Studio Nienke Hoogvliet Turns Seaweed and Fish Skin into Rugs, Fabrics + Leather

Studio Nienke Hoogvliet Turns Seaweed and Fish Skin into Rugs, Fabrics + Leather

Based in The Hague, in The Netherlands, Studio Nienke Hoogvliet is a design studio specializing in material research, experimental and conceptual design. Nienke Hoogvliet founded the studio in 2013, and has since been joined by Tim Jongerius. The pair now engage in freelance projects as well as self-initiated research and design projects that raise awareness of social and environmental problems in the textile, leather and food industry. By creating innovative material alternatives, they hope to change both perspectives and systems.

Tell me a little bit about your childhood, education and background in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design and sustainability.

Nienke: I grew up in The Hague, a city near the beach in the Netherlands. This is where my love for the beach and the sea started. My mom was always making things: sewing my clothes, building new closets or painting something a new color. I inherited her love of textiles and making. At a young age, she taught me how to use the sewing machine and my creativity could then flow freely. I was a very idealistic child. I raised petitions against animal testing, didn’t want to eat meat from the age of seven… Later, I went to the Willem de Kooning Academy – an art school in Rotterdam – and there I learned more about concept development, research and design. I also realized that art or design can be a way to raise awareness and to tell stories. After just three months, I decided that I wanted to have my own design studio and show the world how, with my designs, I could change it for the better. I started Studio Nienke Hoogvliet immediately after graduating in 2013,

Tim: I also grew up in The Hague. As a child, I was already fascinated by how things work. When I was driving with my parents along the highway I could remember every building project there and could explain the progress they had made since the last time we passed it. This way of looking at things developed into questioning things: “Why are things the way they are?” and “Can’t we do better?” At the faculty of Architecture of TU Delft, I developed my ‘research and design for a better world’ mentality further, gaining my Master’s in 2017. Nienke and I met each other in 2005 (at high school!) and since that time we have grown together and embraced the idea that design is the way to change perspectives.

How would you describe your SEA ME and RE-SEA ME projects?

SEA ME is an ongoing research project into how seaweed could be used as a sustainable alternative for textiles and dyes. The SEA ME rug is made of seaweed yarn, knotted by hand into a discarded fishing net to show the duality of the pollution of the ocean and all the beauty and solutions it could offer. Seaweed is a wonderful material, it doesn’t need freshwater or pesticides or insecticides to grow and it doesn’t take up agricultural land.

RE-SEA ME is another research project into which sustainable materials can be created from the ocean. Fish skin is often wasted by the fishing industry, and it can be turned into beautiful leather. This project wants to raise awareness for the same topic as SEA ME, but it shows another potentially sustainable material from the sea. We made a rug, hand-sewn in a discarded fishing net to show the continuation of the topic. And a stool, to show how strong the fish leather is. It’s one of the amazing qualities that fish leather is actually stronger than ‘regular’ leather since fish have a different type of connective tissue.

What inspired this project?

Nienke’s love for nature and the oceans. The urgency to treat them differently, to stop polluting and to see their beauty and potential.

What waste (and other) materials are you using, how did you select those particular materials and how do you source them?

As well as seaweed and fish skins, we have also collaborated with the Dutch Water Authorities, to work with materials reclaimed or created from wastewater. These include reclaimed toilet paper and bio-plastic made from the bacteria that clean the wastewater. Those collaborations were super interesting and we never expected that even wastewater could be such an interesting source of raw materials. It’s very important to show, that even such strange – and let’s be honest dirty, materials can have so much value. If people realized and accepted this, the change to recycling more materials would be easier to make.

When did you first become interested in using waste as raw material and what motivated this decision?

It was never our goal to use waste – we work from a holistic point of view, which means that we try to take all aspects around a production process into consideration. That often leads to the realization that somewhere in the process, valuable material is not being used. To close that circle, it makes sense to use that material.

What processes do the materials have to undergo to become the finished product?

The fish skin is turned into leather through natural tanning. We wrote a book, Fish Leather, to explain the process, so everyone can learn how to do it and it’s actually very easy – it just requires oils and lots of manual labor. For the seaweed it’s more complicated, it requires machines and cannot be done by hand. But the waste from one process can be used for another application, as we showed in the SEA ME Collection. The seating of the chair is made from seaweed yarn, the ‘waste’ of that process is made into a textile dye and is used to dye the seating, the leftovers of the dyeing process are used to create a regular paint for the tabletop, and a bioplastic like material. We fully use the seaweed and have no waste left.

What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they go back into the circular economy?

When they cannot be re-used or recycled anymore, they can be composted and this way they can become food for the soil again. All the materials are biodegradable.

How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?

When you are doing research and experimenting, the change from waste material to product happens slowly and gradually. At first, you are only paying attention to all the things that don’t work. When you are mastering a material more and more, you start to see the potential and that’s when you get excited. Sometimes it can still feel strange, for example, Nienke is scared of fish and during the tanning sometimes she still feels a bit disgusted, but when the end product is complete, it feels great to have given value back to something, so it’s all worth it in the end.

How have people reacted to this project?

We received so many positive responses! Everyone always wonders if the products smell (they don’t!) and they are amazed by the qualities and properties of the materials. We think we have changed a lot of perspectives and are looking forward to continuing to do that with all our projects.

How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing?

They are changing for sure. More and more people realize that we cannot maintain this linear economy and that we have to look into the possibilities of waste as a material. But even more important, more people understand that – and why – we should move towards a circular economy. It is not just about reusing waste, it’s about looking at processes with the aim to not exhaust the planet, the people or the animals. Reusing waste is one of the solutions, but we need to think further, deeper and in circles. We can see that awareness is starting to arise.

What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?

We hope that it will become normal to use waste as a raw material and that there will be no more waste – just more resources.

Product photos by Femke Poort.
Process photos by Hannah Braeken.

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