How Joburg designer Matthew Edwards is innovating a circular materials future

by | Jan 24, 2021

Designer Matthew Edwards holds a three-dimensional cube in the palm of his hand. It is small with smoothed-over jagged sides. The deep blue and white colours dance together as if swirling in a slab of marble or like the calico shapes that pattern on a turquoise stone. It is hard to imagine that this object, bearing resemblance to a semi- precious gemstone, is made from waste plastic bottles.

The cube is in Matthew’s latest project, an ever-growing library of fascinating objects generated from inorganic and organic materials that have the potential to shape shift even further, like the cube which becomes a ring (see below). Titled New Projects: Johannesburg’s Material Future, the library invites you to rethink waste and the material future of Johannesburg.

I met Matthew in his home-based Johannesburg studio in early 2020, a few weeks before the South African government announced a nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19. In the space – filled with industrial tools, a makeshift gas burner, respirator mask, and boxes labelled with the names of various types of waste and organic substances – Matthew walked me through New Projects, his digital and physical dossier of materials, which is an extension of his innovative and experimental design.

Born and raised in Johannesburg, Matthew, who studied Industrial Design at University of Johannesburg, says he has always been fascinated by narratives and notions of new materials. “I am a designer who has the ability to make do,” he says about his use of whatever materials are available, suitable or adjustable for a particular need and scenario. It is through this work that Matthew has found a niche developing a new material vocabularies.

New Projects’ physical display, presented at workshops, features an exhibition board of materials labelled with details describing the source, the composition, and the date and process of their transformation or creation. The projects is an archive of the new life of materials; detailing their place in a circular design process, in which their existence is endless.

“The materials library is a constant work in progress, with materials being added to it as more workshops happen,” says Matthew. He is facilitating interactive workshops open to artists and designers from across Johannesburg, who contribute to the library. More than 90 materials ranging from recycled paper, plastic, metals and even leather made from kombucha were presented at the first workshop in December. “I want to create an open-source space that is democratised in the sense that it can be added to by designers, artists and other people during workshops.”

Matthew has listed organic products that form the ingredients of some of the objects in New Projects on the white board in the studio: wood chips, avocado skin and pit, and mycelium, a 100% biodegradable mushroom-based material. He says that the library’s inorganic materials “primarily consist of waste from both household and industry such as plastic, textiles, concrete, metal and glass”.

Alongside the physical exhibition, the open source digital platform has the information and formulas used to create the objects in New Projects; presenting the various life stages of materials and transparently sharing their possibilities. By exhibiting the materials ahead of their metamorphosis, their potential to transmute is displayed. Closely reading the objects’ labels – their origins, make up and characteristics – you can learn what these materials reveal about our societies.

Last year, Matthew was selected for the Circular Design Lab, a project developed by the British Council in collaboration with UK-based organisation Ellen MacArthur Foundation. He and nine other creatives from across Africa visited the UK in late 2019, where they explored new sustainable solutions for their design practices, drawing from concepts of circular design. “I saw a great opportunity for open-source materials research in Johannesburg,” says Matthew. The experience exposed him to circular design at a critical moment of his practice.

The concept of circular design is to design waste and pollution out of processes. “Traditional design approaches place a particular focus on considering and meeting the needs of the end user,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Designing for the circular economy “means understanding the impact of our design on stakeholders and building in feedback loops to help identify and address the unintended consequences of our design decisions”, it adds. Designers need to question the implications of design systems across the value chain, and on the environment.

The concept is “underpinned by dissatisfaction with the prevailing and traditional linear extract-produce-use-dump material and energy flow model of the modern economic system which is problematic in terms of economic, social and environmental sustainability”, explain academics Jouni Korhonen, Cali Nuur, Andreas Feldmann and Seyoum Eshetu Birkie in their essay.

Matthew’s previous works have been predicated on systems of sustainability. Take for instance his prototype moss shoe, a concept sneaker that engages with the idea of using a living, wearable material, or his football boot designed using the “design for repair” process and with material longevity in mind. But, he says, “I didn’t know much about circular economy until it was introduced to me through Circular Futures Lab.” Now, through New Projects he consciously draws from tenets of circular design, which include the regeneration of natural systems, designing out waste and pollution, and keeping products and materials in use.

