A material researcher and designer from Slovakia, Zuzana was drawn to India to explore the potential of a traditional substance made from coconuts called Malai. The same year, she met Susmith, a product designer and maker from Kerela. Together they make stuff from malai under their start up studio of the same name. The process of its making however is peculiar—the material is grown on water from mature coconuts, and takes upto 14 days to be harvested. Their passion for sustainable making and respect for the craft results in a small collection of seamless accessories.
Malai is in its last stage of refining prototypes and process before it launches the new eco-friendly alternative to leather for fashion, interiors and furnishings. Zuzana passionately takes me through the stages of developing the innovative material, the challenges it presented and the green future it offers.
Take us through your design journey. What got you interested in material research?
Susmith and I both natural born makers, we’ve been dismantling and assembling things back together ever since we can remember. I diverged into textile and fashion design and he into mechanical engineering. My curiosity into finding out how things work and why they behave the way they do got me into material research. Material is the very building stone of everything that surrounds us and material culture is what defines the level of development of humanity.
During my MA studies in London, I got interested more in biodegradable, organic materials. Somewhere along my research I came across materials synthesized by microorganisms. This area is fascinating and has far more reaching potential when it comes to discovery of new materials. Scientists say that so far we have explored less than 1% of all the microbiome existing on our plant, just imagine the possibilities. There is potentially a microbe for every process we currently achieve industrially.
Products made from Malai
What is Malai? How did you discover it?
I started working with a material called bacterial cellulose which comes with a lot of challenges regarding the control of its growth. Based on up to date scientific research, I designed a concept for a machine capable of controlling the growth of the material that would enable its users to engineer the material’s shape, thickness, properties and colour.
From my research I knew that bacterial cellulose is grown as a part of food industry chain in some regions of South Asia, known as nata de coco where coconut water (from the brown coconuts) is used as a nutrient for growing this material.
I came to India to explore its opportunity here and met Susmith. He comes from Kerala, the land of coconuts, and he became very interested in the subject. In 2017 we partnered with a coconut processing unit in South India and started working full time on the development of material based on bacterial cellulose that can be commercially used in fashion, accessories, packaging or furnishing industry. It took us some time and we tried more than 100 different formulations for the material. Eventually we started getting results that were satisfying and started testing it on small products.
We called it Malai. It is what you call the white “flesh” of the tender coconut. Nata de coco (originally from Philippines) can be translated literally as “cream of coconut” and looks very similar in its raw state.
Tell us about the prototyping stage and Malai’s launch.
We are a small team with couple of freelancers incorporating local people in our neighborhood in Kerala who help us with the production. At this point, we concentrate mostly on development and design of materials. We constantly research methods of perfecting its properties like strength, softness, visual appeal etc.
Currently we are associated with young product, fashion and interior designers to test malai’s application and we should be coming up with first commercial products at the end of August. Apart from the products we also supply malai material to companies and brands looking for leather alternatives or sustainable materials. We would like to officially launch during the London Design Festival 2018 and hope for the best.
It is challenging to carry a brand that relies on sustainability and traditional processes?
Yes, it is sometimes. As consumers we are used to materials and products of a certain quality and performance. But what we don’t often realize is the fact that these are outcome of a long industrial tradition. Many materials have been treated with agents or chemicals in order to be stabilized or are embedded with petroleum-based ingredients.
Now, we as material makers want to stay true to our sustainability ethos and make our material and products without use of aggressive chemicals, plastics or over-exploitation of any resource. It is very challenging to deliver the same level of standard that people are already used to. A lot of consumers demand biodegradability of products but at the same time desire a product that will last long, which is not always compatible. I feel like we really need more clarity when it comes to understanding some of the terms used in promoting sustainability.
Where else do you find your design inspiration?
A lot of it comes from nature and traditional processes used for making. India, in particular is a very rich source of inspiration due to high level of resourcefulness of people, tradition in processing natural materials and tactile knowledge of local craftsmen. But we also find a lot of inspiration in microbiology, biochemistry and other fields of science.
Lastly, tell us what you are currently working on and what 2018 looks like for Malai.
Currently we have few collaborations under way to introduce Malai as a viable material for different applications. We are working on designing materials for bags, garments, possibly trainers and furnishings. We are establishing relations with first users of Malai- emerging fashion and accessory brands with sustainability ethos and also design studios worldwide.
Along with refining our manufacturing process, we are redesigning our equipment based on all the experience with making we gained up to date. Also we constantly experimenting with new processes to use for Malai materials. One of them is growing malai into 3D shapes, others involve combining malai with different biodegradable materials like bioplastics.
So, 2018 looks like it’s going to be a busy year for Malai! We hope to start working with more brands interested in using sustainable materials and develop a future and culture for biodegradable products.
More about Malai here.
Text Garima Gupta