Five years on from its founding, biodesign lab Faber Futures has launched an online platform for bringing its nature-derived products directly to the consumer
As Design Anthology UK celebrates its fifth birthday, it has shown itself to have a knack for talent-spotting those who have gone on to do some stratospheric things. Issue 01 featured an interview with Natsai Audrey Chieza of biodesign lab Faber Futures; in 2018, she talked about the challenge of scaling up and standardising the bacteria-based dyes that Faber Futures had developed (which use no harmful chemicals, and 500 times less water, than normal dying processes).
Fast-forward to 2023 and new brand Normal Phenomena of Life (NPOL) was launched at the London Design Festival, co-founded by Faber Futures and acting as a marketplace for biodesign products. This milestone – marking the shift from lab to real-life retail – made it a good time to check with Chieza on how it’s going with her huge remit of eliminating the textile industry’s reliance on petrochemicals.
“Having a lifestyle brand allows us to really explore the possibilities of where biodesign can have the biggest impact right now,” she says. “In the next 12 months we hope to share a perspective of the kind of real material and environmental impact we can hope to make with biotechnology.”
NPOL is a collaboration between Faber Futures and biotech company Gingko Bioworks. Its products include its own-developed brands, including a bacterially dyed unisex silk jacket, the Exploring Jacket, with voluminous pockets and a generous hood. But it also selling other brands’ products that have a similar bio-focused outlook, including beauty company Herbar’s face oil, packed with fungi extract; and a T-shirt designed by Dutch graphic design firm Studio Airport, printed with algae ink.
“Normal Phenomena of Life exists to put biology at the heart of the goods we make, the supply chains we build and the economies we choose to scale,” is how NPOL describes itself. “To supplant those industries grown on the promise of limitless petrochemical-powered growth and to honour the fact that nature is the original technology.”
Chieza says that the last five years have taught her the scale of change needed to push things forward: “[it’s] everything from mindset shifts and cultural engagement about what biotechnology is and how it’s going to make a positive, tangible impact; to a policy perspective, where you really come to understand what needs to be laid down by a state to catalyse a bio-industrial revolution.” In that light, NPOL is not just a way of getting biodesign products to market but “something that moves the needle in policymakers’ understanding of what is possible.”
“On a technical level, we’re still very much focused on lab-based research,” she continues. It’s hard to appreciate just how many pieces to the puzzle there are of making dyed textiles less harmful, until you talk to Chieza, and she says that “we need to prototype every single part of this to get to grips with what we’re talking about.” For example, she’s just received a grant to explore alternatives to farmed sugar in the making of dyes (sugar is a ‘feedstock’ for the bacteria, as the microbes use it as an energy source to grow and produce spores). If Faber Futures can look for ways that the microbes can evolve to accept other sources of sugar (spent coffee grounds, for example), then that reduces reliability on sugar plantations, which are associated with negative environmental impacts such as fertiliser run-off.
“We’re super ambitious about solving those really tricky questions, and finding clever and creative ways of being funded, or working in partnership with clients to develop these novel projects that exist to really shift the dialogue.
“Part of the problem is that people don’t even know what’s possible. It’s so esoteric, so hidden behind scientific terminology and the technical realm. You’ve just got to show people – and I think that’s what we’re having fun with right now.”
What’s changed in the last five years, says Chieza, is that many more brands and designers are now embracing biodesign as a part of their everyday practice, “creating their own interventions that are really cool and different”: think House of Hackney’s recently launched ceiling rose, made not from traditional plaster but a mix of recycled waste wood chips, hemp and mycelium mushroom spores; or Magical Mushroom, which develops mycelium alternatives to packaging.
“We are reaching this milestone where everybody can get involved,” says Chieza, “and to me, that’s when we start to articulate what it means to be good at this. We are having more nuanced conversations about the role and value of craft in biofabrication – not just in terms of beautiful outcomes, but how people are going to valorise those products in such a way that the consumer can have a more connected relationship with the objects around them.”