YLEM: Augmenting sustainable futures through material exploration and testing

STIR ponders over the various sustainable projects undertaken by Midushi Kochhar’s circular design studio YLEM using unique and salvaged materials.

by Almas SadiquePublished on : Aug 08, 2022

We are all made of dust, and in the end, we will return to dust. This belief, consistent in essence across various religions, cultures and traditions, has also, for most of the human race's tenure on earth, manifested itself in our practices and usages. We all know of the early houses built using natural stone boulders and animal skins, or assembled meticulously with wood logs, clay bricks and straws. All these materials are congruously perishable and hence, sustainable. But, as humans slowly moved from a peripatetic lifestyle to a more settled one, the desire for building structures and objects that could resist the throes of time, temperature and calamity also grew. Today, we can buy plastic bottles that can last for decades, but fall out of trend within the span of a season. Ergo, an unsustainable culture has bolstered. We ostensibly value durability and easily succumb to the latest fads. In a climate such as this, it is brave and admirable to go against the tide and build something that is essentially "designed to disappear", as Midushi Kochhar of YLEM Studio describes.

Kochhar is an Indian industrial designer and the founder of YLEM, a circular design and research studio. A graduate from Central St.Martins, UAL in London, UK, Kochhar’s practice as a designer revolves around researching materials, techniques and methodologies that can help rebuild symbiotic relationships and further the practice of circular economy in our daily lives. She co-founded Makers on Move, a Netherlands-based sustainable-arts initiative for design, research, technology and education, which is also supported by the Dutch government. YLEM is the Indian designer's latest creative practice, born out of the desire to understand and communicate the relationship of materials with design, science, sustainable development and human behaviour.

Jewellery displays made for the collection Cir(Ca) using Eggware | Eggware | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
Jewellery displays made for the collection Cir(Ca) using Eggware Image: Courtesy of HOST

All of YLEM's projects are driven by the underlying theme of green design. The designers at the studio, under the tutelage of Kochhar, employ fastidious research and experimentation to develop materials that can be used to create products with circular life cycles. By utilising non-traditional items and salvaged waste to create unique materials, YLEM helps spread awareness about climate change and debunks the common misunderstandings associated with discarded materials. The firm's role, however, is not limited to research and development alone. Instead, these new materials are used to create both bespoke and scalable product design items that one can use in their everyday lives. Some of their projects include Eggware, Hasiroo and Plumeware. While Eggware, a project sitting at the intersection of design and food, is more experimental and artistic in nature, Hasiroo poses the potential to reach a wider audience at affordable rates.

Eggware Orbs | Eggware | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
Eggware Orbs Image: Courtesy of HOST

Eggware, made by binding the calcareous food waste, that is eggshells, using a bio-binder, resembles both ceramic and concrete in materiality. This naturally white, light-weight, rigid and water-absorbent material can be used to craft tableware, candelabras, jewellery holders, and planters and pots. After usage, these cohesive pieces, high in calcium carbonate and protein, can be crushed into bits and used to compost and nourish soil. The global consumption of eggs amounts to 1200 billion units per year, and the eggshells from these eggs are wastefully discarded. Kochhar identified this massive source of waste, and decided to pick up the perennial material and sculpt them into interesting shapes, such that they can mimic the roles of plates, glasses and stands. Not only does this project reduce wastage, but the hand sculpted pieces offer the chance to own bespoke homeware items that are also sustainable. Heeding to the regulations of circular design, Eggware follows a zero-waste production cycle. The damaged and rejected bits from one batch are salvaged and used up in the next one, thus ensuring that nothing goes to waste. The studio has partnered with local food vendors to acquire large quantities of egg waste, thus helping in the reduction of egg scraps and bits that travel to the landfills. The result of this project is an array of charming recycled products that allow equitable acquisition of artistic objects meant for personal usage and decoration.

Hasiroo footwear | Hasiroo | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
Hasiroo footwear Image: Courtesy of YLEM

Another interesting sustainable design project, created by Kochhar with the intent of exploring the potential of undiscovered natural fibres is Hasiroo. It encompasses a series of footwear made out of the leaf sheaths of a native Indian palm tree. Since the dried palm leaves that fall off every season are brittle in nature, they are treated so as to make them more flexible. These tensile offshoots are then converted into flat bases for the footwear. Developed to replace the polyester guest slippers used in the hospitality sector, the studio also plans on designing more lifestyle products using Hasiroo.

