Why design is diving beneath the waves for answers.

Beneath the waves lies a material that is prolific to the future of design: you can wear it, mould it, eat it, even eat off it. It may even contribute to solving a startling number of complex societal challenges: global warming, the world food crisis and landfill. The mysterious material? Seaweed.

When asked to address the Melbourne Design Week theme ‘design the world you want’, several designers responded with concepts that looked to the ocean floor for inspiration. From algae-glazed ceramics to seaweed fine dining, kelp farms to sea-urchin pickles, marine bioproducts are stepping into the spotlight as a sustainable resource with infinite possibilities. Here’s what a future may look like when we leave land for life underwater.

A future of food is algae

In 2020, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, made a statement that confirmed the world was in the grips of a food shortage crisis. “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults,” said Guterres. “We need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic.”

The global food supply is fragile as the world population moves towards 9.1 billion people by 2050. Agricultural production would need to increase by 70% to feed the forecast population, with one report finding we’d need three ‘Earths’ to provide the food resources we require. In lieu of planet duplication, some scientists have looked towards another, far simpler, solution: seaweed.

For thousands of years, seaweed has been a food source for cultures across the globe. Today, however, only 35 countries commercially harvest algae and kelp as a human food source. For Melbourne researcher and artist Lichen Kelp, now is the time to normalise seaweed — not as a ‘panic food’ foraged on the shoreline during shortages, or a kitsch ingredient for the wellness industry, but as a delicious, hearty, and diverse food source. 

“People are starting to get really excited about seaweed, which is great,” says Lichen, who changed her surname from ‘Kemp’ to her more seaweed-centric pseudonym when she started working with kelp full time fifteen years ago. “And I can understand why — innovations when re-discovering traditional foods is exciting. Seaweed can be as simple or as complicated as you want. I’ve personally gathered wild wakame off Williamstown [in Melbourne] — I just went off the rocks and harvested it directly. It can be that easy.”

Lichen is the founder of The Seaweed Appreciation Society, and is a leading creative voice in sustainable kelp harvesting in Australia. For Melbourne Design Week, she will be hosting the Seaweed Appreciation Dinner, a five-course meal prepared by Melbourne chef Nick Mahlook at his Sodafish Restaurant in Lakes Entrance, Gippsland. Alongside hosts Lichen and Nick, researcher Zoe Brittain will be presenting an overview of the use of seaweed in Australia for over the past 65,000-years, as well as a discussion about sustainable marine permaculture, food security and regeneration of marine habitat. Guests will sip on seaweed beer and kelp cocktails, with the dinner serving up dishes set to inspire even the greatest sceptic of seaweed as subsistence. 

Find out more about the Seaweed Appreciation Dinner here.

Bioplastic: beauty and brains

The potential of marine bioproducts as a sustainable material is one that offers great hope for the future. Seaweed grows incredibly fast (up to 30cm a day for some kelps). It’s a highly versatile medium, used in everything from food additives, to agriculture, to wound care, and health supplements.

For designer Jessie French, however, algae holds far greater potential as a petrochemical-alternative material, central to sustainable living in the future. Jessie is the founder of Other Matter, a design studio working with algae-based bioplastics in a way that has the potential to be carbon negative.

Her practice – through use of carbon-negative algae and cultivation of algae in bioreactors in the studio – is able to decrease carbon emissions more than it is feeding them. Years of experimentation has led Jessie to creating a range of recipes and processed that she uses to create beautiful items from algae. Agar is a produced by processing some types of red algae. It can be used as an algal polymer to make bioplastics which can be moulded into everything from Venetian-glass-like-tableware or applied as an alternative ceramic glaze. You can dip it, paint it, or pour it into, well, whatever you like.

The algae-based materials Jessie has developed and applied to design objects provide an alternative option to petrochemical plastics. This Design Week, Jessie will be showcasing algae-based tableware. Her choice of creation is a direct reference, she says, to both the literal act of consumption and the household context — a possible site for bottom-up change in the face of geopolitical inaction. This show also includes the results of collaborations with ceramists Claire Lehmann and Jia Jia Chen of Fluff Corp. with world-first applications of bioplastic as an environmentally friendly ceramic glaze.

While Jessie uses a vast array of algae in her work, for another Design Week exhibition she has created a collection of bowls and cups using spent grains and hops from the beer-making process, bound with an algal polymer. Also presented in this show, are lighting prototypes using bioplastic which she partnered up with Chris Miller and Lisa Kajewski from Studio Flek to develop. The possibilities of algae materials and what they will come to replace, says Jessie, are endless.

Jessie will be showcasing her products at both the From Form: Alternative Materials from Fungi/Algae/Dirt and A Sea At The Table exhibitions. You can view the full program and see ticketing links, here

One of Jessie French’s agar creations: all pieces are organic, compostable, able to be remade in a generative closed-loop system. Image courtesy of Other Matter.

A delicious solution emerges from the deep

Looking to the deep sea for answers to respond to the impact of climate change is designer and researcher Dr. Pirjo Haikola. She has been working to spread the story of seaweed for the better part of her career, a journey that has taken her from Portugal, to Canada, to Finland. Currently, she is looking to Port Phillip Bay and its resident sea urchin population for her latest project, Urchin Corals.

A qualified scuba instructor, Pirjo had begun to notice the disproportionate number of Purple sea urchins in Victoria and the damage they were causing. They were devouring natural habitats for other marine life, and creating vast, underwater deserts. Barren parts of the bay sparked an idea: how could we cull the population, whilst working towards sustainable food farming? In other words — can we just eat the problem?

“What this came down to was asking myself, ‘what can we do?’” says Pirjo. “And the first thing that came to mind was to modify our culinary choices. With depleted fish stocks, we can eat more seaweed and more sea urchins, and at the same time protect our precious marine environments.”

During this year’s Melbourne Design Week, Pirjo is inviting audiences to a two-part experience that will see guests join her on a guided snorkelling tour of Port Phillip Bay, and then to cook and pickle urchins. It’s an experience she hopes will entice people to form deeper relationships with their local marine environments and the alternative food sources they provide. This, she says, is a responsibility that lies with all designers as we look towards sustainable futures.

“We designers do have a huge responsibility at the moment,” says Pirjo. “And sometimes, we can shy away from that. We feel we don’t have enough power with the companies we work with. But by working with new materials, and reducing our consumption, we really have the opportunity to push this agenda.”

Join Pirjo’s sea urchin snorkel tour here, or the ‘Breaking Down The Urchin’ cooking class here

A quietly submerged superhero

Seaweed may not appear as a glamorous or popular material, but it’s potential is clear. For the designers, researchers, and marine scientists working with seaweed and marine bioproducts, public recognition is still left wanting. The work of Pirjo Haikola, Other Matter and Lichen Kelp will hopefully inspire people to change their consumer behaviour in order to be part of a dramatic shift towards a more sustainable future.