Bio-Fold: Debrief with Tomás Clavijo and Katya Bryskina
Photo — Niklas Adrian Vindelev
The global food production industry creates millions of metric tons of agricultural waste every year — mostly in the form of vegetal fibres: straw, husk, leaf, stem, and similar. Currently, only 10% of this material gets put to use. In response, designers Tomás Clavijo and Katya Bryskina have created Bio-Fold: a playful research project that proposes to use vegetal fibres to create biocomposites, a pliable, easy-to-use and fully biodegradable material.
Specifically, Bio-Fold is a method for homegrown circular fabrication. It allows anyone to grow, cast and shape their own furniture from waste, and then fully recycle it after use. The key elements are a clever use of a reusable plastic bag — IKEA’s versatile FRAKTA bag — to create a mold for casting biocomposite materials, and parametric design thinking. Working with the standard dimensions of the FRAKTA bag, it was possible to create a library of designs that anyone could attempt to make at home. In this way, we hope to democratise sustainable furniture fabrication, empowering anyone to grow their own furniture.
Tomás and Katya created Bio-Fold as an end-to-end fabrication system during their residency with us, as part of SPACE10’s collaboration with Strelka Institute. We took some time to talk with the duo about biocomposites, the importance of returning to local production systems, and the many uses of the blue shopping bag.
How did you come to do a research residency at SPACE10?
Tomás: I’ve worked and practised as an architect in Switzerland for about five years. After that, I made a move to innovation and strategic design projects. As an innovation strategist, I combine grounded material insights with cultural strategies and soft speculation. By the time I discovered SPACE10, I was doing research at Strelka Institute and working with Katya on a project around mycelium-based materials.
Katya: My background is in architecture and art, with particular interest in computational design, robotic fabrication, material research and biology. Tomás and I were exploring different possibilities for mycelium-based materials: supply chain, geometrical possibilities and fabrication methods. We saw the open call at SPACE10 and we thought it was the perfect match, because our values and interests are so similar.
It’s no secret that the FRAKTA bag is a big part of the project. Why did you decide to work with it?
Katya: Thirty-two years ago already, the blue IKEA bag addressed the need to have a reusable, recyclable plastic bag. In this project, our method of casting and molding biocomposites was based on vacuum-bagging — i.e. we were using a lot of plastic bags. We were looking to replace them with an object that was reusable, but at the same time commonly found in people’s homes. The idea was to produce a tool that everyone could use to make furniture at home. So we decided to try to hack FRAKTA and make it into a tool for shaping furniture.
Tomás: FRAKTA is also a cultural icon, an object with intrinsic cultural value. In this project, we are trying to use this everyday object as a narrative device to introduce a technology that isn’t so approachable, like vacuum-bagging of biocomposite materials. It’s the object itself that allows the story to unfold.
Circular design was one of the starting points of the Bio-Fold project — but what are the principles of circular design?
Tomás: Circular design is design that considers not only the life of an object, but where it came from, all the materials and emissions used in its production and transport and what happens at the end of its life: is the object going to be disintegrated or reused in a new cycle, as a new part for a new product?
Katya: Thinking circularly means taking in the complexity of industrial production systems and simplifying the steps. It means going back in time — there used to be a time when we produced everything locally — but using the technologies we have today. We wanted to empower people to produce locally and on-demand, to stop overproduction. In addition, we reduced the number of parts by designing single-sheet pieces. This simplifies production, assembly process and recycling, and doesn’t require transportation of pieces from different locations.
The project is very focused on using local materials, particularly biocomposites. Can you shed some light on what biocomposites are?
Tomás: A biocomposite is a composite material that uses natural fibres and a binder. Normally, it presents a sustainable alternative to traditional composites, although even biocomposites are not always 100% natural — it largely depends on what binder you use. Some biodegradable options are plant-based resin or mycelium, although each one of them still presents associated complexities.
Katya: It’s still not easy to get a sustainable binder, but we believe that it will be widely available soon.
It is also important to choose fibres depending on your local area. Biocomposite material is usually based on vegetal fibres from agricultural waste, or fibres left over from food production. We have a big amount of this waste — and we currently use only about 10%. It’s a resource that we should learn how to use better.
These days, we hear a lot about parametric design. You propose a concept for a simple digital tool that would allow anyone to use your library to design their own furniture. What is parametric design, and can you guide us step-by-step through this process?
Tomás: Parametric design uses an algorithmic approach to generate an object, shape, thing, or geometry. Currently, it is often related to complex and expensive high-end design. With this project, we are trying to take a more intuitive, natural, low-tech approach that would make parametric design available to many people.
Katya: Parametric design builds upon the relationship between all elements: when you change one, everything changes. It is attractive because it brings new possibilities in terms of functionality and aesthetics. The right geometry can provide a much better structural performance and can help simplify the fabrication process. We looked at how to make parametric design and folding instructions very simple: our goal was to develop a low-tech method that could be used even by those who don’t have the skills to code on advanced software.
Tomás: We have proposed a parametric library of possible geometries that people can access through a digital platform. The platform would allow you to select the desired geometry and customise it to suit your needs. Once you are happy with the final shape, you could produce a set of instructions to build your design.
Katya: The instructions will guide you through the process of mixing the right amount of fibres with a binder, placing them inside a modified FRAKTA bag, vacuuming and folding the desired geometry. Drying time depends on the binder. Once the shape is solidified, you carefully extract the final object from your bag, and it is ready to use.
Tomás: It is important to note that the first trials will result in mistakes, and some material might be wasted. Once you have perfected the technique, it gets easier.
Why do you think that a project like this is important today?
Katya: Now that we’re entering a new world, it’s the time to implement new strategies. I really hope our method will become even more simplified with use, and that people everywhere will be locally making these fun, foldable objects.
Tomás: Bio-Fold connects, in an intentionally simple and playful fashion, two often disconnected, critical global issues: plastic waste and the increase in the agricultural use of resources. One of the core ideas in the project was to turn plastic from a molded material into a molding system for other, more sustainable materials. Thirty-two years ago, FRAKTA represented a step away from single-use plastics. Now, we want to find new uses for this plentiful and durable material, to put it to work for the benefit of the environment.
What have you learned from this project?
Katya: There is no technology without a context.