Designer in Residence 2012
Freyja Sewell’s work has an inherent sustainable ethos. Often working with materials that are natural or biodegradable, she takes an experimental approach to product development. Her long-term aim is to reduce consumption by making sustainable, long-lasting products that are available on the mass market – and at an affordable price. Freyja graduated from 3D Design at Brighton University in 2011. During her degree, she won a scholarship to Nagoya University of Arts, which provided an insight to Japanese design culture and philosophy that motivates much of her work.
Inspired by the numerous useful properties of wool – renewable, durable, biodegradable, flame retardant and insulating – Freyja took a material-led approach to the Designers in Residence brief entitled Thrift. She sourced a wool by-product of the British carpet manufacturing industry. Usually used to make underlay, the mixed wool fibres are available cheaply in large quantities. Freyja initially experimented with the ancient technique of wet felting, where wool fibres are soaked in hot water and worked together using friction to combine the fibres to a single piece. Limited by the small size of objects she could physically produce using this method, further experimentation led to combining the wool with starch.
Moulding and heating the wool-starch mixture formed a new hard material. Starch bound wool, or SBW, can be moulded to any shape using heat and pressure. Flat sheets can be formed and worked with like any other sheet material or individual moulds can be made. Freyja’s experimentation has produced a sustainable, versatile material, the full potential of which she is only beginning to explore.
When did you first become aware of – and interested in – design?
I have always found that making things fills me with purpose and satisfies some desire within me. I love the idea of changing the world, even if it is only by changing, for example, a small piece of wood. So if design is the impulse to make physical things that improve the world then I have always been aware of - and interested in – design.
Why did you decide to study design and how has your education influenced your work?
I wanted to gain access to all the tools in the workshop. I also had a great teacher and from an early stage a lesson that I felt stood out as being important was a designer’s responsibility to consider the impact of our insatiable consumption of resources on the world around us. My generation might be the first to have been taught this from day one.
Another positive influence of my education was that I met many people from other countries at my school, and this was the beginning of my love of travel. Seeing how people in different environments solve problems really fanned the flame of my interest in the physical world we construct around us.
What was the influence of your design education on your work?
It is inspiring to know that I have been educated in a country with an incredible design heritage. It is my desire to combine this with other nations’, and in particular Japan’s, thinking, as well as my own ideas, to continue and add to this heritage. Being awarded a four month scholarship to Japan was an important educational milestone. It was an inspiring and also meditative experience. As well as being immersed in another culture it was also a period of time out of the traditional education system, where I was pretty much left to my own devices.
When and why did you start working with wool?
I came across wool quite by accident when designing my chair HUSH, I was going through an extensive stage of modelling, trying the recreate a certain form using any material I could think of. Felt proved to be the perfect answer to this investigation. The more I learn about wool the more potential it seems to have; renewable, British, biodegradable, flame retardant, insulating, naturally anti-static and it also takes colour beautifully.
What or who inspires you?
Japanese culture is a hugely important part of my life, not just its design, but also its philosophy, although of course the two are inseparable. While Japanese design has long been source of inspiration for the west I feel there are still many lessons for me to draw from it. In a world where population numbers in cities continue to soar, and natural resources are being consumed faster and faster, surely more intimate knowledge of a culture where crowded living and limited resources are age-old problems, can only be of great benefit to a modern designer.
How would you describe your approach to design?
A balancing act between practicality and fantasy. While it is exciting to create pieces for the purpose of exploring new materials or concepts, I also want my work to have the potential to fit into everyday lives by being functional and commercially viable. I sometimes feel that too much ‘sustainable design’ is sold as a luxury side-line. It is in everyday objects like cheap plastic stools bought for a party, or to furnish a flat temporarily, that the problems of consumption really appear. These are the objects I aim to replace. It is unrealistic to ask everyone to buy one expensive and I hope to provide a competitive alternative.
How important is process in the making of your work?
Process and a successful final piece are indivisible; one can’t exist without the other. However, it is more important for me that the final piece is successful than the way in which it was conceived. I’ve found that inspiration can come from unexpected places, and so there is no set way of moving from that inspiration to the material realisation.
How important is the story behind the work?
Much of my work is concerned with providing pieces that have a less negative affect on the environment than some other comparable products, so the story is important to make people aware of this. It is also my desire to allow people to choose an item because they love it for some reason other than sustainability. I don’t think that consuming an object through guilt is the way to achieve a long happy relationship with that object.
Which of your early projects was most important in defining your approach to work?
I sometimes feel it was the unsuccessful projects at university that taught me the most about how I need to work. The two projects where I tried to rigidly follow a prescribed ‘approach’ were total failures because I wasn't really engaged with what I was doing. This taught me the importance of following my own way of working, the value of having confidence to stand up for your ideas whilst still being capable of taking criticism when necessary, which is often!
How did your project for Designers in Residence develop?
This project took an unexpected turn about halfway through when I discovered, quite by accident, that I could form a rigid material by combining starch, wool and heat. The project has been a real challenge, one that I have relished and learnt much from. I still know so little about the new material I have discovered. My early investigations show that I’ve barely scratched the surface and now have many exciting new questions to answer.
How do see your practice developing following the residency? What are your goals as a designer?
To see my things being used and making others happy, in the knowledge that when they are done with these things they won’t sit for 1000 years in landfill. I love beautiful, ergonomic design that is a pleasure to interact with and I simply want to add to this.
Where do you see your work fitting with other designers / design movements / broader design discourse?
There is much negativity about my generation’s prospects, but a time of change, or even adversity, also means a time where new thinking and ideas are more important then ever. Careful, innovative and commercially viable use of our resources is a great and exciting challenge, one that I am eager to be a part of. I think that people are more open to new thinking then perhaps they have been previously, how wonderful to be involved in the debate.
I am convinced, or at least hopeful, that 3D printing will eventually revolutionise the way we live. I read the other day that some people think it has the potential to have as large an affect on our everyday lives as the internet. I am doing all I can to be a part of that, as I think that creative, or even ‘artistic’, sentiment will be necessary for it to retain its humanity.
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