The small, narrow gallery space of Dutch design research collective Transnatural welcomed in the last months the exhibition Smart as Matter, a venture aimed at continuing the group's ongoing explorations on the boundaries between nature and technology in the design field. This time, the common ground for every project on display at the Amsterdam gallery was the usage of familiar materials in different or unexpected ways. Most of the projects have already been shown in international stages, but there is a clear sense of freshness in the show, which gathers a small but coherent body of work, highlighting what already has proved to be a fruitful path for designers willing to experiment.
Smart as Matter is incorporated in the main theme Transnatural have defined for the cultural season of 2011/2012: "The state of Autonomy." But contrarily to the collective's first exhibition under this theme — which, titled Things that mind their own business, had a strong focus on energy and the object's autonomy — Smart as Matter focuses on how materials can be used and transformed beyond the obvious. Transnatural co-founder and director Arjen Bangma described the show as looking "at the character of both old and new materials and its sources", and taking "a fresh look at materials used for a long time," pointing out that "familiar materials can potentially behave in ways that are unfamiliar to us until we decide to reconsider them." Projects on display were selected from an extensive list, which included projects sourced from Transnatural's own collection, but also from schools and the internet. The first list was eventually shortened down to the five projects currently on show at Smart as Matter. All share a low-tech approach, and are produced with smart (natural) forces, processes and materials.
Coincidentally (or not), all the selected designers are Dutch. Pascal Smelik's Kaarsrecht project shows that every product can have a unique shape. Smelik uses a big syringe to insert hot wax into cold water, constructing what will be the moulds for his products. His Kaarsrecht Kruk stool, on display at the gallery, is created using that technique; after the wax mould is created, it is filled with a gypsum mixture, and the stool is later cast in aluminum.
In another corner of the gallery stands Ruben Thier's Design Academy Eindhoven graduation project Organic factory, a collection of stools made of discarded industrial production materials. Collecting plastic drips by placing containers under every extruder in a production line, Thier builds the seat for his benches, making an obvious statement on waste and overproduction, and finding a way to render useful what would otherwise be wasted material. Every single piece in the collection is annotated with the date, factory and machine that provided the material.
Tjeerd Veenhoven's Palmleather is developed from common dried palm leaves, and simulates the characteristics found in cow-leather. The simple process starts by dipping the leaves in water, softening them; after that a bio-chemical solution is added, providing a lasting layer in the "new" material. Items such as bags or slippers are already being manufactured using Palmleather.
Thijs Rijkers' SpunPlastic experiment is a rotating heating system used to create new material from old synthetic fabrics. At the show, Rijkers displays a collection of jewelry pieces and garment parts created using the system. And finally, Jólan van der Wiel's widely acclaimed Gravity Stool, which is created by combining magnetic fields and gravity. A mixture of liquid plastic and iron is inserted in a manual machine with strong magnets, which "pull" the dough to form an exclusive, unique piece.
Smart as Matter was extended for two extra weeks, mainly because of its parallel program, especially the workshops — all completely booked, portraying the enthusiasm for the project. Among them, Mike Thompson and Gionata Gatto's "Recycleight", which explored the understanding of light; and Lex Pott's "Stuff with Attitude," which gave participants insights in oxidizing mirrors.
An arts, research and design group, the Transnatural collective explores connections between technological innovation and nature through a sustainability perspective, Transnatural is slowly building a design and art collection under these parameters, representing creators with intriguing work. The collective has integrated a pedagogical dimension to their project through a series of workshops running parallel to the exhibitions, and has also launched a yearly festival in 2010. The 2012 edition of the Transnatural festival runs from 7 September through 7 October, and will present a larger interdisciplinary exhibition and a series of activities at the NEMO – Amsterdam's science centre. Inês Revés