Seetal Solanki
A Ma-tt-er Of Time

You hear it all the time: it's up to the next generation. What does that really even mean anymore? We're all part of the future now and we all have the opportunity to invest time in solving some of the problems we face. At least that's the way we feel when we meet the founder of London-based material research consultancy Ma-tt-er Seetal Solanki.

Solanki deftly applies her intricate knowledge of the material world to research, identify and reshape the way we think about the materials and textiles in all aspects of life, from the cars you drive to the shoes you wear. Solanki applies whole systems thinking to materials and design. From seaweed to sugar cane, there is nothing that isn’t a source of inspiration. With this innovative sustainable approach, accompanied by a visual aesthetic and contemporary design making you covet the products she crafts, it is no wonder that Seetal is in demand from companies as far ranging as Alexander McQueen and Nissan to bring them into this new generation of design. According to Solanki, there is a lot of good work already being done, but we aren’t there yet on a wider scale. Using her consultancy as an educational platform for artists and scientists alike, Seetal is changing the conversation we have with materials, and beautifully proving that nature really does have all the answers.

You studied at Central Saint Martins, did you envisage working in fashion/art? How did the concept of Ma-tt-er come into being?

I studied MA Textile Futures at Central Saint Martins and that really allowed me to think bigger than just fashion or interiors, which is the general misconception of what a textile designer can only do, in fact it is far broader than that. I’ve been trying to answer the question of what is a textile and what is a material for many years now and that answer will always open up different conversations, especially as technology evolves.

Ma-tt-er is at the very forefront of innovation but the work is also visually beautiful, with a strong design aesthetic. How do you meld both the innovation and the artistic side together?

Innovation is a tricky word to describe some of our ideas because in some countries such as India, re-using and being incredibly resourceful is the only way to live, which can seem like an innovative approach to us over in the UK. I’m of Indian origin and I’ve been brought up to not waste anything, whether it be water that would be reused to water my plants or leftovers from the meal the night before, I would be able to make a completely new dish from scraps. I guess the innovation can come from looking to other industries and borrowing techniques or processes to create materials, it’s something that has been quite key to my journey of creating Ma-tt-er.

The visual aesthetic is crucial to be able to communicate what we are doing and why we are doing it. A lot of the time when there is a lot of talk about innovation or sustainability there can be an obvious or a more stereotypical visual aesthetic which I wanted to avoid as our mission is to bring more awareness to what a material is and open up this conversation up a bit more. Accessibility is key to making a difference to people outside our own peer group, otherwise we are just having these circular conversations that may not lead anywhere.

What’s the main motivation of your work, the design or sustainability aspect?

Why can’t the two co-exist as an equal importance? Sustainability is a part of the design process and vice versa. The main motivation is to open up the conversation about what a material is so that we can start to design and make more responsibly. Basically, we are aiming to understand what are we made of. Whether that be a product, fashion, food or ourselves, we are all made of something and that is the material.

"Can seaweed be a dye, bio fuel or made into a solid material for furniture, or a textile like yarn? I call it ‘seaweed ten ways’."

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I meditate and exercise every day because I find that having a clear mind is key. I do a lot of research, whether that be watching videos about manufacturing methods, visiting archives and exhibitions or painting and mixing colours. I cook lunch every day in the studio as I find that the best conversations happen over food. We do a lot of experimentation in the studio, so we have a very messy working area where we use food processors, hand blenders and soon to be a microscope and dehydrator.

I also meet a lot of incredible people. People are really the highlight a lot of the time as we get to meet people that may work in agriculture, design anthropologists, toy designers, musicians that have made a violin from a spider silk that behaves and sounds exactly like a traditional violin.

Can you describe the methodology of your work?

We start with the identity, meaning the material’s behaviour and properties. By understanding that you can lend that to a space, which could be a product or a physical space. Most designers design with function or feeling, so if something needs to be soft or warm or comfortable you can apply the materials to the space.

Then we move on to life cycles, which is more to do with circularity. You want to understand the source of the materials, so its raw state and where it comes from, how it’s processed, its current purpose and how it degrades and then its potential to be reused in some way.

The next thing is systems, which is about tools. We think about longevity and how that could relate to the sharing economy (no ownership or co-ownership), modular systems and versatility.

Would you say that you are an explorer?

Research is a really big part of what we do so exploring is essential.

