Hypernatural Manufacture

An Interview with Jiwei Zhou

“I keep on reflecting: how can we have more control of nature, while still respecting the ‘well-being’ of nature? ”

Jiwei Zhou is a design engineer who studies materials, objects, and their related mediums as she encounters them in her daily life. Believing in the maxim “the medium is the message”, she creates objects with a combination of techniques such as nurture, grow, transform, hand-craft, and digital fabrication. Inspired by objects, both virtual and physical, she utilizes research and storytelling methods to investigate materialization between abstract concepts and tangible objects. She holds a Master of Science in Design for Interaction from Delft University of Technology, and a BA of Industrial Design from Tongji University, Shanghai.

Interwoven - Imitation of Ikea Alseda stool. Photo: Jiwei Zhou

In your artist statement, you spoke of the relationship between materials, objects, and medium. Can you tell us a little more about how you distinguish between these different elements and how they interact with one another?

I was inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s thoughts on how the medium affects society more than the content that is delivered over the medium. I am still trying to figure out how the three interact with each other, but by putting them together, I want to emphasize the potential of materials and objects to convey messages.

I don’t consider myself an artist - I have no traditional title to call myself. My background is in product and interaction design, but the role of “designer” is one that constantly eludes me. We usually refer to things we design as “products,” but I don’t want my designs to simply become products. Designers have the power to materialize insights  and embed objects with meaning. Through this meaning-making, we can introduce new human-artifact relationships.

As alternative “products,” design objects manifest through novel materials and forms. They can advocate new ways of interaction. Designers have the opportunity to provide and negotiate with the medium we handle, and for me, the medium and materials are usually the starting point of design. Playing with these elements triggers thoughts and messages to emerge – the object becomes an organic synthesis of the medium and the designer’s message.

How do these elements play into your own work (nurture, grow, transform, hand-craft, digital fabrication, etc.)? What mediums and materials do you like to work with? What kinds of objects do you create?

I started researching biomaterials after realizing that there is a huge waste of tea in my hometown of Yibin. During the summer and autumn harvests, the lesser quality, bad-tasting tea leaves are left in the field. My mother is a plant biologist and asked me to design some products with the tea leaves.

I began by studying how foreign designers convert bio-waste into new forms, deconstructing and reconstructing materials with biodegradable glue. Experimenting for two months, I discovered a starch-based bioplastic that solidifies the tea powder while maintaining the aroma. The pleasurable tea aroma inspired me to magnify its effects in a set of utilitarian objects
(lamp and tea cups).

For my master studies, I turned my focus to interaction design and became more interested in human-material interactions as they relate to objects. During my studies, I completed an internship at Mediamatic in Amsterdam, where I worked on a project called Tempeh Ware, a pleasant, curiosity-provoking, educational eating experience with fungus and tempeh fermentation techniques.While at TU Delft, I took a material driven design course by Elvin Karana, where I explored biomaterials through engineering and digital fabrication methods. I collaborated with two other students to investigate meta-materials (designing the structure of hard and soft polymers on the micro level). We studied the cracking behaviors of various materials and discovered that we could program the cracking line of one material to imitate the behavior of another.

Working with nature, my designer role has become more of a coordinator between natural materials and human goals. I keep on reflecting: how can we have more control of nature, while still respecting the ‘well-being’ of nature?

You have studied in different countries - China, Germany, and the Netherlands - How do these multi-cultural backgrounds impact your way of handling and translating material?

Over the years, I have noticed a universal cultural shift in the approach to materials and their use in design. Many cultures are turning towards sustainable materials, growing materials, and an emphasis on tangible experience.

In Chinese culture, the material handling rises from the essense of traditional handicrafts. As students, we learned techniques such as wood joining and tie-dyeing, trying to learn from ancient wisdom and incorporate a hint of traditional craftsmanship into our work. In my first bio-material initiatives, I stuck to traditional processing of materials, like molding, sanding, sculpting, milling, and coating. The aesthetic experience is also related to tranquility and ‘zen’, if I describe it in western terms.

When I was in Germany in 2015, I experienced designing with a new chemical material for the company BASF, at Folkwang University of the Arts. The approach was hands-on and intuitive, but my design was limited by the traditional industrial mindset - use new materials to produce more products that already exist. I designed a compact outdoor coat hanger with the new material. There were students who could think out of the box, but I felt pressure to design for the existing industry.

