Sofia Souidi

A new approach to material

The focus of Sofia Souidi's work is clearly on one of the greatest challenges of our time – it is about sustainability. All her projects are united by an experimental approach, a passion for materials and curiosity about new technologies. In 2020, she was nominated for the German Sustainability Award for Design. As artist in residence at the Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research, the designer is currently working on her project "Superwood".

The German product designer graduated from the Royal College of Art in London and subsequently founded her studio in Berlin-Kreuzberg. She is involved in material research and product development for objects and architecture. As an industrial designer, she is familiar with various manufacturing processes. Through her design background, she looks at standardised processes and systems from new perspectives, brings in new impulses and explores the limits of what is possible. Souidi's design can be defined as clear and functional, yet her projects often have a specific element that tells a story about their creation.

Linda Pezzei: Ms Souidi, how has the past year influenced your way of working and what (positive) insights will you take with you for the future?

Sofia Souidi: The past year has only encouraged me in my work with sustainable concepts. I am grateful for the great positive response to my project "Superwood" and I am even more pleased that the interest is so great when I remember that in research there are always lean periods to endure and the results are not always available as quickly as desired. So that motivates me a lot for what I do. For the future, I generally hope for more projects with a focus on interdisciplinary materials research. Fast Furniture shouldn't really have a future in the long run, but I also see that there is still a long way to go. Even if renewable raw materials are now perceived more positively and consumer confidence is growing, the all-overshadowing question of cost and immense ignorance among consumers still remain.

In 2021 you won the Award for Environment and New Energies from the Foundation Environment and New Energies - how did that come about?

Sofia Souidi: My project was proposed by the Fraunhofer Institute WKI and because it fitted well into the concept, it was ultimately - fortunately - selected for the award. This not only means important financial support for me, but is also a nice confirmation of my work.

"Superwood" | Materialrecherche | Fraunhofer WKI

You are currently working as artist in residence at the Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research on the "Superwood" project. What exactly is this about?

Sofia Souidi: "Superwood" is a new fibreboard material being developed for the furniture industry. It is made from recycled wood fibres that are pressed into panels mixed with casein glue. Casein glue replaces the formaldehyde-based adhesives used in the production of conventional MDF panels, which have been shown to be carcinogenic. It is a pollutant-free glue (also waterproof and temperature-resistant) that was already used by the Egyptians to build boats. The material itself is made from waste wood (such as needles and branch waste from the timber industry) in order to minimise the high consumption of raw materials and to conserve resources. We obtain the casein from recycled cow's milk: in Germany alone, the annual "waste" is really frighteningly high. In addition, the legal regulations regarding adhesives containing formaldehyde have also changed in 2020 - so the need for alternative materials on the part of manufacturers and industry is enormous.

Why are sustainable materials so important, especially for applications such as exhibition and trade fair construction?

Sofia Souidi: Huge amounts of material are used here in a very short time - and then disposed of again. Of course, this creates a lot of waste. Often, there is also poor ventilation, so that the pollution on site can be very high. The market is still determined by appearance and price, and the issue of sustainability is still of secondary importance. Especially in places where many people come together indoors - such as museums - a rethink would make sense. Especially since the vapours last for years and limit values are only specified for each material in itself, but not in their combinations and potentiation. Moreover, furniture consumption and thus the amount of wood consumed per person is rising rapidly every year. For years, virgin forests have been cut down for the production of cheap furniture. Masses of bulky waste have to be disposed of or recycled as a result. The less pollutant wood contains, the better it can be recycled. However, much furniture is lacquered or glued with formaldehyde. They contain pollutants and cannot be recycled. Developing an aesthetic material that does not contain pollutants, consists of recycled components and is designed in such a way that it does not need to be painted or coated is therefore the declared goal of the "Superwood" project.

How exactly do you manage to bring science, art and design together? Who benefits and how?

Sofia Souidi: In my opinion, the different fields complement each other perfectly: each has its own competences and different perspectives. Scientists usually do very detailed and in-depth research on a small scale - as a designer I have more of a macro perspective. I think about: What is the optimal application? How do I communicate the material to the consumer? Who should be addressed? Not only the consumer, but also the industry. What is the optimal application? And how can I prepare complex contexts in order to communicate them in a way that is understandable to the target group? Unfortunately, scientific findings all too often end up in a drawer because the right partner is missing to deal with a suitable application.

Where do you see the greatest potential for the future in the design x sustainability interface?

Sofia Souidi: The cooperation of experts from different disciplines always entails a change of perspective. Often, even small design decisions (e.g. the structure of a surface) are enormously important - projects can stand or fall with this, because certain aspects are simply not (or cannot be) considered by some sides. Networking also serves mutual public visibility, not to mention scalability, which can only be achieved through industry. I would also like to see research projects funded over a longer period of time, as finding results often involves a longer journey. However, the financial viability of innovative projects depends on funding. Especially at universities, I see huge potential for long-term cooperation between research, teaching and industry.

And what would you most like to realise next?

Sofia Souidi: I find the raw material algae extremely exciting. It grows back incredibly quickly and binds large amounts of CO2. I have already made my first attempts at pigment formation - but that is only the beginning of a long journey.