Rasa Weber is inspired by algae. Red, green, yellow, orange algae.
The Berlin-based designer happened upon this biological obsession after reading about “algae plagues” in a local newspaper. Locals were waging war against algae in a nearby lake, the newspaper reported, and the plant was depicted as a wild force to be defeated. The drama of the battle captivated Weber, and she decided to read more about this obstreperous and resilient group of organisms.
As she read, she wondered if algae was all that bad — and what could be done with it. “Algae is regarded as a weed — Unkraut in German,” she says in a talk at TEDxHamburg, ” but I wondered, ‘Could we see them differently … Maybe even see them as a resource?’”
She and her partner, textile designer Essi Johanna Glomb, decided to “look at algae from the perspective of a designer” to see what they could create from this group of weeds. They dove into studying different types of algae and eventually came across the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology, which conducts research on microalgae. On a trip to the Fraunhofer laboratories, Weber and Glomb were introduced to copious research on the organisms — from new methods of algae breeding to the process of extracting fats from the plants.
But what really struck Weber and Glomb was the laboratories’ aesthetics: “The scientists keep samples of their algae in something like a freezer,” Weber says, “… and one thing that was striking to us was the colors of the algae … Algae are green, but they have different shades of green, and besides green they have [different] tones of yellow, brown, orange and even a really bright red.”
After their visit, the pair began to use dried microalgae to create a “biological color palette,” Weber says. “We started to work with it in the studio like we’d work with any other material. And soon we figured out that our dried microalgae resembled pigments that are usually used for textile printing … We realized that we had something with quite a potential.”
Weber and Glomb decided that they’d start to use microalgae as an alternative to synthetic textile dyes in their textile printing. “[With algae] we could grow our own material just in the amount we needed,” Weber says, “so we developed our own analogue textile printer … It goes from breeding the algae to printing with it.”
The team grows algae in the machine, filters the algae and then cooks the algae to create a dried pigment paste that is applied to textiles by “driving” the machine over cloth. “You can print up to 20 meters of textile in one go,” Weber says.
The problem with algae dyes? They’re a bit unpredictable, Weber says. “When we printed the first textiles, we put them out in the sun to let them dry and when we came back after some time … our entire color palette had changed. It changed from green to blue and from red to yellow and we didn’t quite know what to do with that.” What they did was embrace this dynamism and work with a fashion designer to create clothes that change color as you wear them.
Weber and Glomb continue to design, looking for ways to use the over 60,000 types of algae discovered in the world.
For more, watch Weber’s whole talk below:
Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:
The speaker presents her idea — that fashion can become more sustainable through the use of algae as a design material — in a way that is compelling, layered and dynamic. She presents a clever way to combine design and biology, through the assistance of research scientists and presents it with photos, clear explanation and an intelligible narrative.