How do you explore? Is everything a potential inspiration?

Absolutely, whether it’s a podcast I’m listening to or my journey into work, if I’ve seen a colour that has made me feel something. A lot of it is about feeling or how it has expanded my knowledge of something, like a quote that I have read that resonates with me. There are just so many avenues for research, for example, our materials library is part of the research here, and part of that is the geography and location of where we are – whether I pick so many species of rocks from Iceland that help me to understand what that place is made of. That is sort of our method for research, trying to understand what everything is made of.

It sounds like your canvas for resources is never ending. Can you tell us about how you go about trying to source a material, like the rocks from Iceland?

I was in Iceland last November, which was probably one of the most incredible places I have ever been to. The landscape, people and food. You can’t ignore the beautifully unusual landscape whatsoever, it feels like you are on another planet at times, as it’s just so vast. The rocks I collected from Iceland were a way for me to understand what Iceland is made of, so I collected them throughout different locations and you are able to tell where something is volcanic by the form it’s created as it has a variety of holes within it, whether we are near water which makes the rocks smoother etc. This helps to understand some of the processes that we could use to make, manufacture, create a texture, a colour and also to understand how the local environment affects the local materials and what is available, whether it be abundant or scarce. This thinking allows us to go deeper into understanding our surroundings and how we can create with that in mind.

You worked in the corporate world before this, for the car company Nissan. How do you incorporate your knowledge of materials into their product? Do companies like that value your work or is it just another part of the machine that makes their cars?

I think the value comes from the specific role you have, which is Colour Materials Finish Designer. That doesn’t really exist in other industries so you are quite unique. But at the same time, you are part of a long chain of command and a lot of the time the material doesn’t come at the beginning of the process, whereas I think that it should because it informs so much of the design process and the experience. A lot of design, especially in the automotive industry, is built on experience; how someone wants to feel in this car, what is their journey and what’s their lifestyle?

"Innovation is a tricky word to describe some of our ideas because in some countries such as India, re-using and being incredibly resourceful is the only way to live."

It feels like the automotive industry is at a really interesting turning point in terms of the design opportunities.

Yes definitely, and someone like Elon Musk with Tesla has changed that quite dramatically. Also, the legislation of carbon emissions has changed how we design because I don’t think we can design super powerful cars running on diesel and petrol anymore, we have to think about a different way to do that. That’s where the innovation comes in and materials are a big part of that.

So if we take the car as an example of the work that you do, thinking about sustainability and the fact that the UK has now pledged to phase out diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040, is your head spinning with ideas?

There are so many different issues around this area. For example, India has completely banned self-driving vehicles because they value people too much to allow them to lose their jobs. I think that’s a really interesting feedback to a phenomenon like automation and it allows you to think that if people are so valued in that kind of conversation then it means that the way that we think about materials needs to be so much more tactile and experiential, whereas a self-driving car wouldn’t necessarily need to have that.

In terms of the 2040 pledge, there are so many ideas. There’s a company called Graviky Labs who have created a carbon-capturing device for your exhaust to be able to collect carbon and convert it into ink that you can paint with.

Is there a project you are working on at the moment that you can talk to us about?

Right now we are working with an architecture firm for a hotel group in the Mauritius. The hotels are very luxury and not eco at all, but we want to change that into a more whole systems thinking approach and understanding the local vernacular – understanding what is available if we map out a radius of 50-100 kilometres in the vicinity of the hotel. If we understand that and map that out, what local skills are available for that to happen? How can we use sugar cane, which is an abundant resource on that island, into creating a building material or textile? In Mauritius they only export their sugar cane, they don’t even keep it for themselves, so their sugar comes from a completely different country. Politically and economically that’s crazy, and the level of diabetes that exists in that country is very high as a result because the sugar they use is far more processed than the raw product that they have right in front of them.

Do you think that we are on the precipice of a material and design revolution? It feels like we are but we just haven’t stepped over the ledge yet, there is a lot of intellectualising instead.

Yes, there are a lot of conversations happening, but that’s a good thing because it means that more people are listening, and if more people are listening then we can do something about it. I think that’s the kind of shift we need to go towards, because whilst it’s great that these materials are all doing wonderful things, it’s actually what we can do about it now.

Or at what point you can apply this on a wide scale?

