AN APPOINTMENT WITH: SEETAL SOLANKI OF MA-TT-ER
By Immanuel J. Palar
May 3, 2019
In a quiet area of 4 Roach Road, London, a material-focused studio resides along with the aim to explore the potentials of matters under the name of Ma-tt-er. The studio was founded by Seetal Solanki (S) as a spill on frustration. However, up to this day, the practice has opened doors of possibilities to positive impacts in the society through its ardour for materials. During our visit to the studio, we got to talk with her about the practice of the studio, from the working process, to the shared value that the studio holds on to.
I: How did Ma-tt-er start?
S: Ma-tt-er was first launched three years ago in September 2015. It started with the idea of bringing more awareness to what materials and material design are, as well as showing their potentials. Also, it started because there was not really a place where materials and material designers could feel represented. As a material designer that has been trained as textile designer for a long time, I was certain that materials do exist within all of different areas in the society, as material is the glue and conjoint between all areas of creative industries. So, I saw that as an opportunity to make a space for materials in the society, in form of Ma-tt-er.
Ma-tt-er itself was a spill on frustration. After walking across all of these sectors, I tried to understand what is the meaning of materials. Not just to showcase them, but to implement it within the industries, by using sustainable and responsible alternatives rather than just using the same old thing over and over again. Also to change the way we think about materials, change the system, and change the narratives of how should we behave with materials.
I: Were you alone when you started?
S: Yes, I started a company on my own. Now, we have got a team of four, and a design studio that helps us here.
I: It is inspiring on how much you have accomplished with Ma-tt-er this far. Throughout the process, how is it for you to work with different companies in this wide-ranging industry of design?
S: For the process, it is all quite the same. Everything has to be driven from the material first, then followed by the concept, the approach or the structure to produce and design something.
We start off by understanding the material’s identity; what it can do, how it behaves. For example: Can it be flexible or transparent? Is it soft or warm? Material’s characteristics help us to design the “space” to be filled. If we understand how the material functions and feels, we can apply it in a more holistic way from the beginning of a project. Then, we move on to life-cycles; Where does the material come from? What is the source? How was it used? How does it degrade? Can it be reused in different ways? After that, we move on to the system; How can the material be applied? Can it be designed for durability? Can it be designed in a modular way? Can it be versatile? At the same time, the whole process is also about enabling somebody in providing solvability, enabling somebody to be a part of the practice, making the system open-sourced. That is very much the process of building identities. We first look into the immediate future, and then the far future and see what else of the system that could be changed.
We go through this process for each material or each project, but each material would reveal something different. Also each material has different source, which means that the supply chain is very different as well.
I: Talking about where the materials came from, can you tell us the unique process of material research that you and the team do?
S: It is so varied. We obviously do quite a lot of reading, but we also listen to some podcasts, radio shows, and see exhibitions. I travel quite a lot, so I get to learn about how people live through material usages, or culturally, what is valuable for them, what does it mean to them, how they live with their materials, and how that could influence the way they might live in the future. We also learn from some indigenous tribes of people to understand the most sustainable ways because much of the time they would have the answers already. So, sustainability is actually not a very new idea, in a way, and a lot of it already existed. It is about rediscovering it for a contemporary lifestyle. So, travelling is very important to me.
I: Seeing a lot of different materials while travelling, do you have one particular material that fascinates you the most this far?
S: At the moment, we are focusing a lot on digital materials, especially this year. We are trying to understand the values of digital materials being compared to the physical ones; what the differences are, what the values are, are the values (of materials) changing because we are (now) living in the “digital” world instead of the physical world? There are many areas within the digital world that serve as rooms for potential and growth, because you can manipulate the digital materials in unique ways in comparison to the physical ones. There are always drawbacks as well as positives within each (digital and physical) material. It is really an interesting and very dynamic topic to be brought up into the current conversation. Also, realising digital as a material is a new idea as well, and a lot of people are working within this space of idea, which is really exciting.
