer for about 10 years. We used a variety of materials to make furniture, and each part was required to be labelled with a material description. With the recent increase in new materials and processes, it is increasingly difficult to know what materials are used in the finished product. This is especially true when it comes to disposal. Japanese waste disposal facilities have professionals who carefully collect and sort waste. However, the difficulty in understanding the materials makes their work more complicated. I believe that it will be important to have a system to communicate the materials of each part of various products that will remain for future generations.

Living Library of Seeds, a tool developed for IKEA. Materials experiments using post-consumer textiles. Photos courtesy of MLI.

How do you approach these kinds of issues in your own work?

Shubhi: India is a growing economy, hence the economic gap is huge. While some people are still holding on to sustainable traditions and practices, a part of society has completely forgotten about them — this is the beauty and the challenge of an extremely diverse country like India. Through our consultation and material literacy programmes, we try to reduce these gaps. If the project is focused on artisan communities — then our role is to either bring awareness about material histories or respective values to the market.

Kaori: Omori, where my office is located in Tokyo, was once the place where Nori cultivation began. Nori is the black sheet of seaweed used in the sushi you eat. Today, at STUDIO BYCOLOR, we make interior products like tiles using pigments extracted from poor-quality Nori that cannot be marketed. Nori cultivation in Tokyo Bay ended before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Currently, the cultivation of Nori is flourishing in Sanriku, Chiba, Setouchi, and Ariake in Japan, in places where the nutrients from the river and the sea mix. However, due to the effects of climate change, last year and this year’s crop failures, producers are suffering from a very depressed harvest. Every year after the Nori cultivation season is over, we plan to collect unused Nori and conduct a workshop to dye tiles. I hope to convey the rarity and value of the Nori that Japanese people take for granted.

“What excites us is not only what we can discover from faraway materials like moon sand, but when we encounter the unknown charm of materials that are hidden in our daily lives.”

What is something that excites you about the future of materials?

Kaori: What excites us is not only what we can discover from faraway materials like moon sand, but when we encounter the unknown charm of materials that are hidden in our daily lives. Nori Pigment, for example, is truly a curious project. Did you know that multi-colored algae floating in the ocean intertwine to make black Nori? It is just like subtractive color mixing of paints, and the possibilities are expanding.

Shubhi: Here’s something that is both worrying and exciting: the landscape is changing so quickly in India that clients often request very quick-fix solutions for sustainability. But good materials often come with a slower pace of making and consumption. There is a huge mismatch between the sustainability that is demanded by the capitalist world versus the sustainability that nature’s cycles allow. It’s exciting to see people wanting to do more and more sustainable products and practices, but at the same time it’s sad to see them giving up to the pressure of the large orders and fast-paced manufacturing cycles. 

Nori Pigment research process and finished tiles, photo by Jube Kato and STUDIO BYCOLOR.

What advice do you have for designers who want to be more conscious of the materials they use?

Kaori: You should first be interested in your 1-meter radius. Remember what you touched today and ask: “Why that material, why that colour?”

Shubhi: In my experience, not everything needs human intervention or solutions and we need to be careful that we don’t disturb an ecosystem when we try to save or help something. An excellent material could be a doomsday calling without a thoughtful system around it. For example, if we move towards all natural and organic materials but maintain the same speed of consumption – we’ll still be cutting down trees and drying up the rivers in one day.

“An excellent material could be a doomsday calling without a thoughtful system around it.”

We’re honoured that you’re taking part in this year’s Selection Committee. How has the process been so far?

Kaori: There were some very interesting projects and designs. All of the projects that caught my attention had to do with the ocean. And interestingly, they were all projects that started with a woman’s personal initiative in her kitchen or room and ended up involving many people. I believe this is what’s needed in design today: awareness and the enthusiasm to implement ideas.

Shubhi: It was an absolute pleasure to be part of the community and I feel WDCD is also building a tribe in itself year by year. Thank you so much for inviting us to be a part of this! 

Top image: Kaori Akiyama (left) and Shubhi Sachan (right).