Luminaires crafted using Plumeware | Plumeware | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
Luminaires crafted using Plumeware Image: Courtesy of YLEM

Creating sustainable physical objects that tend, in some manner, to everyday needs is an essential practice. However, envisioning prototypes and concepts is also a crucial step towards imagining and creating a green future. YLEM's Plumeware is a step in that direction. Imagined as an eco-friendly surface material stitched together using discarded chicken feathers, Plumeware bears the ability to be shaped as desired. It is durable and flexible and can be shaped into decorative and functional products. Although it is not used by the studio to create physical objects, the idea of moulding such an unusual substance into a usable material prompts curiosity and encourages further research and experimentation in this direction.

Stasis Set by YLEM | Stasis Set | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
Stasis Set by YLEM Image: Courtesy of YLEM

While most of Kochhar's experimentations revolve around small scale products, Stasis Set, a furniture piece by YLEM takes it a notch further. Stasis Set is a two-piece outdoor furniture set that is made using bamboo and that alludes to the theme of tensegrity. The project aims to understand the traditional knowledge systems of bamboo production in the Indian subcontinent. Since bamboo has recently crept up as an alternative to other kinds of wood, understanding the most archaic notions and practices related to the material are almost imperative. Kochhar, instead of crafting a simple rectilinear furniture design piece, played with the shape and form of the lounge chair to create a contemporary design piece. Much like the name of the project which means counterbalance, tension, harmony and togetherness, the lounging furniture product softly cushions the user and stands stoically under the weight of anyone using the furniture. 

Behind this impressive body of work is an up-and-coming industrial designer, Midushi Kochhar. STIR established a dialogue with Kochhar to better understand her creative journey, what drives her and the role of YLEM in propagating a more sustainable culture.

Almas Sadique: Tell us a little about your journey in design and research. How did you start working with discarded materials?

Midushi Kochhar: As a kid, I used to collect “weird” looking objects from my surroundings and used to display them in my room because of the sheer beauty they held in my eyes. Snake skins, tree barks, dry flowers, even bones sometimes. They did not have to look shiny and new, but by just “being” in their natural state, they made me feel attracted to them. Subsequently, during my design studies, I was exposed to the philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, which made so much sense to me and it was something I was following unconsciously. This trickled down to my practice of repair before discard and eventually I started retrieving discards. I can’t actually put a finger on it, but this idea of seeing value everywhere, with little or no intervention is what has led me to work with such materials.

I am the designated kabaadiwali in my circles, which makes me feel quite proud - existence of a kabaadiwala is quite important in our social fabric and if at all, this small-scale network can become more organised, instead of "westernised" we can continue to recycle low-value materials and have a positive impact on several levels.

My educational background also encourages me to solve problems and create appealing products but it contradicts with my mindset of consuming minimally. Therefore, I try to find the right balance to the conflicting challenges of achieving elegant aesthetics, production capabilities, easy usability and environmental impacts. To tackle these oppositions, I started YLEM in India and Makers on the Move in the Netherlands.

Almas: How did you come up with the name YLEM for your studio? What is the thought behind it?

Midushi: YLEM [ahy-luhm] is a middle-English word that stands for the hypothetical initial substance of the universe from which all matter is derived or it can also mean it is the real, primordial “ur” stuff out of which everything else is made. Since materials are the epicentre of all our design process, and we want our audience to think about alternatives and consequences of material utilisation, it made sense to name the studio that. Plus, we simply love the sound of the word.

Eggware is made out of finely crushed eggshells bound with a bio-binder | Eggware | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
Eggware is made out of finely crushed eggshells bound with a bio-binder Image: Courtesy of YLEM

Almas: What led to Eggware? What is the intention behind the project?

Midushi:Eggware is one of the results from a bigger body of work called The Waste Project that was my master's thesis at Central St. Martins, University of the Arts London. The process started with basic kitchen experiments using our regular household waste. I started with vegetable peels, fruit seeds etc. and mixed them with different binders. The purpose was to create DIY recipes for people to replicate and upcycle some of their domestic waste, promoting a home ecosystem.

Subsequent experimentation that further took place at Green Lab, London, as part of a research residency there, resulted in more rigid, scalable and novel material that I coined as Eggware. This led me to think of the rest of the waste that comes from the originator of an egg, that is, chickens. About 50 per cent of their meat is used for food consumption and the remaining organs, including the feathers are thrown away. Chicken feathers, although have low insulation properties as compared to down, have great binding strength - and this is how Plumeware was born. With further experimentation, we conceptualised a set of lamps to showcase their beautiful translucency, and perhaps, quite literally, shed light on this low-value resource.

Different designs under the Hasiroo project | Hasiroo | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
Different designs under the Hasiroo project Image: Courtesy of YLEM

Almas: All your projects before Eggware also utilise discarded materials and waste such as chicken feathers, leaf sheaths etc. What kind of research and development process does the studio undertake when deciding on these materials and developing prototypes?

