Nature Goes Back to its Design Roots in Natsai Audrey Chieza’s Studio

Natsai Audrey
Experimental bacterial prints grown on silk scarves.


“The fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world after fossil fuels.” Designer and researcher Natsai Audrey Chieza hits us with a hard truth. A Zimbabwean based in London, her practice is concerned with how the world could work better. Thinking ahead, her work deals now with solutions we’ll need in the future, and for the last four years she has had a very particular focus, one that has taken her into science labs, exhibitions and lecture halls.

As Designer in Residence at The Advanced Centre of Biochemical Engineering at University College London, Chieza has been working with the support of Professor John Ward on developing future textile dyeing techniques using pigments produced by bacteria; essentially working with nature to diminish the negative environmental impact of current materials and manufacturing systems.

She says, “Up until now I feel like we haven‚Äôt had the right tools to talk about sustainability in a convincing way. In architecture we‚Äôre having the same dialogue. I’m working with students at The Bartlett who are working with fungi, algae, moss for building materials of the future. I think that every discipline is starting to understand that if you can work with nature, maybe that – we don‚Äôt know for sure – but maybe that’s a little bit better than pouring concrete somewhere.”¬†She Skyped in from her home in London to talk about the potential future of the fashion industry, and the world.


How would you explain what you do to somebody who has never heard of biodesign?

In Design with a capital D, we are now at a point because of climate change where we have to figure out new ways of making and consuming that negate the use of fossil fuels. My research is driven by creating fundamentally new ways of finishing textiles. The fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world after fossil fuels, with the most intensive damage happening at the dye and finishing stage. I’ve developed a craft-based biologically-driven technological process that enables us to work with pigment-producing microbes to naturally dye fabrics without the use of any chemicals. People will ask me how dyeing with bacteria is different from natural dyeing and the answer is that I don’t need land for it: land we will need for food as pressures due to climate change grow.

I’m keen to examine the whole system of making, understanding that we can build these systematic “fixes” into the prototypes as we go along so nothing is poorly considered retrospectively. For example, throughout my whole process I’ve been looking at how to use less water and less energy. To grow bacteria, sugar is a key ingredient. I have to ask where that sugar will come from. Does it come from a plantation? Or does it come from the waste-stream of another factory? Having a whole systems approach to this research question is why something as small as new material processes for dyeing will have such a broad, tangible impact.

For me it also isn‚Äôt just about where our materials come from and how we make them. It’s about the social and the economic sustainability of it: is it okay that you can buy a T-shirt for a couple of pounds when you know that the cost price is even lower, meaning the person who made it was paid even less, if at all? Poor leadership and a desperate need for investment means that de-unionised Chinese-owned sweatshops are being established all over Sub-Saharan Africa, with workers being paid as little as $80 a month! What is so depressing about this is that despite our rich cultural heritage and vibrant indigenous craft bases, many of these factories are in the business of making low value counterfeit goods. I find it obscene! It is crudely exploitative and does not sit well with the difficult and complex recent history of a continent that strongly needs compassionate investment to empower its people. So if your aim is to cultivate a sustainable practice, one must adopt a broad overview of what sustainability means including the cultural nuance needed to tread lightly.



Natsai Audrey Chieza Faber FuturesNatsai Audrey Chieza Faber Futures


“How do you train 60 000 bees to build a vessel?”


How do biomimicry, biodesign and bioengineering differ?

If you see it as a threshold of extremes, you start with copying nature through biomimicry which historically we‚Äôve done for a long time. It‚Äôs only now that it‚Äôs becoming a formalised discipline for academic interrogation in design and engineering. The textiles used to make wetsuits are a good example of looking at shark skin for buoyancy and temperature regulation as inspiration to develop a “man-made” version of that functionality.

The next phase is being a co-author with nature which is working with nature for the functions it has evolved to perform with optimal efficiency. How do you train 60 000 bees to build a vessel? Tomáš Libertíny did, and it brings into question notions of value and our concept of on-demand manufacture. Time and the intelligence of a hive becomes a design tool with exquisite consequences.

There’s a farmer in the UK who is growing chairs. That‚Äôs right, he has a furniture farm! Gavin Munro of Full Grown in Derbyshire grows rows and rows of slender willows that have been trained, clamped and grafted into forms as they grow. Four to eight years later, when it’s time to harvest the furniture, he chops the chairs down. If that‚Äôs not a redefinition of craftsmanship and luxury I don‚Äôt know what is!

In many respects this concept of co-authorship with living systems is the category that my research falls under. I’m working with nature at its best and trying to harness its capacity from a design-centred perspective.

The third phase of designing with nature is realising that nature does something really well and questioning how we can bioengineer it to do it better. Programmable biology is set to define human biology this century, and its convergence with information technology will undoubtedly revolutionise our material culture. But it is also the space that really demands a broader ethical discussion because effectively we’re talking about creating biological constructs that do not exist naturally. If designers are to work within this space we are faced with the ethics that have held scientists to account. The question that invariably comes up in public talks by members of the audience is that of what happens when genetically engineered organisms escape the lab and start to interact with the natural world? These issues are beginning to permeate our vernacular, especially as higher education in the realm of biodesign becomes more formalised.



