A look into the bioreceptive kitchen of Margherita Soldati and Nafsika Efklidou (Inside Outside)

On the grounds of bio-art space Mediamatic, artist Margherita Soldati and designer Nafsika Efklidou from studio Inside Outside have set up a laboratory. The old warehouse already had a sterile space; all they had to do was bring their instruments (mostly standard cooking utensils) and ingredients (also noticeably often kitchen-cupboard staples). The kitchen garden surrounding the lab, with its wealth of mosses, liverworts and lichens on stones and fallen tree trunks, could not be a more perfect setting for their experiment. That is because they are in the process of developing bioreceptive textiles: flexible materials on which you can grow organisms and plants, in particular mosses.

Textiles usually last about ten years at most when in use, and often even less in the open air. Inside Outside is exploring how to tackle this more sustainably and thinking about a life after use. The studio, led by Petra Blaisse, has 30 years of experience in textiles, landscape design and interior architecture. Nafsika: ‘Inside Outside has much experience in developing our own textiles, but this is the first time we are taking a risk with making textile materials with living organisms that are biodegradable and uncontrollable.’ They have been working on sustainable textiles for some time, but it is not easy to implement in all their projects. ‘We have the will, the passion and the mentality to change the way we work with materials, but the industry is not advanced enough to support us yet. There needs to be a whole mentality change from the designers, the clients and the industry, all at the same time. We also see that there is a big learning process in working sustainably and with novel biomaterials; not just expecting others to change and give us the right materials, but tackling the difficulties of what it means to develop materials ourselves.’

We have the will, the passion and the mentality to change the way we work with materials – Nafsika Efklidou

Inside Outside had already started this research into bioreceptive textiles with the help of a starting grant from the Fund. They worked together with a number of external partners. Although this generated interesting insights, there was a need to really bring the research ‘in house’ and make it hands-on. The Fund’s Building Talent grant scheme, where a design talent is linked to a design agency for three months, was an excellent opportunity. While looking for someone with experience of biomaterials, away from conventional ‘textile thinking’ and from what has already been developed by others, Margherita turned out to be the perfect match. ‘I had previously worked on more art-oriented projects on an architectural scale, which I really enjoyed. So to be matched by the Fund with a design studio that works with textiles and is more professionalized is very interesting for my learning curve,’ she says herself. Nafsika: ‘You want someone who thinks along. When running an office, research often gets a little sidelined; it’s not really part of the daily business. Now with Margherita it is a great experience to have someone who is in it, fully, for two days, to think along and bring it steps further.’ Margherita: ‘When you come from different backgrounds of knowledge, you ask questions that do not follow the logic of how the other thinks. That opens up new pathways to ...,’ Nafsika smoothly finishes the sentence, ‘… to think further and investigate.’

When you come from different backgrounds of knowledge, you ask questions that do not follow the logic of how the other thinks – Margherita Soldati

After a month of reading and brainstorming, they started experimenting. The experiments ranged from three-dimensional structures made of cellulose and hemp, to knitting with alginate-based bioplastic yarns and try-outs with tree bark and hairy fibres made from jute. How flexible and translucent can you make a cellulose-based bioskin? And how do you create enough relief for the mosses to attach themselves to? How do you make the samples water-resistant? Or do you make them soluble, so that in the end only the plant structure remains? What happens if you add food colouring? Wow, you get a ‘pretty pink’.

During the interview, a live cooking experiment is being conducted in the lab: a proven combination of water, glycerine and agar-agar (a plant-based gelling agent). Everything in the right proportions and then boiling for 10 minutes, while Margherita stirs. The more water you boil off, the less shrinkage you end up with. Another trick to control shrinkage, they read somewhere, is to pour the elastic substance onto a Lego base plate. The studs keep the mixture under tension during drying and, as a bonus, give structure to the sample. The next challenge is to make the samples larger, up to A3 size. That is more realistic than immediately producing a square metre and also more practical. It so happens that some samples have to go into the oven, and a household oven is not that big.

Everything they try out has its origin in open-source resources; in biomaterial research, a great deal is shared. In turn, they pass on to the community their own discoveries or improvements to the process (if you cook at a higher temperature, you only need to stir for 10 minutes instead of 40!). Incidentally, not all knowledge is made accessible; in the competition for new materials, much information is kept secret so that it can be capitalized on later.

They do not want to be restricted in their development for the time being. Ideally, they would like to develop a material for outdoor use, such as bioreceptive scaffolding netting. Imagine that the temporary textile façade of a building is slowly taken over by plants. And that when the scaffolding is no longer needed, you can then give this cloth with all the living greenery a new use, for example as soil restoration material alongside a motorway. Even if the vegetation fabric does not eventually form new vegetation, the ‘waste’ is still absorbed by nature because it is 100 per cent biodegradable.

Soon the long wait will begin. The samples are being sent to biologist Jacqueline Baar, who will test them with a mix of grasses and herb plants. A nerve-racking time, as infections and dehydration can easily occur in the patiently prepared samples. It’s difficult for the designers to relinquish control, but they have to; nature takes its own course. This is no ordinary project, anyway. Margherita: ‘It really feels like going on an expedition. Usually, when you start a project, you already know more or less what the outcome will be. You already have all your tools and all your knowledge to achieve that result. But this project is an expedition into the unknown; that means we all have a piece of knowledge and we all have a piece of skill, scattered, but none of the professionals individually knows what the outcome might be. I think that only by putting all the pieces of the puzzle together can you achieve the desired result. It’s beautiful ... and really exciting!’

The interview seems to be at an end, but apparently we still haven’t finished talking about mosses. Do I know how cool silver-moss is? So cosmopolitan! It’s the most common moss species in urban environments, including in the Netherlands. It grows on a wide range of artificial substrates, even on plastic (!) and is tolerant with respect to pollution!

When I am outside again, I automatically look at the ground. Is that moss I see between the paving stones? What an ingenious and resilient little plant it is ... In Margherita’s own words, ‘It is a whole kingdom in itself.’

Text: Victoria Anastasyadis
Photography: Renate Beense