Designers look to nature, landfills for new decor materials

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Designers look to nature, landfills for new decor materials

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At first glance, Nina Edwards Ankers’ sconces and chandeliers look like antique scrolls of parchment, or sheets of buttery toffee, wrapped around LED bulbs.

Get closer — or just ask the New York-based designer/architect — and you’ll find they’re actually made of algae.

She came up with the idea while working on a doctoral research project on materials and lighting at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, and has now created a collection of scones, lamps and even a chandelier called “Chlorophyta”.

Ankers chose not to disguise the dried algae – her shades have all the imperfections of their natural state, and the honey-colored, translucent colors.

“From the beginning, we wanted to maintain the integrity of the material and showcase its unique properties,” says Ankers.

She is one of many designers who think beyond traditional materials and find ways to fuse design with sustainable sourcing and production methods.

Ankers and her team at NEA Studios are also trying other natural materials.

“For lighting, we are interested in red/orange algae, sustainable feathers, horseshoe crab shells and crushed seashells, as well as rubber made from leftover corn,” she says. “For furniture, there are organic materials such as lentil beans, buckwheat and other fillings for upholstered furniture, as well as natural rattan, cork and bamboo.”

Great strides have been made in turning recycled plastic bottles and wood and plant fiber into materials that can be used by the home and fashion industries, trying to address the negative environmental impacts of cotton production, plastic pollution and more.

The Heimtextil fair, a showcase for what’s new in global textile patterns and development, opens this week in Frankfurt, Germany, with an emphasis on recycling materials to produce new products in a more environmentally friendly way.

“We will see companies demonstrating how inorganic materials such as nylon, plastic and metal can be reused – for example carpet tiles that can be taken apart at the end of their life and used as raw material for new tiles,” says Olaf Schmidt, Heimtextil’s vice president of textiles and textile technology.

Others are working to recycle organic materials such as linen and raffia.

“And there is seaweed, which is used to produce acoustic mats and panels that provide good insulation, are fire resistant and regulate humidity well,” says Schmidt. “At the end of their life, the panels can be shredded and reused.”

At last summer’s fair, innovative materials included cork and recycled PET (plastic) bottle fiber.

“Cork is breathable, hypoallergenic, antibacterial, insulating and tough,” says Schmidt, adding that it can be harvested more sustainably than many other materials.

Home decor products made with cork include trays, tables, wall panels and lighting. For example, you can buy rolls of patterned Portuguese cork sheets on

Cork is also powdered and applied to fabric to create a soft, vegan leather that some designers use to cover chairs and sofas, while others turn it into jackets, pants, hats, bags and umbrellas. Svala, for example, makes suits, bags and clutches from cork-based materials.

“The most important trend is sustainability,” says Veronika Lipar, fashion industry analyst. “The industry is trying to minimize its impact on the environment and no longer be the biggest polluter.”

Patagonia, North Face and Timberland are among companies now using natural materials from regenerative sources.

The recycled PET bottles that Schmidt mentioned are being turned into a mesh yarn called Hydroknit by Canadian shoemaker Native Shoes, and into lightweight shoes and boots that the company calls “sweaters for your feet.”

The Italian brand Kampos offers swimwear and rainwear made from PET bottle filament yarn that is quick drying and soft.

The yarn itself is sold by the ball at Unique Yarns’ shop on Etsy. Light, stretchy and sturdy, it can be knitted, crocheted and woven into items such as tote bags or textile art.

The Italian company Frumat has developed a plant-based leather derived from the waste created by apple juice makers.

Two Mexican innovators, Adrian Lopez Velarde and Marte Cazarez, created a leather they call “Desserto” using Nopal cactus leaves. Cacti are of interest to new material developers because they tolerate drought, heat and poor soil.

Pinatex helps support farming communities in the Philippines by using waste from pineapple harvests to create materials that are sold to manufacturers of shoes, accessories, clothing and upholstery.

And California-based Bolt Threads created Mylo, a mycelium-based leather used by brands such as Adidas, Lululemon and Stella McCartney.

Finally, some glass wall tiles used in homes started life on a car. Companies are crushing discarded windshields and then baking the mixture. The powdered suspension becomes a strong, opalescent material called sintered glass.

“Sintered glass is now one of our four main tile lines. There is an incredible range of colors, and high performance durability,” says Ted Acworth, founder of Boston-based mosaic tile manufacturer Artaic.

Annie Hall, a designer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used a mix of clementine, sky, and robin’s-egg blue glass tiles on a recent kitchen backsplash project

“I always hope to find sustainably produced products for my design projects, and I was pleased that the sintered glass is exactly that,” she said.

New York-based writer Kim Cook covers design and decor topics regularly for The AP. Follow her on Instagram at @kimcookhome.

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