Natsai Audrey Chieza Faber Futures
Experimental bacterial prints grown on silk scarves.


What makes your work a worthwhile pursuit for you?

Ultimately I know this work is really important in the context of industrialised textile manufacturing. In a broader sense, as a way to create a new dialogue on how we make, I’ve co-curated exhibitions that showcased practitioners working in this way Рarchitects, designers, artists, writers Рand we put together a body of work that started to articulate how to design with nature.

I‚Äôm also fascinated by it from an academic point of view and how we arrive at a new understanding of the social ramifications of what we‚Äôre talking about. But I was very keen to do this not from a provocation or a design fiction perspective – which is incredibly helpful to force us to imagine what kind of world we might live in if these things become the norm – but to provide a real insight from a position of someone who‚Äôs actually worked with the technology to create real artefacts that answer to a serious problem. I think I’ve been able to put myself in a space where I can talk about the ethical side of what it means to design with a living technology, but I can also talk about the real industrial efficacy and how amazing it could be because I‚Äôve actually succeeded in doing it.


What could your work mean for the future of design and manufacturing?

Dyeing with bacteria is definitely going to happen. It sounds really benign but the implications of it will be huge. It will even potentially bring manufacturing back into developed economies that are now predominantly service-based. Germany’s economy is stronger than its European counterparts because they decided not to outsource their high level manufacturing. Countries like the UK would have a second chance to revitalise the manufacturing sector by tapping into the bioeconomy. Technologies that update industrial processes of the 20th century tend to be cleaner and more efficient, rely on convergence, automation and highly trained teams to realise them. In essence it will be just as important for a country to have this level of manufacturing happening across its regions as it currently is to foster Silicon Valley-type tech industry equivalents.

From a design point of view, the impact of working with biofabrication is hugely significant and changes how we in the profession see ourselves. I‚Äôve often been asked if I would like to grow my colour palette further. The answer is yes, of course I could, but that also means learning a new microbe and potentially having a completely different manufacturing system that’s everything to do with the biological needs of that particular microbe – especially since my work does not encompass synthetic biology. I‚Äôve come to realise that I could spend a whole lifetime working with a particular bacteria. There‚Äôs a real understanding now that designing with nature will bring back the notion of a master. When we talk about antibiotics we‚Äôve passed the stage of discovery for microbes and pharmaceuticals, we know everything there is to know. But in the context of design we are just at the precipice of starting to uncover which strain of bacteria can make the best kind of porcelain.¬†That to me is really fascinating.


“We‚Äôve always done really good things with technology and we‚Äôve always done really bad things with technology.”


Where do you stand on the controversial ethical debates surrounding bioengineering?

I‚Äôm convinced that we don’t know the full implications of some of the R&D that‚Äôs happening. But as is our nature, this won‚Äôt stop us from trying things out. I’m reading an awesome book by Kevin Kelly called What Technology Wants, and it‚Äôs really cemented in my mind that technology is amoral, it doesn‚Äôt think, it just does what is optimal. We‚Äôve always done really good things with technology and we‚Äôve always done really bad things with technology.

In the sciences to do a scientific experiment, apply for a grant, or do a PhD, an ethical framework must be established and approved. At masters level in design education ethics are still largely optional. In design, I think that economic, environmental, and societal sustainability is an ethical issue. As more and more designers start working in the realm of biotechnology the ethical questions will be compulsory and they become much more serious in nature. I think this signals a turning point in how our institutions are organised. At Central Saint Martins scientists regularly interface with students on programmes like MA Material Futures, and they are the graduates that often camp in labs across the city, bringing new knowledge and impetus, but faced with bigger responsibilities. Likewise designers are being brought in at bid-writing stage by science departments, rather than at the end for “science communication”. So there is a realisation that research must be more dynamic and interdisciplinary in nature so that we can better blueprint responsible innovation.

Natsai Audrey Chieza Silk Test

Experimental bacterial prints grown on silk scarves.
Experimental bacterial prints grown on silk scarves.


On the subject of lab-grown materials, there is talk about creating synthetic rhino horn in the hopes of flooding the market and reducing demand, and thus attempting to thwart poaching. What do you think of this?

When I first heard about that I thought, “Wow, that‚Äôs actually a really good idea!” If we flood the market with a product it loses its value, so maybe we stop killing rhinos and elephants. And that‚Äôs something that deeply saddens me; poaching, best practice in conservation and how that‚Äôs linked to economic and political challenges in a country. So it would be a massive middle finger to everyone involved if we could flood the market with a material composite that is like rhino horn. Unfortunately I’m not sure that it’s as clear cut a solution as that. The reason why any tusks are valuable is also to do with the traditional quasi-spiritual/medical need they fulfil.¬†A preference for authenticity with a market flooded with synthetics may mean that the animals remain in harm’s way. So I do wonder if this idea would prove counter-intuitive and make people more likely to want to get horn from the actual rhino. I want it to work but I am not sure it would.