I came to the Netherlands in 2017. Dutch designers are very experimental in finding their own materials from food waste, industrial waste, or even human body waste. There are ongoing collaborations between material scientists, biologists, artists and designers for material innovation and sustainability. I became more open-minded when handling materials and I knew that I could be really imaginative and critical towards my own practices.

My studies and research have allowed me to experience very dynamic and diverse design cultures - structural research-through-design approach in TU Delft, more artistic approach in Mediamatic, and an intuitive and conceptual design culture from the design academy. 

You have worked with film, photography and object-making. What do you think are the special roles of tangible objects and digital objects in storytelling?

It’s hard to say what is tangible and what is digital. Sometimes the tangile is experienced through digital media. Take for instance, microscopic images of root morphologies. The moment I looked at roots under the microscope, I was stunned by their beauty, but I experienced a loss of reality when I only had the digital image later and the roots were no longer present beside me.

In general, I think people are more used to being told a story by film and photography, visually. When an object tries to tell a story, the message comes out vague because the narrative in the object usually lies more behind the scenes. Objects communicate all the intermediate processes of their making, rather than simply a well-planned final result. Tangible objects are more open for people to experience and interpret.

I am also fascinated by how fast and easy it can be for digital objects to transmit, transcending time and space. When I created photography and film, I presented the nuances that I perceive in changing objects. It is not easy for people to touch the tangible design, so digital presentations are very important to let people imagine the touching and close inspection.

What are your thoughts on the increasing digitalization of materiality? (model, render, digital fabrication, etc.)

The digitalization trends help designers take a closer look at materials, and have more autonomy in material use. For instance, 3D printing and 4D printing (MIT self-assembly lab) enables manipulation of materials on the micro-level and in real-time. Now there are user-friendly software interfaces for designers to collaborate with artificial intelligence.

Topology, for example, helps designers optimize highest material strength with least material use. Software can also lower the threshold of engineering – parametric design introduces algorithms into design, and bridges the form giving and function. Computation can also result in novel material behaviours (e.g. Re:flex, a reconfigurable, programmable material that changes its shape in response to heat, by Karlijn Sibbel et al).

In tandem with these advantages, the role of designer is becoming at least partially substituted and we need to think about what our irreplaceable values are: researching, conceptualizing, optimizing digitally-generated designs, and identifying meaningful design directions amid the challenges and issues we are facing, etc.

In one of your studies on meta-materials, you designed and programmed an object that imitated the cracking behaviors of rocks, wood and polystyrene. As technology allows us to engineer more materials with properties that do not naturally occur, what impacts do these “hypernatural” materials have on our (humans) relationship with nature?

We tried to blend the border of nature and computation through this project and anticipate future applications. ‘Hypernatural’ beings are more and more common in our daily life. Consciously or not, we are experiencing them on a daily basis: man-made meat, plant roots textile, mushroom furniture. We are getting used to hybrid beings in all contexts.

One impact is that we are more and more conscious about our environmental impact through mass production of products and unsustainable use of natural resources. Many people are thinking about the role of technology in sustainability – we might not stand on the opposite of nature, but can incorporate technology into nature and vice versa. Technology is the next nature.

In the interwoven project, you explored the possibility of growing roots into a daily product - an IKEA ALSEDA stool. How does this experience inform your view of natural design versus human design, industrial mass-production versus natural manufacture?

My thesis project, Interwoven, was a collaboration with the material inventor and artist Diana Scherer. I combined micro-structure engineering with additive manufacturing and growing plant roots. The project was driven by the artist’s vision to transform a fragile root textile into a daily-use product. Tinkering with plant roots, I observed that at the micro level the roots always search for a way to move downwards, following gravity and filling any grow vessels, even crossing barriers.

To manifest this micro interaction at the macro level, I created the imitation IKEA Alseda stool - a standard mass produced daily product. I envisioned the stool to be grown by roots, sewing 600 porous beads together in a mass. I want to provoke thoughts on the collaboration between human-controlled digital fabrication and growing nature. The project showed a possibility of natural manufacture but there is still a long way to go, towards a ‘natural mass production’ and working with living organisms like a bio-factory (e.g. the furniture grown from trees by Full Grown).

With the roots, it remains a challenge to keep the roots alive after harvesting the materials. It makes me think, when we use natural manufacturing, the living beings we use should sustain themselves while producing for human beings. We need to put more effort into making natural design truly sustainable. But one step at a time, I think we are shifting from merely exploiting bio-based materials to collaborating with biology and we are on a good track.