Midushi: The process usually starts with ideating on accessible yet abundant materials around us, basically looking at resources that no one is paying attention to. Our curiosity starts with the material first, and then we work on finding an application for that material.

It takes years to go from workshop investigations to scalable solutions and we do in-house testing mostly at the physical, mechanical and thermal levels. That means we check for water resistance, fire retardation, longevity, hardness etc. and while doing so, we also factor in the end-of-life disposal and if at all our products can find a new life, in a different version. Moreover, our materials are always in development, and we incorporate user, maker, market feedback to create high-design.

Almas: Apart from ecological, what are some social and economic impacts of these biomaterials?

Midushi: Virgin materials are expensive and difficult to procure, waste is cheap and abundant. It makes great economic sense to first utilise what is discarded locally around you, that is, identify this valuable "waste" and instead of mining for new resources, utilise the discards up to their maximum capabilities. Sure, not everything can be recycled and can be made from residue but there is a big enough market potential here where people are slowly starting to tap into. Socio-cultural impacts are seen in ways of new craft practices being created, giving our local artisans another medium to work with, hence improving their livelihood.

Stasis Set by YLEM | Stasis Set | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
The two parts of Stasis Set can be used individually Image: Courtesy of YLEM

Almas: What is the future of biomaterials? Can you see its usage extending beyond product design?

Midushi: Yes, definitely! I would say that the application of such innovative materials is extensively being applied in the textile and fashion industry. For example, fabric made from and by algae, dyed by bacteria and filter air by infusing chlorophyll in them. Several plant-based leathers like piñatex (from pineapple leaves), malai (from coconut cellulose) are also becoming mainstream and affordable. In construction and packaging, mycelium is gaining traction due to its natural strength, water resistant, and fire resistance properties.

Construction and fashion are few of the most waste producing industries, and these examples just prove the scale at which biomaterials can be applied. The shift is taking place slowly, and the opportunities are immense in the field. Having said that, since it is such a new field, starting out has many challenges related to awareness, affordability, longevity and profitability etc.

Almas: Which material does the studio plan on experimenting with next?

Midushi: We have witnessed some really interesting items being made from these materials and want to devote more energy into new material R&D and design. It is challenging to grow while continuously researching. We are designers not engineers, so knowing our limits we are quite intrigued to work with mycelium (the vegetative part of mushroom) and moss as well.

  • Plumeware is made using discarded chicken feathers | Plumeware | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
    Plumeware is made using discarded chicken feathers Image: Courtesy of YLEM
  • Hanging lamp made using Plumeware | Plumeware | Midushi Kochhar | STIRworld
    Hanging lamp made using Plumeware Image: Courtesy of YLEM

Almas: Despite the availability of biomaterials, plastic continues as a dominant material in the market. How do you think this trend can be subverted?

Midushi: Let's try to understand the extensive use of plastics and its origins. Plastic is quite a marvellous material, which no other material can currently compete with and it took over 50 years just to develop it. Before that high-value natural materials like wood, tusks, horns, tortoise shells, metals etc. were being used exploitatively. Plastic emerged as a solution to somehow “save” the environment and did so in this regard. It became a problem due to its low-cost and disposability factor where people found no sense of judicious usage of the same.

Currently, biomaterials are not that easy to source (due to the ways the industry is set in) and more expensive due to less companies producing them. Now this does not mean they are actually expensive to procure - it simply means that industry is not conducive and structured in a way that favours non-renewable resources. With the right support from governments, self-realisation, and easier transitions, we can reclaim our biomaterials and get closer to our natural environment while urbanising in greener ways.

Almas: Beyond research and design that centres on the circular economy, how can sustainable practices and the usage of reclaimed materials be encouraged amongst the larger population?

Midushi: I think there are several different ways to work around this. Of course, the one way is with the support of governments, that is, having strict policies against material wastage and utilisation of toxic matter and subsidising the greener ways of functioning.

Secondly, I don’t suggest that it is only the government's responsibility and want to debunk a grassroots-top/top-bottom blame game of our systematic problems and suggest some sporadic yet interconnected systems. Meaning waste from one industry can become a raw material for the next and the spiral continues till all levels of the material is utilised. Moreover, this also makes good business sense since “waste” is cheap and abundant and virgin materials are expensive.

Thirdly, there is enough awareness among the common public about the consequences of their buying choices but there are either no real sustainable options, or they are ruled by greenwashing brands or they simply don’t care. Personal values/status takes precedence over collective good. In these scenarios, we cannot actually disrupt current behaviours completely but need to find smart, invisible systems that people can adapt to without much friction. Citizens are going to consume in large quantities, and this is a sign of a thriving economy, so why not make the same things with better, circular materials?

What do you think?

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