I: I am curious about digital materials. Tell me more about it.
S: For me, it is tapping into the idea of creating more expression and emotion on something that originally feels quite two-dimensional. It is having characteristics of physical material that could behave within the digital space.
I will show you!
(Showing digital materials)
For example, it scrapes digitally, but it has so much expression and emotion; a touch to it, and it makes you feel something. Something like this wouldn’t happen in the physical world.
I: Talking about materials, physical material is mostly understood as something that has existed—or already existing. When you talk about digital materials, the idea presents as something that we could make the way we want it to be.
S: You could invent it, absolutely. I think there is so much possibilities of creating something that have not been done before within the digital space.
I: Interesting idea. Going back to Ma-tt-er, what are the big challenges that you have encountered throughout the journey of being a material researcher?
S: There are so many different challenges on different scales. Firstly, on the small scale, just trying to get people to understand what material is and the value of it by opening dialogues has been quite an interesting challenge. However, people are becoming a lot more perceptive to that throughout time. To be more approachable and accessible, we are not using a language that is very academic or scientific, and make it as a very simple approach. That is because a lot of the time, materials are discussed in a very scientific language, which means only people that already have a certain knowledge about materials can use or apply them. Whereas, we are trying to make it more accessible, so we are using a language that fits for everybody.
Another big challenge is regarding to sustainability. We are being faced with a timeline; “In twelve years time we need to save the planet”. These sort of issues are really hard to address to clients or companies, or even friends. But for now, obviously there is an urgency, and at the same time, a lot of people are responding to the issue through material choices and uses. That is where we come in.
I: Are those challenges still happening up until now?
S: Yes. However, people are really responsive now. I would say that was not the case at all five years ago. Now, it feels like people are listening and actually want to do something about it, which is great! That is where we can come in and play a role in guiding them of what to do and how to implement it. But, that is really the biggest challenge.
I: Quoting from your website, “by harnessing the unexplored potential of materials we can implement social, economical and political change.” How could we do that?
S: Sure! I can explain it through a project to make more sense of it. For example, the project that we are doing with Potato Head Bali, that is very much about the society, economy, and policy. The fact that we are using local materials, means that the local residents of the island will have the skills to use and reuse these materials. This leads to a better lifestyle by creating a new economy and jobs. In that way, they (the local people) could sustain themselves through using these materials—that on its own could be produced on a variety of different scales. For the policy element, it is more about the fact that there is no official rule about recycling on the island, so the act of recycling itself is more localized and bottom-up. The government has not really implemented a recycling scheme, so people are taking it into their own houses and creating their own policy on how to actually reuse and recycle materials. As a result, the environment will improve, and they will have better living condition. So, a material can cross all of different areas and create a positive change, and that will always be the aim.
I: That makes sense. Regarding to your projects, how do you usually approach projects, from research to advising?
S: Normally, there is a brief from client in order for us to understand the problem. And from that brief, we have to understand first what the actual problem is—whether the problem lies through its materials or the material-use. Research enables us to get a better understanding on how it is affecting the brand’s culture and audience, or the way they manufacture products. Also, by understanding where the material comes from, it helps us to understand its supply chain better, and leads to seeing whether the supply chain could be changed or altered. It offers us some alternatives, and those alternatives can help us on advicing different brands, companies or clients. At the same time, we are able to supply them with materials, create a strategy for them, and/or be able to design something for them. Then it can answer some of the issues or the problems that they are thinking about, or trying to resolve, through its material-use. And that is very much thinking about a longer-term future. So, research really helps to afford all of that.
I: Any material that you are currently researching in?
S: I think the digital one is definitely still a great focus. But we are also working on a project in Saudi Arabia with the British Council, and on the project we are focusing on the date farming. That is because they (Saudi Arabia) grow millions of date palm trees, and it is a daily ritual for people who live there. We are tapping into something that is very cultural, but also agricultural, which is something that is a little bit unknown and untouched in a wider society. That is really interesting because Saudi Arabia is known for being a desert land or only producing oil. So, this project is looking at the post-oil economy and seeing how design can tap into that area, creating something that is driven from their own heritage. In this case, date palm farming exists and very abundant there. I visited a date farm last October, and I can even show you some of the materials.
