The Embrace by Elise Gabriel 17.08.11

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It looks like potato soup," says French design graduate Elise Gabriel. She is trying to describe the consistency of Zelfo, a new "bioplastic" she is using to join the components of her furniture series The Embrace, which is currently showing at Galerie Gosserez in Paris.

Her description is quite apt. Like potato, Zelfo is made from cellulose. "It's actually very cheap to produce," says Gabriel. "You can extract it from hemp, old clothing, waste paper – and when it dries it's as strong as steel; it has great structural properties."

But while making the material is simple, working with it is not. First, Gabriel extracts the water to form a papier-mâché-like matter. The material is then moulded by hand around the wooden furniture components to connect them. The structure is held in place by a frame until the Zelfo sets, and it's here that the fun starts. "Sometimes it shrinks ten percent, sometimes 50," says Gabriel. "It isn't like clay where you can calculate the shrinkage. With cellulose there are a lot of uncertainties – it has its own character."

To make the chair, Gabriel moulded the Zelfo joints about 20 times. "I decided what the shape of the chair would be at the beginning," she says. "I drew it, and every time it went wrong I corrected the drawing before trying again. But in the end, the material decided. I had no idea it would turn out to be this shape."

The imperfections of the material, while frustrating, lend the pieces their charm – and this is perhaps best demonstrated with the lights. Here a thin layer of Zelfo was plastered around a spherical mould to form a shade; once lit up, the creases and shrinkage in the surface give the light a beautiful, delicate patina.

Bearing in mind Zelfo's unpredictable character, it will be a while before we see it on the shop floor. For now, the gallery is the ideal platform for Gabriel's experiments. If you decide to invest, don't forget that the material is biodegradable: "It completely disappears after time," says Gabriel. Great-grandchildren will just inherit sticks.

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Image

Maxime Champion

 

Words

Anna Bates

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It completely disappears after time. Great-grandchildren will just inherit sticks

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