Erin Robertson's and designer-scientist Jifei Ou's 3D-printed faux fur.

TRY THIS AT HOME: An edible algae raincoat and 3-D-printed faux fur are among the innovative concepts on view in “Nature — Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial.”

The twofold exhibition is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York and the Cube design museum in Kerkrade, Netherlands, through Jan. 20.

Interdisciplinary designer and researcher Charlotte McCurdy developed a carbon negative plastic that is made from marine algae. The bio-based plastic is also biodegradable. Made entirely from food-grade materials, she could eat her raincoat and be totally fine. While artist friends have suggested, “That’s the piece — film yourself eating the raincoat,” McCurdy is not convinced. Her aim is to start conversations with people about how much of the built environment is intrinsically complicit in climate change because of its chemistry. “There is an emerging and in some cases, well-established suite of tools that would allow us to have things like plastic be carbon negative. That changes the story that we are offering to consumers from ‘the best you can to do is be less bad’ to ‘you can start to do good with the things you do, the things you buy, the things you give as gifts,'” she said.

Rather than create a collection, McCurdy is excited about the prospect of using materials as a way to get more people to come to the table about climate change. She is also at work on a popular science nonfiction book with the hope that it will be used for a documentary. “What I’ve found is the real challenge is not a lack of particular materials, but a lack of understanding about this opportunity,” she said. “I’m cautious about placing the burden of responsibility on the consumer. I’m really interested in looking at models like Tesla, and how Tesla was able to create a luxury product that through its development and arrival on the market changed the economy and scale of lithium ion batteries. And therefore, that changed the whole economics of solar wind power and the ability to store renewable energy. That becomes a pure market signal around cost that causes even people who are skeptical about climate change to adopt that technology because it just costs less now.”

As part of their ongoing collaboration, season 15 “Project Runway” winner Erin Robertson and designer-scientist Jifei Ou created a 3-D faux fur item for both museum locations. Adverse to the fashion system — traditional seasons and such — the duo prefer to challenge their creativity. Their approach is more a matter of “now that you can do this cool 3-D printing, what can you make with it? How can you create a very unique aesthetic or layer in a special value or some type of information?” Ou said. “We are collaborating in a way that is like exploring. What’s this medium and how can we work with it?”

To start, Ou explained how the technology would make the garment feel after it was printed, and how it could be customized based on height, angle, density and other features. Smocking, for example, was simulated by printing the hair to emulate Italian needlepoint work. With a shared commitment to old craft, Robertson said, “The rich history in textile design doesn’t have to be fully erased with technology. The exciting thing is bridging them together.”

Having created a start-up, Ou plans to apply the technology to functional textiles for sports or medical purposes with design help from Robertson. “One of the things about 3-D printing is that you can customize not only the appearance, but also the functionality of it,” he said.

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