African circular design is about “creating and reusing with what we’ve got, without the millions of Rands of investment in big machinery”

New Projects also references practices of artisans from across the African continent whose works have often been, for generations, inherently circular in nature. Matthew describes African circular design as “creating and reusing with what we’ve got, without the millions of Rands of investment in big machinery”. By looking to a manifesto of reuse, recycle and reduce, New Projects amplifies Matthew’s design practice of “making do”.

Walking me through the materials, Matthew shows me a palm-sized rectangular structure that he has created using sawdust mixed with liquids such as water and agar-agar, a gel-like substance made from algae. This sturdy structure has the potential to be the basis for a “new” piece of furniture. The materials library, an amorphous archive of shape-shifting matter, will soon be home to an object made out of coffee waste. Big Circle Studios is also researching faux leather made from kombucha tea.

We go back to the blue and white cube in his studio made from high-density polyethylene – a material used in packaging and plastic containers and bottles. Matthew has chosen HDPE as a substance for many of the library’s objects because of its fascinating material qualities when melted down and its ubiquity across Johannesburg. “Plastics are interesting because they are omnipresent in our society and because of the collection ecosystem around them,” Matthew says. This is an indictment of plastic systems that are widespread globally, and permeate South Africa; systems that are part and parcel of linear, mass production and distribution processes, and which often result in, or are components of, inequality, high consumption volumes and pollution.

So, as the coronavirus pandemic lays bare inequality across the globe and destabilises the fossil fuel industry, I wonder how this object will add to critical conversations around plastic systems in and around Johannesburg? How does New Projects provoke questions about the materiality of the city and interrogate the structures that have led to the state of materials today? How will it help reconfigure the city’s processes and imagine a new material future?

We have a robust recycling space but widespread access to language on new materials is scant

Using an innovative approach to waste and organic matter, New Projects identifies the complex systems in Johannesburg and rethinks the design potential for the city’s waste. Matthew says, “I’m interested in the shortfalls that Johannesburg has in terms of manufacturing. In the city, we have a robust recycling space but widespread access to language on new materials is scant.” Informal waste pickers play a major role in the city’s recycling efforts – their work is not formally recognised nor compensated fairly.  And in a period of scarcity and uncertainty as a result of the global pandemic Covid-19, waste pickers have been marginalised even further.

Identifying these entangled and fraught systems, New Projects aims to make a distinct and innovative materials’ vocabulary aware of the “nuances of the informal systems within these ecologies”. Matthew says an awareness of the city’s intricacies “will add to [New Projects] materials’ narrative and value as we unpack the energy, labour and cost of these materials and systems”.

New Projects, for now, is focussed on the Johannesburg municipal precinct, including the city centre and Troyeville and Parktown neighbourhoods. “The duality of Johannesburg is quite interesting, and so are its contradictions. In the area we’re mapping, you have industry, residential and suburban neighbourhoods. And the vast systems that revolve around them.”

New Projects creates an ecosystem of reusing, recycling and reducing

The library has a geographical chart with information about each specific material and where it is located. Recipes expand on how these resources can be transformed in various ways. Through its mapping, New Projects creates an ecosystem of reusing, recycling and reducing.

In a city like Johannesburg, with distinct histories and diverse communities, circular design needs to be cognisant of complexities to make an impact, says Pavitray Pillay, environmental behaviour change practitioner at WWF South Africa. “Circular economy needs a unique design, one which is fine-tuned to the socio-political, cultural and economic climate it is applied in, as opposed to a blanketed framework,” says Pavitray. New Projects can only be effective in its circular approach if it is hyper vigilant of its position in society; and if it carefully engages with materials and systems of the city.

At a time when we’re rethinking systems designed on excess, inequality and injustice, Matthew’s project is timely. By using experimentation and material innovation, New Projects can radically imagine and offset new narratives that re-envision the world.

 

Credits

Notes

  • Stefanie is an award-winning journalist whose writing is focused on visual art, race and gender, and has written for titles such as Mail & Guardian, Marie Claire and City Press. Currently studying toward her PhD in Art History at Rutgers University, Stefanie holds a Master of Arts in Contemporary Curatorial Practice from Wits University. Stefanie has written a feature about Johanneburg-based industrial designer, Matthew Edwards.
  • This is the first of a six-part story series, Design Futures Africa, about circular designers in Africa. Storytellers have worked with Twyg on stories that will be published once a week until 28 February on Twyg. This project is supported by the British Council. The designers were hosted by the British Council and Ellen MacArthur Foundation at the Circular Design Lab 2019 London.
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