I feel like conservation needs to be a concerted effort around lots of different mechanisms and I think one thing that’s not maybe in the dialogue so much is how things like drones could be used for a live-feed type surveillance, tagging so we know where rhinos are, or a tagging device that can detect distress. I just feel like where we are with sensor technology right now there is a lot more we could potentially be doing. What if you could embed a trackable sensor in a rhino horn so that even if the rhino has been killed you can still catch the perpetrators? Unfortunately this relies on technology, money and despot governments. Poaching is not going to go anywhere unless there is a political will.


Natsai Audrey Chieza Bacteria


You’re exposed to, and involved in, such innovative processes. Is there anything in particular you’ve heard about being developed that completely blows your mind?

I’m very wary of speculative design for speculative design’s sake and sometimes it feels as if it is at risk of becoming a parody of itself. Having said this, a project that I feel is conceptually so strong Рand the science really shows that we’ll be able to do this at some point in the not too distant future Рis a project by Carol Collet, Professor in Design for Sustainable Futures and Director Design & Living Systems Lab at Central Saint Martins. She is a leading researcher working across pioneering research and curriculum delivery in the field. Her project Biolace explores the notion of growing hybrid plants designed to have both edible leaves and fruits, as well as a root system genetically modified to weave into a textile as the plant grows. Though it’s speculative, the science behind coding plant morphology indicates that hybrid plants will offer us a mechanism to be more productive with less landmass, and that perhaps we can design for soil fertility. The visuals are pretty mind blowing. It really makes you think.


“If fast fashion answers to this need for newness, then how do you create a platform that enables people to have newness, but not because we‚Äôre making stuff every day, because we‚Äôre sharing it amongst ourselves.”


What other changes will we see in the fashion industry?

I just started teaching a Fashion Futures course to a class of fashion branding and marketing¬†students to communicate to them that the jobs that they may be applying for next year when they graduate will not exist in 20 years. “Do you have a plan?” For the students who are more in tune with this reality, it really is about understanding that our capitalist environment makes us buy things we don‚Äôt need to make ourselves feel better about what a horrible world we live in. And so how do you start to remedy that by making more meaningful products? Because we still need clothes, we‚Äôre not going to go, “Oh it‚Äôs actually better for the environment for us to walk around naked”. We still need clothes. But what is the social efficacy of that garment? What is the material “paper trail” of that? Where did it come from? Did that farmer get paid sufficiently for the cotton that he produced? Did that farmer get cancer because he‚Äôs using pesticides? We need a whole system approach to how we talk about fashion and how we talk about sustainability now.


“We can‚Äôt wait for the big fashion groups to bring about the most innovative changes to industry and inspire a holistic psychology of consumption; this one‚Äôs going to be a bottom-up kind of revolution.”


Sustainability had become a bit of a dirty word in fashion because it basically meant that you walked around wearing hemp clothing and cork shoes (ok perhaps that’s a bit unfair), but obviously we’ve come to realise there’s more to it than that. And this is because fashion designers started being taught within our institutions to really consider how they do sustainable luxury. Sustainable luxury is about provenance, it’s about a fair wage, it’s about a high quality in design; making clothes that last. It’s so easy to talk about sustainability in the context of luxury fashion, it’s much harder to talk about sustainability in the context of fast fashion. So what we’re also saying is fast fashion as a model cannot be something that we proliferate. I’m so shocked to hear that there are some colleges who are actually teaching their students how to design for fast fashion. Why are you teaching them that? You should be teaching them what new sustainability means. How do you get people to buy things forever, for life? How do you make people buy less? What services can be designed to enable clothing libraries that people subscribe to. If fast fashion answers to this need for newness, then how do you create a platform that enables people to have newness, but not because we’re making stuff every day, because we’re sharing it amongst ourselves. So looking at different fashion business models is really interesting.

H&M, for example, is working really, really hard to tackle a lot of these questions but at the same time they’re too big to change their current model – they have shareholders after all. They‚Äôre still opening flagship shops and moving further afield into emerging economies. So in my view they’re damned if they do, damned if they don‚Äôt. This is the challenge we face, that ultimately we have fashion brands that are too big, even luxury fashion brands, because luxury has become fast fashion now, to completely transform.¬†So what‚Äôs really interesting to look at are the new people who are coming out of fashion colleges who are establishing brands that are more streamlined, niche, local yet global facing.¬†We can‚Äôt wait for the big fashion groups to bring about the most innovative changes to industry and inspire a holistic psychology of consumption; this one‚Äôs going to be a bottom-up kind of revolution.


Experimental bacterial prints grown on silk scarves.
Experimental bacterial prints grown on silk scarves.
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