The future of Materials by Jen Keane

Jen Keane is a designer and researcher working in between the disciplines of design and science, technology and craft. Her work is based on the exploration of sustainable and biological solutions to design a new generation of hybrid materials.

The beginning

Jen Keane: As a designer, I was always interested in how things were made and materiality is a huge part of that. I was first introduced to textiles formally though when I was studying fiber science and apparel design (BSc) at Cornell. At the time it was one of the only programs that combined textile science with fashion design under the same roof. Later working at Adidas, I was further exposed to many aspects of the creation process but always ended up coming back to materials. It is a really exciting time for materials design. I believe the future of many industries will depend greatly on a better understanding of materials and the availability of those materials. I decided to take some time out of the industry to pursue the MA Material Futures course at Central Martins to explore future materiality outside a commercial context.

This is grown. project

Jen Keane: My MA project ‘this is grown’ was motivated by a frustration with plastics and a visible disparity between scientific research and design manifestations around natural materials.

Taking an organism-driven approach to material design, the project began under the premise that a greater understanding of nature could help us not just replace the petrochemical-based materials of today with more sustainable ones, but perhaps allow us to devise entirely new systems of making and categories of materials previously unimagined. After all, nature has had 3.8 billion years to perfect the ultimate circular economy: Life. Maybe we can still learn something.

Introduced to bacterial cellulose by scientists at Imperial College London who are studying the material and the bacteria that produce it, I was inspired not only by its natural material qualities but the way it is grown. Learning from the biologists and material scientists, I studied and cultured the bacteria myself, crafting new tools to manipulate its natural growing process and eventually employing it in a new form of textile creation I call ‘microbial weaving’.

In context to traditional weaving, I am weaving the warp and the bacteria grow the weft, at a nanoscale. This allows for the potential to weave patterns not possible with traditional weaving and engineer the material strength in multiple directions. Incredibly lightweight, transparent and rivaling its synthetic counterparts in tensile strength, the hybrid material created also offers huge potential for customization and application in numerous industries from high-performance composites to biomedical applications.

I grew the upper of a shoe to show how this material process could affect the way we design and make things in the future. Nature doesn’t make materials in sheets and cut them for assembly. It makes only as required. Therefore the upper was designed and grown in a single piece with no sewing; one continuous yarn held into place by the cellulose produced by the bacteria.

About the future of materials design

Jen Keane: It is my hope that further developments in microbial weaving and other innovations resulting from it can help us evolve our material systems for good and inspire a more holistic approach to making.

I see my role as a material designer akin to that of an architect. I am not a material scientist nor engineer but I need to understand the basic principles behind current technologies to design well with them. I think future material designers will need to be comfortable with adapting to the needs of shifting disciplines and taking a more holistic and systematic approach to design. I also think we will see more and more need for material designers who can navigate both the scientific and creative industries.

Focusing lately on growing trends in biodesign and synthetic biology, I am both excited and wary of how quickly this field seems to be advancing. We are just at the beginning of biofabricated materials so there is much-untapped potential there. But I am also fascinated with recent work in digital material design for augmented and virtual reality and I don’t think we should underestimate this field.

Content Credit: ©Jen Keane and Through Objects.

Featured Photo ©Adam Toth and Jen Keane | Other Photos: Vita Larvo and Jen Keane.

Trends: Sustainable and Shared.