DESIGN | WRITER: ROSA BERTOLI | PHOTOGRAPHY: MATHIJS LABADIE
7 AUGUST 2020
Can lino live forever?
Experimental Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma has been working with floor maker Forbo on processes that give new creative purpose to unwanted old product
‘ I am generally very much wowed by linoleum’, Christien Meindertsma says. The peculiar statement comes halfway through an intense chat that has so far touched upon pigs, flax farming and the nearimpossible task of producing paper from American prairie grass. By this point in the conversation, it is clear that the things that wow the Dutch designer are rather out of the ordinary.
Since graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven in 2003, Meindertsma has developed a unique voice in the design world. Her projects dive deep into our relationships with objects and materials, our use of resources and the history behind our daily habits. Although she is generally comfortable with the label of designer (she has also been called an artist and researcher), Meindertsma’s approach reaches far beyond products and concepts. Among her most notable projects was a 2007 book titled PIG 05049, analysing the animal as a source of raw materials used in a wide range of products, from cigarettes to concrete. Another project, and accompanying book, Bottom Ash Observatory, was subtitled An Incinerated Municipal Solid Waste Expedition, revealing the wealth of different materials found in a 25kg bucket of ash from incinerated household waste, which the designer sieved, separated and catalogued.
‘I like to go where the inventions are,’ says Meindertsma. ‘I don’t think I am very good at designing from behind a desk. I can only really learn through a process, and the shape automatically follows the research. Research is my way of designing.’ One of her passions, she says, is learning about things she can’t possibly find online.
Among Meindertsma’s most notable projects to date is her ‘Flax’ chair, created in 2015. Five years earlier, the designer had bought an entire flax harvest, about ten tonnes, to find out if it could be processed into a new, environmentally friendly textile. The project developed into a collaboration with natural-fibre specialist Enkev and Label Breed, an organisation that promotes cooperation between designers and manufacturers. The resulting chair is a fitting example of Meindertsma’s approach: using a simple domestic object to convey the weight of in-depth research. She created a new composite material using layers of woven and felted flax, heat-pressed into the shape of a chair. ‘Within the process, the chair was the right product to present this material,’ she says. ‘You can sit on a chair, it’s quite an intimate, physical object.’
The ‘Flax’ chair brought attention to the designer’s sustainable approach and her ability to think circularly. Dutch company Forbo, maker of linoleum (which the brand refers to as Marmoleum, for its colourful, marbled surface) picked up on Meindertsma’s works and got in touch. ‘We felt a connection with Christien’s flax project because linseed oil [derived from flax] is an important element of linoleum, alongside other natural ingredients such as wood, pine-tree resin, limestone and jute,’ says Peter Albertz, Forbo’s innovation manager. In 2019, Meindertsma was tasked with researching the possibilities of recycling old linoleum and designing products that could be made with the resulting material. Forbo had already investigated the potential of circular manufacturing. A year earlier, design student Jaromir van Vliet (then an intern at the company), responding to a circular challenge from Rotterdam-based start-up incubator BlueCity, had developed a way of using heat to turn scraps of old linoleum into the endlessly recyclable Renoleum.
In itself, linoleum is a fairly green material. ‘The weighted average of the Marmoleum product range has been independently assessed as CO2 neutral from cradle to gate, without the need for carbon offsetting,’ says Albertz. ‘It is one of the world’s most sustainable non-PVC, resilient flooring materials.’ The problem with linoleum lies in its afterlife: once removed from floors, parts of glue and cement stick to it, making it impossible to properly recycle (it is usually mixed in to make cement, or sent to landfill).
Van Vliet’s Renoleum employed specialist machines to granulate the linoleum as well as the cement and glue parts; the resulting granules were then blended into a new board material. After experimenting with this new composite, Meindertsma wanted to go one step further. But first, typically, she wanted to go back to the source of the material.
She took herself to a school in the Netherlands where linoleum was being torn off the floors. She also looked at an old sample book from the 1990s (a collection of shades titled ‘Rhapsody in Colour’), as she wanted to discover and recover as wide a range of linoleum as she could.
Her eureka moment came while she was experimenting in the Forbo factory. ‘I was standing next to this mini calender machine [a tool composed of two highpressure rollers to flatten materials into sheets], and just tried throwing old linoleum in. What happened then was magic: the machine started making new linoleum,’ she explains. ‘So we discovered that you can shred the material, but you can also put it in the calender, which blends it again.’ By doing that, she notes, the jute fibre becomes stronger and the oils are reactivated. The resulting material is drier and harder than the original, more like ceramic.
‘It’s a very simple thing, but they had never done it,’ Meindertsma says, as she likens her design process to a programmer’s work: ‘You just find the language that has the least steps but is the most elegant.’
The collaboration with Forbo is still in progress; although she has identified what to do with the old linoleum, she is now looking at where to take this new material. Her first designs are a series of tiles in different shapes, repurposing old sample books from Forbo to create compositions that show the colour range. But the possibilities are quite broad, as she is exploring different scales and manufacturing possibilities. ‘The material is a stepping stone towards other things,’ she says.
Meindertsma’s diverse work has been recognised by design institutions globally, most recently with a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Aptly titled ‘Everything Connects’, the exhibition focused on her Flax Project, and Fibre Market, for which she examined 1,000 wool sweaters to reveal how their material composition differed from the content on their label, before shredding them, using a fibre-sorting machine. ‘Christien Meindertsma is a fearless researcher and has been able to get behind the scenes of exceptionally proprietary industries to interrogate issues concerning social and environmental sustainability,’ says Zöe Ryan, the Art Institute’s chair and curator of architecture and design. ‘She asks questions and realises projects that help us engage critically with the world and open our minds to inventive ways of thinking about design and the role of the designer.’
To Meindertsma, this process is innate, built into her design thinking. ‘I like to be open to things, taking different turns than you expect; I work so there is space for this to happen,’ she says. Her collaboration with Forbo has so far given her the opportunity for discovery and has allowed her to freely experiment, and her approach has proven to fit right in with the company’s thinking. Says Albertz: ‘We see Christien as a passionate ambassador for linoleum.’ §