Paulien Nabben

Design as a tool

As a young graduate of the Design Academy Eindhoven, Paulien Nabben sees her task in the careful design of her environment in order to strengthen the well-being of all of us in this way. The designer is not only fascinated by the complexity of natural systems, she also wants to explore their behaviour and interactions.

Linda Pezzei: Ms. Nabben, why did you study design?

Paulien Nabben: I have always focused on the deeper layers that lie behind what we think we know and have been fascinated by the complexity of the natural systems that surround us. Seeing how our perceptions and indecision affect our environment and human well-being, I believe that design can be used as a tool to benefit nature rather than harm it. It's exciting to see how design can drive new kinds of collaboration and research, and ultimately steer complex issues towards thoughtful solutions.

How did your studies shape your thinking about design? Were there any key moments?

Paulien Nabben: Through my studies I have learned a lot about myself as a personality. You are forced to get a deeper understanding of what is important to you. You are also pushed to explore topics that interest you in a very personal way, tying up loose ends and stringently developing ideas. Since you are not trimmed to specific processes, this fact helps enormously in defining yourself as an individual.

To what extent does nature influence your design?

Paulien Nabben: Everything I do is tied to my interest in nature. "Nature" to me means: the human body, a functioning mind, our environment, interactions et cetera. No matter what subject I am working on - whether it is materials, products, living or systems - I always ask myself how it would work in nature. When I change or add to these natural processes through my design, this addition should lead to a better functioning of the whole system.

Sustainable Textile "Ambara" Product Sample

In Rwanda you worked on the production of sustainable plant-based textiles. How did you get involved and what did you take away from there?

Paulien Nabben: Even during my studies, I was fascinated by materials of all kinds. In Rwanda, I was allowed to work with local artisans for a year as part of an internship. Based on the raw materials available there, a collection of furniture, lamps and tiles was created. The skills of the basket weavers, wood carvers, ceramists and metal workers we met there really surprised us. However, I also found that there were no locally produced fibres and very few developments or textiles at all. I then became interested in the vegetation in Rwanda and looked for opportunities within the ecosystem of native plants, invasive species and agricultural waste. My final project "Ambara" was born out of this interest.

How do you develop new materials? What are the first steps?

Paulien Nabben: First, I contact local producers to find out what has already been done and what should be developed. I also seek collaboration with ecologists, biologists and other scientists who may specialise in local plant species. When thinking about the impact of materials on us and our environment, I make connections with other disciplines, do research and try out different techniques.

”Circular economy and sustainability have been constant trends in recent years, but in order to contribute to them, a holistic approach is required.“

Paulien Nabben

Why do you think the regional context is important for the design process and later production?

Paulien Nabben: Everything we create affects the context in which or with which we work. It is important to respect and understand how to contribute to the existing system. That's why I always try to work with several disciplines to get as complete a picture of the whole as possible. Each region has developed differently and therefore requires an adapted or different approach. We will never know the complete picture of anything, even something we think we understand. Every "creation" can have a secret flaw.

"Rebuild Ecosystems", research on the microbial ecology of the home

Do we have a problem in Europe in this respect or do you see a rethinking of young designers towards regional and artisanal design?

Paulien Nabben: Circular economy and sustainability have been constant trends in recent years, but to be able to contribute to this, a holistic approach is needed. I think it's important that we don't rely on assumptions, but rather adapt based on learning processes. I like to think of design as putting puzzle pieces together. I combine the knowledge and needs of local experts or professionals with new systems, manufacturers, products and materials.

Electric bike "Bike for two"

What can we learn from other cultures in terms of design and sustainability? And what can we give back in return?

Paulien Nabben: I don't know yet what there is to learn out there. As long as you are curious, listen and discuss, you will discover new things along the way - that is learning, isn't it? Personally, I have learned an incredible amount while working on "Ambara". Cultures, systems and environments are the bare minimum you need to understand in order to understand the context you are changing through design.

Your favourite material and why?

Paulien Nabben: I don't have any particular favourite materials. My interest is based on contact with the environment. I like to work with natural materials derived from plants and earth and with their responsible, circular changes. What fascinates me most about natural fibres is that in today's society of fast fashion and man-made fibres, they have a huge impact on the world and human well-being. I am excited about how clay, fibres etc. can contribute to a healthier society and environment through material, architectural and product developments.

A material or product that you still want to develop?

Paulien Nabben: I would like to further develop the fibres and textiles we worked on in Rwanda. I would also like to see how I can further develop the theories (and hopefully the materials) from my other project "Rebuild Ecosystems".

"Ambara" has emerged as a plant-based textile laboratory in collaboration with "Iriza Ntako Heritage LTD" and "Kigali Modern". The lab explores the processing of fibres from indigenous plants such as bamboo, water hyacinth and banana plants. The end result should be an easily accessible method of local textile production that is both economical and sustainable.