For Marjan van Aubel, the winner of this year’s London Design Medal for emerging talent, objects have to be as useful as possible. Which is why she has elevated the humble table and window into mini solar-power stations …
Marjan van Aubel plugs a small fan into the USB socket under a window at London’s 19 Greek Street. As it spins, a series of words is spelled out on its rotating blades by a row of blue LEDs – “I love you”, “Happy birthday” and “I miss you”. She laughs. “Maybe that’s too much,” she says, unplugging it and placing it aside, leaving only the iPad next to it to charge on the window sill.
We are at the Soho gallery to photograph the Dutch designer in the final stages of setting up her installation for The Art of Progress, an exhibition of “ethical design” for London Design Festival. Van Aubel is replacing all the street-facing windows of the five-storey Victorian townhouse with a version of her Current Windows – the latest iteration in a series of objects that harness ambient light to create energy. During the festival, visitors will be able to charge their mobile devices while looking around the gallery – a clever way to demonstrate the commercial potential of a design and a nod to one of Van Aubel’s idols: “When Thomas Edison first introduced the lightbulb,” she says, “he held an event where citizens of New York could come to see his invention in action. It must have been an amazing experience to see all these static lights going on and off instead of gaslights or candles.”
Moon Light, foam porcelain lamp, 2014
When we meet, 30-year-old Van Aubel is a week away from being revealed as the winner of the Swarovski Emerging Talent Medal. The London-based designer, who studied at Amsterdam’s Rietveld Academie before completing the Design Products master’s at the Royal College of Art three years ago, has won a series of plaudits for her work since graduating, including two nominations for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year award. This year, her work will also be on display at Somerset House (where the awards will be announced) and the Aram Gallery, in a show about climate change. But for now she’s still getting used to the attention. “Do you know why they selected me?” she asks with genuine curiosity when we meet to discuss the award.
She describes the Current Window as a “modern version of stained glass”, but the subtly differentiated glass panels are both ornamental and functional. “They harvest energy through the colours, in a similar way to how plants use chlorophyll for photosynthesis,” she explains. The dye is sandwiched between two sheets of glass and different colours absorb light to greater or lesser extents. “I’d love to install them in a church,” she adds. “Stained glass in churches tells stories and this is a modern version of that – telling stories about light and electricity, and rethinking how we generate energy.”
Well Proven Chair, foaming wood, 2012
The process that led to the windows began with her RCA graduate project, the Energy Collection: a series of cups, plates and other tableware that act as small solar panels. “Every piece was a solar cell. When you placed the pieces back in the cabinet, it would act like a battery, storing all that electricity.” There was a limit to the energy such small objects could produce, so this project was followed by objects with greater surface area: the Current Table, nominated this year for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year, and the windows. She envisages these small power stations in co-working spaces or meeting rooms, catering to a generation of workers on the move. Next, she hopes to develop an app that connects to these devices, allowing you to monitor and control your energy use. “The table could work with a host of other systems – lighting, for example, could be linked to sensors that tell you the time of day or level of light.”
Current Table, 2014 – nominated for this year’s Design of
Energy efficiency is a theme that runs through Van Aubel’s work, from her lamps made out of expanding foam porcelain to series of tables made from the remnants of just one, but she resists labels. “I always hate being called a ‘sustainable designer’ or the idea of doing a ‘sustainable project’. Just as a chair has to be comfortable, today we also have to think about sustainability – it’s a must.” Indeed, Van Aubel resists categorisation of any kind. Ignoring boundaries between fields, she fuses technology, research, software, environmentalism and service design, giving each equal importance.
In the lead-up to the launch of her new brand Caventou during LDF, she recently took part in an “accelerator programme” on how to set up a business, conscious of the practical barriers to distributing design. “It was so amazing to hear how things really work, how much time and cost is involved in making things and what’s needed to run a business.” Her love of science came from her chemist father and, even today, she looks more to science than design for inspiration, relishing opportunities to spend time learning for herself the techniques that go into making the building blocks of her designs. “The inventor of the solar power cells [Michael Graetzel] I’ve used in these designs is my hero. I’m always mentioning him, but when I met him he said, ‘I’m always showing your table in my presentations’ – I was super proud!”
Solar glass, plate and cabinet from the Energy Collection, 2012
In fact, it is perhaps the contemporary design sector, with its drive to emulate the art world, that she draws the least from. “I don’t want to just design for the sake of having a thing – it has to have a meaning and contribute to something. For me, it doesn’t feel right to have your work displayed in galleries like art – it has to be functional and widely available to have an impact.”
Her language of functionality, social impact and technological progress is part of a familiar design tradition, but there is no doubt that Van Aubel is a thoroughly 21st-century designer, dividing her time between Amsterdam and London and between factory and laboratory, drawing on this nomadic style of working to develop designs that address contemporary and future needs. “I just need a telephone and a computer,” she says. And occasionally, one would assume, a Current Table.