We spoke to the designer of a biodegradable chair for Basque brand Alki, which has a seat made of a sugarcane, maize or beet polymer
At Maison & Objet last week, Jean Louis Iratzoki unveiled a chair for Basque furniture brand Alki that has a semi-concave shell made of a biodegradable polymer.
Icon was there to see it and asked the designer more.
Why bioplastics? Does the interest stem from materials, ethics, or something else altogether?
We were discussing the need of a really enveloping chair with Alki chief executive Peio Uhalde. There are, of course, other possibilities but plastic seemed like the most logical choice. However, Alki essentially just uses timber and woollen fabrics in its products, so we felt that somehow plastic wasn't in line with the company's values.
We did some research into the alternatives and discovered there was a material called bioplastic. We've worked with external collaborators on the more technical aspects of the process, who have helped us get to this point.
How does the energy use compare to making regular plastics?
The manufacturing process for making the chair's shell is similar to plastic, as this compound can be either injected or extruded, so the energy use is pretty much the same in that step. It is in other fields that we are seeing benefits to the use of bioplastics – for instance, the reduction of CO2 emissions during raw material production is huge.
We are now involved in the process of testing and quantifying several parameters of the material, from energy use to mechanical properties for each part, which is a laborious process.
The process of making the bioplastic sounds fascinating. Can you talk through the steps?
It's a process that takes several steps. First there are physical procedures to separate the starch of a bio-based raw material, which might be sugarcane, maize or beet. This is followed by a series of chemical procedures that ensure a polymerisation of the material.
The result is a polymer that is substantially superior to polypropelene in terms of mechanical properties. Bioplastics are not new, but they have reached a good level of matureness, mainly pushed by the automotive industry's needs.
I'm told the chair can be decomposed using certain industrial processes. Can you explain this? Can the plastic be reused for something else?
This means that the chair won't decompose if you leave it outside in the garden – a much more selective process is needed to decompose the material. This is essential to ensure a long lifecycle.
Once its lifecycle ends, the chair has to be discriminated from other materials and with the right infrastructure the resulting substances are non-toxic. What's even more interesting is that it can be easily recycled to produce new goods.
The chair has a very classic look, while still managing to feel like something new. Was this intentional – to bring something new with bioplastic, but to make it feel like a familiar object?
Exactly. The use of bioplastic was risky enough, so from the beginning we were clear that this wasn't an exercise in pushing the material's limits, but instead trying to take a step into an alternative way of producing an entirely marketable chair.
The shell is supported by a trestle, which is very "Alki" in a way, and adds a crafting dimension to an otherwise quite technological project. The treatment of the material was also important, as it had to transmit a certain naturalness. Its texture and colours have been carefully chosen to ensure that.
Are you planning to design other objects with bioplastic, to extend the range?
We are still developing the product, which we hope will be officially launched in June, as there are plenty of details we still have to deal with. But the experience has been really satisfying. So, sure, we are thinking about future applications of this material.
Are there other biomaterials you've got your eye on for future research and design projects?
It's not really a biomaterial, but we are very interested in working with felt made from recycled PET bottles. We know it's not new, but we think there's further potential compared with the applications we've seen it used for so far.