Material matters – designing for new biomateriality

During the first seven months of the year 2017, we had used more from the nature than our planet can renew in the whole year.

Almost every day we hear some bad news related to materials: oceans are filled with plastics, textile waste is buried in landfills, mining is polluting the nature. We might soon be facing resource scarcity and even more severe environmental problems than today. What to do?

Each of us can try to make more appropriate material choices for our everyday life. It requires quite a lot of information of materials, and consideration of the product lifecycle before buying them. Which materials is this product made of? How long can I use this? What will happen to this gadget or garment when we don’t use it anymore? Same questions should be asked already when products  – and also materials – are designed. Designers have here an important role as innovators, facilitators and spokespersons with empathy. Now don’t get too stressed – this is not easy, change will take time, and it can be done only in collaboration over all boundaries; designers with scientists, engineers with politicians, humanists with business community and so on.

New bio-based materials offer one solution for a more sustainable material world and the research of biomaterials has become a hot topic around the globe. Since 2011, I have had an opportunity to develop the CHEMARTS collaboration between design and science at the Aalto University, focusing especially in wood-based biomaterials. 75 % of Finland is covered by forest and the forest industry based on wood cellulose still has a remarkable role in the Finnish economy. However, the products are mainly high-volume and bulk: paper and paperboard, pulp and sawn timber. What about something totally new, high added-value products? How to respect our precious and delicate nature at the same time? CHEMARTS study courses are a good platform for design and technology students to explore together cellulose and other natural compounds. More advanced material research for new type materials is conducted in Finland in several biomaterial-related research projects like Design Driven Value Chains in the World of Cellulose (DWoC).

What could be an ideal(istic) vision for more sustainable material future? In my dreams the everyday materials become as popular phenomena as food is today: materials will be respected, commonly discussed and argued, and new healthy trends emerge every now and then like diets nowadays. The need for materials in general should decrease, and all materials would be reusable, recyclable or biodegradable. Most materials could be produced out of renewable raw materials like wood, plants or algae, many produced out of waste, and some grown by microbe or fungi. We will have totally new business concepts and a remarkable part of production will happen locally. That’s a dream to work for!


Pirjo Kääriäinen
Professor, Design driven fibre innovation
Aalto University
School of Arts, Design and Architecture & School of Chemical Engineering

Photo: DWoC / Light weight structures of 100 % nanocellulose, made by Tiina Härkäsalmi, photo Eeva Suorlahti