In the third part of the ART x RESEARCH x SCIENCE series, Carole Collet helps us discover what it means to work with living organisms within Textile Design and the future of sustainability in the Textiles industry. 

Carole Collet © - Mycelium Lace / details - using mycelium as a mending technique for vintage lace.


Introducing: Carole Collet

Carole Collet was a Textile Design student obsessed with Ecology. Twenty years on, she's a Professor in Design for Sustainable Futures and Director of the Design & Living Systems Lab at Central Saint Martins, pioneering research for the so-called Biological Revolution. Her work explores the intersection of biology and design, to develop speculative and disruptive sustainable design proposals. Looking at the year 2050 and beyond, she is aiming to challenge and impact today's design directions, so as to enable a more resilient and sustainable future. 

The intersection of Design and Biology

I am a Professor in Design for Sustainable Futures. I founded the MA Textile Futures (now MA Material Futures), with the idea of breaking away from conventional approaches to Textile Design and in fostering one where textiles for our future lives are looked at in the context of sustainability - e.g. looking at technology and biotechnology, smart materials - to see if new design methods were possible. I resigned from that position 5 years ago to focus on research, in an area of practice called Bio Design and thus set up the Design and The Living Systems Lab. It is about exploring the intersection of design and biology in the context of future sustainability. 

There is a lot of hype around biology now, but for me the main reason why I want to look at biology is sustainability. There is a real agenda for that in my exploration. Some can take me to very poetic, experimental, speculative work. Others, are much more down-to-earth action-based research projects. That is the nature and beauty of research really. You ask a question, which then leads your enquiry and you won’t know beforehand - the answer to that question might be ‘no’. Research is defined as the delivery of new knowledge reviewed by your peers. So, a ‘no’ counts as much as a ‘yes’. 

Personal Practice

One of the projects I am busy with is working with Mycelium. It’s something a lot of people are looking into, it’s a growing practice, from well established artists like Philip Ross but also commercial products like packaging or insulation boards. It’s a living organism that you can feed with cellulosic waste and as it eats it, it transforms it into another material - then you bake it and you are essentially left with this polystyrene-like material. Imagine replacing polystyrene packaging with something that is completely organic and can be disposed with no environmental impact. 

Carole Collet © - Mycelium Lace / details - using mycelium as a mending technique for vintage lace.

Imagery: Carole Collet © - Self-patterned Mycelium Rubber - the floral patterns emerged on the surface of the material as it grew.
‘From Earth: Mycelium Textiles’ is an experimental collection of materials and artefacts that explore the potential of mycelium growth as a new sustainable surface treatment for textiles. The aims of this design-led material research are:
(i)to achieve to produce both soft and structural textile qualities by experimenting with the environment of growth of the mycelium
(ii) to develop new biodegradable, compostable coatings for textiles that can replace current oil-based finishing processes.
— Carole Collet

So it has a lot of potential, and my focus is to expand the material-vocabulary to explore connections with textile production as that is my area of research. Essentially I am trying to develop protocols to grow Mycelium for applications in the textile design high-end. For instance, I am looking at the possibility of using mycelium as a coating technique or as a mending technique. I am also trying to elevate its aesthetic appeal - if you look at it, it’s very rough and raw. Through my experiments I came up with a rubber-like version of this material, which surprisingly also creates its own floral patterns. In particular, I am trying to develop a series of collars and buttons using these materials, and I am hoping to get a set finished for July…let’s see. As these collars are on a larger scale, it’s challenging as there’s more risks for infections and contaminations. 

Source: BioLace - Carole Collet

Source: BioLace - Carole Collet

What is exciting, is that I can use my textile design background for this exploration, but It’s not straightforward. It’s a material that does not necessarily behave according to predictable rules. I get a lot of things that fail, but as I said that is the notion of ‘open ended research’. 

'Biology is the new technology'

Collaborations between designers/artists with scientists are definitely growing and there are an increasing number of opportunities. The main issue is that there is no official funding that incorporates them. At the moment it’s either one or the other, but there is no umbrella where they can really merge. There is not a place where you can have a team of designers and a team of biologists working together from the very beginning of a project. And if you think of Synthetic Biology, for instance, there is a real need for designers to come on board from the earliest stages, as we can understand and can drive market applications - and of course we can make contributions with our methodology, approach and design thinking. Look at Modern Meadow, Suzanne Lee is the art director - it’s a biotech company, looking at growing meat and growing leather through employing designers, scientists and engineers. That is an example of recognition, for the need of a designer to drive the applications.  