Exactly, and that is when change will happen. Part of our role here is to work with companies to be able to do that, for instance, we work with IKEA and we are talking to Unilever. That’s our role to get materials in a position where they can make positive change, and all of the fascinating things in our materials library can really exist and do something.

One of the largest strains on material usage is the fashion industry. How much do you work within the industry and in what respect?

I have worked in it for many years and now I want to change the role that we play within the fashion industry because it is changing so much. At the moment we have done it on a very experiential and communicative level; we made a film for Selfridges and Dazed as part of their Material World campaign for Fashion Week in February on what sustainability means to us. We focused on mushrooms and fungi and how that one material can change many industries including fashion. So it’s at a very early stage right now with what we are doing at Ma-tt-er but it is key to trying to change how things are made. I think the fashion industry is changing incredibly quickly and so many designers are leaving the fashion world. It’s getting to the stage where we can’t consume as much as they are producing – do we really need 8-10 collections every year?

What was it like working with Nike and trying to apply this sensibility at such a huge scale?

That project was for Chinese New Year in 2015 and the Air Jordan team commissioned me to create a limited edition capsule collection textile that would live on shoes, accessories, clothing and brand packaging.

I used a fly weave, which is a material similar to the fly knit, with a principal of zero waste. Waste is a huge problem in footwear so that was incredible for Nike. I was there to create the textile that would exist on the fly weave so I did a huge canvas painting of water, which was the theme – rather than using the Year of the Goat as it was in 2015, we wanted it to live a lot longer than just that year. Water is a very symbolic element in Chinese culture and we dived quite deep into it, not just in terms of colour and depth, but actually understanding what lives in water and what changes the colour of water.

It was one of my favourite projects to ever work on and it was very open to interpretation. It enabled me to express myself as an artist rather than just a designer.

"You have to go deep to really understand why something exists and what it’s for."

Do you think it’s important to increase awareness by working with such a variety of cultural industries outside science and technology?

100 per cent – I’m not your scientist I’m a designer. We want to be as accessible as possible, and we do that in everything we do. Even the language that we use is not over-intellectualised and the way that we write our articles is to appeal to the masses so that they can understand what the potential is and why, as well as what the problem is and why that material exists.

There is so much more awareness around transparency now; where things are made, who has made them and were they made ethically… these are the questions that people are asking and they are entitled to.

Is there a material that you would love to work with but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?

God, that’s a really difficult one. It would be good to do more stuff with nanotechnology because we haven’t been able to use any of that yet. Understanding more about the environment and technology and how they can coexist, I think that’s a really interesting area where we are challenging especially right now.

Do you look to nature as a resource? We interviewed Oded Shoseyov who is a nano-biotechnologist cultivating the properties of nature to create and strengthen tools and materials that we can use in daily life.

Nature has all the answers pretty much, so it can take many forms. It’s so much more intelligent than we are. Mycelium [the vegetative part of fungi] is the communicator, the Internet before we had the Internet – the one thing that connects all living things, so without it, nothing would be able to grow. It’s now being turned into a textile for building bricks, furniture, lighting and so many other products because it is fast-growing, really controlled and you can mould it.

Biomaterials is a really big part of design language right now, as well as waste materials. We are doing lots with pine needles and seaweed, trying to understand how far we can push this one organism to such a way that we are using its entire system and what it is useful for; can seaweed be a dye, bio fuel or made into a solid material for furniture, or a textile like yarn? I call it ‘seaweed ten ways’, and why I use that analogy is because there are a lot of the similarities to how a chef works, how they can create one dish using a main ingredient by using different methods of cooking and process to allow for a different texture and experience.

Is it a challenge to bring together all these scientific, technological and sustainable elements?

Well, I guess the environment comes into it naturally. But science, nature and technology are things that just have to coexist – that’s the world we are living in. I’m not a scientist but it is a really fascinating area because there is so much work being done in biotech, and that whole industry is booming right now with so much funding available. Biomaterials are a part of that conversation and there is so much colour being developed in laboratories, and that discussion of what is synthetic and what is natural is a really interesting debate that we are having right now – if it is grown in a laboratory is it natural?

It seems like you have a very theoretical and whole systems approach to your work.

Completely, systems thinking is a big part of what we do. We’re not surface level – you have to go deep to really understand why something exists and what it’s for. 

 Photography by Tristan Bejawn