(Showing the materials).
From a date palm tree, we can get different components. All of these can be transformed into materials once they are processed. This (referring to some part of the date palm tree) could potentially become a leather-like material once it is processed. I am not sure about this yet (referring to another part of the date palm tree), but i feel like this could be some kind of wood or building material. There are some raw materials that we are interested in working with, and using them as a material source. So, this is a really interesting area in terms of cultural, ritual, and also in terms of how agriculture and design become an interlink through all of the different aspects.
This project is also very much about education in a way. We are trying to build a course with one of the universities in Saudi Arabia, also a cultural institution, to get them to tap into their own landscape. This is important because at the moment, they are so used to having things imported that they are not looking at their own possessions. So, the date palm is very symbolic for them—as it is a part of their flag as well, it is celebrated in some ways. But, they do not utilise it enough. Only the small villages that grow the trees do; traditionally they have used it in roofing, door-paneling, ropes, and all sorts of thing. So, it all actually had been used by some of the locals. We are not saying that we should chop all the trees down, but once the tree does not produce anymore, it just gets chopped down and nothing really happens. That is why we want to utilise it as much as we can.
I: Do you and the team also work on transforming this material into textile or leather?
S: Yes. That is what we are hoping to do next with the project. We, hopefully, want to produce some materials from it. I am excited about this one!
I: You were talking about tapping into education as well through your projects. Tell me more about that.
S: Yes. We are trying to bring more awareness about materials to the public. Material education is not really taught so much, I think, if it is (being taught more), people will be able to design more sustainably from the very beginning, where material serves as the vehicle for it. Material should be in every school and every course, and also in every company. So, we do different workshops, talks, demonstrations, and panel discussions. All of that is about bringing more awareness to materials.
I: Do you do them regularly?
S: Yes. I did two last week, and doing more on Friday. Even with clients, they ask us to do talks and workshops, and that is how we began working with them.
I: That is great that the clients would ask you to do talks and workshops.
S: It would be amazing to do something like that. That is partly why i get to travel quite a lot, because people want to know more. I think, being able to discuss about it, people would feel like they can access it easier and understand it more easily.
I: I want to go back to digital materials. Do you see digital materials as the future? Or you see it differently?
S: Not necessarily. I think it is a part of our future but i do not think of it as the only future. I think, a lot of materials are a part of our future and digital material is an element of it, not our entire future. I mean, the date palm farming is also our future. All of them could be working more collaboratively and interdisciplinary as a part of our future. I am hoping that material design could be implemented more as a part of our future. However, I do not think there is one single answer or one single material that is just the future. A lot of it is very much about systemic changes more than materials that change everything. Things can be produced or consumed differently. Therefore, the future could be a bit more stable.
I: Most people would think that digital is always the bigger part of the future.
S: I think what is important is to even just look back to our past and how we used to live in a society in such a traditional practice, like the people at the date palm farm. A lot of those need to be brought into our contemporary way of living. It is like, no carbons involved (in any of the traditional practice), and all of those elements are really important.
I: What did you learn from all of your works with materials?
S: I am constantly learning about a lot of things, and I think one of the best things about my job is that I always feel like a student. At least, I feel like amateurs sometimes, because material is telling us so much and we are discovering so much about material. It is a constant learning. I feel like a student for life, in a way.
I: Talking about you and the team as a studio, what is the value that the studio holds on to, that keeps Ma-tt-er going and developing until today?
S: To make a positive impact, however big or small. Materials can enable such a positive change and impact and that is what drives me. Also, getting people to implement it. So, it is about positive impact, positive change, and I am quite optimistic about that as well, because i think materials provide such optimism.
Unit 136 Omega Works
4 Roach Road
London E3 2GY (map)
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