Source: Brooklyn Magazine - Modern Meadow: leaders in growing meat in a lab

But in terms of funding, it is not recognized as of yet which is a pity. There are activities going on in Academia that try to advocate for a higher recognition of Art disciplines and their contribution to knowledge. There is also a shift slowly occurring with funding bodies and for them to operate within a unified platform; that should better reflect and support the cross-disciplinary nature of these practices and what is already spontaneously happening. Davos and many others are insisting that the key skill for this century is creativity, yet we see funding constantly cut for arts and design in education pre-university. Why? Creativity is a muscle, if you don’t train it you just don’t develop it. We need to break these boundaries - that if you're a designer, you just do one thing and a scientist does another thing. All of these supposed hierarchies need to be broken. Companies and businesses are recognizing the added value of designers as strategic players - policy makers just don’t seem to quite follow suit. Scientists are extremely creative, they understand and value creativity. So it is definitely a growing field, but we hope to see things speed up once a dedicated institutional framework will be in place.  

'Biology is the new technology' is a cool slogan these days, yet I doubt the mainstream audience really understands what it means. It is a specialist subject, so outside the field it is not very well understood. Biology has now become about engineering, but it’s still a very young and niche discipline. You could argue that Synthetic Biology is going to be a massive game changer for mankind in this century - I personally believe it’s going to have the same impact as internet - but things take time. When the Internet came out no one could ever imagine to what extent it would change everybody’s life. The general public might not be interested just yet. No one is hiding this information, but it’s a bit like climate change: people don’t care until their house is flooded. Which is a shame really. Or organic food - now it’s everywhere, even Tesco does organic. And there is ongoing discussion about healthy food, pesticides, supply chains, etc.. But twenty years ago it was very niche and hard to find.  

Part of my work aims at elevating the status of design, especially Textile Design. It very often occurs that when I say that I am a Textile Designer, someone outside the industry would go like, ‘my grandma used to do some great knitting!’ - it is almost not understood as a discipline beyond a family hobby. Yet in fact, it is by all means a design discipline that invades all sectors - from automotive to biology, from aerospace to fashion. But I think in some remits design is not taken seriously, it is considered just about making pretty things. And, many scientists would ask for our contribution to be ‘pretty pictures for our catalogue’. Design is a conceptual approach to new systems, a way of tackling issues, not a shape—giving activity. For me, design media is also to blame: if you think of magazines, there is a glamour around design that often reduces it to ‘the next chair’ or the 'next cool kid in an expensive flat'. This is just one side of design, but the whole aspect of ‘design thinking’ is not really covered. It’s also more difficult to visualize and communicate in a way that speaks to everybody. You almost read more about it in business oriented publications. So, I really believe as designers that we have the responsibility to elevate how design is perceived and explain that what we do is more than just styling. We need to work hard to defend the value of design.  

A sustainable future?

Of course, I am optimistic and believe in a sustainable future! I came to Central Saint Martins in 1991 for a Masters, because I wanted to reconcile Ecology and Design. My BA in France was in Textile Design and made me realise just how toxic the industry is and how dangerous it was for the environment, with the lack of regulations, back then. And when I got here, a lot of people went like: ‘what’s your problem? Just use natural fibres’ - which are, by the way, very toxic on an industrial scale. Nobody cared about sustainability, there were probably three companies out there I could talk to, but as for the rest - no one cared. Yet, in those years more and more conferences were happening and more information became available on the growing industrial impact of society on the Planet.  

BioLace © Carole Collet 2012 Design Research Project by Carole Collet, Reader and TFRC Deputy Director, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London.

The motivation behind this research lies in the hypothesis that living technology can foster a new approach to address some of the key sustainable challenges of the 21st century. 

Today, we still have massive issues, but we have come a long way and have a wide range of options; this was also favored by sheer market competition - sustainability has become a marketing tool companies put up on their website. So whether they like it or not, they have to go down that route. Now, whether do they do it properly or not, that is difficult to tell - especially the textile industry, which is very difficult to control all in all. But compared to 25 years ago, there has been a massive shift. I see more and more courses here at CSM embedding sustainability, as an ongoing theme that students might not take forward in their final project, but have definitely encountered throughout the curriculum. And, we have more companies coming to us to help them build projects with sustainability in mind.  

It is not enough however, as the global population has exploded at the same time. But it’s encouraging, we must believe in a sustainable future because there can be no other future.