30 Apr 2021 • Sustainability
Why animal products are increasingly off the interiors mood board
In a time of climate emergency and devastating species loss, many of us are giving greater consideration to the impact of what we consume – and not just in terms of what we eat. Whereas veganism might have once felt entrenched in radical politics and restricted diets, more recently it has made a step into the mainstream, opening up new opportunities for influence in unexpected parts of our lives – including our interiors.
The fashion industry has led the way in the development, promotion and use of innovative vegan products, with brands such as Hugo Boss, Stella McCartney, Adidas and Gucci investing in the production of non-animal-based materials. Now, with a demonstrable popularity in the consumer market, such strategies are also being adopted by major workplace, hospitality and automotive brands.
Recognizing an increasingly ecological imperative for automotive customers – even in an industry inherently built on consumption – the Volvo-owned electric performance car, Polestar, was initially created to ‘support the change towards sustainability’. Launched in 2020, the design for Polestar 2 eradicates traditionally familiar leather upholstery from the interior, substituting it with a fabric called WeaveTech. Rather than emulating the leather it replaces, WeaveTech embraces a character of its own, akin to the scuba diving wetsuit material that inspired it. It forms part of a palette that includes surfaces made from recycled PET bottles, seats created with recycled cork vinyl and carpet made from reclaimed fishing nets. These material choices not only increase the ecocredentials of the brand but, importantly for a car interior, they’re also lightweight, collectively reducing the load by 12 kg. Polestar is not alone in making this shift towards veganism. Mercedes has been selling vehicles that are entirely free of leather since 2016, while Jaguar Land Rover developed a hybrid polyurethane material called Eucalyptus Melange for its Range Rover Evoque series in 2018, made of 30 per cent eucalyptus bark fibres.
The use of vegan materials in the car industry highlights an inherent tension between veganism’s moral and ecological intentions. Demanding cruelty-free materials while simultaneously considering durability, ethical sourcing, embodied energy and the carbon footprint of a product is a complex task. It’s necessary to look into the entire production chain in the sourcing of materials, since the industry currently suffers from a lack of transparency. Default non-animal-based material alternatives such as polyester and rayon rely on fossil fuels, and harmful phthalates are used to make PVC – a compromise that is especially pertinent to our current plastic crisis. Although the material specified may be vegan, many finishing options often contain animal-derived products, such as casein glue from milk proteins, purple colouring from sea snails, or mammal urine used as part of the dying process. Paints can contain bone derivatives or shellac resin from the female lac beetle, and even sandpaper and mechanical components have been found to incorporate animal products, a convention that has mostly gone unchallenged due to its lack of direct visibility. The impact of these more concealed products will take longer to address, but such change is more likely if demanded by end users, facilitated and implemented by design professionals.
In addition to WeWork’s ethos for low-carbon, minimal-waste workspaces, the intention for the fit-out of its Amsterdam Stadhouderskade office was to eradicate all leather and PVC from the interiors. Photo: Courtesy of Jordi Huisman
Such imperatives are confronted in the design of WeWork’s fourth Amsterdam office on Stadhouderskade. In addition to WeWork’s ethos for low-carbon, minimal-waste workspaces, which includes an aspiration to consume 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, the intention for this fit-out was to eradicate all leather and PVC from the interiors, and to rely more on the creative reuse of existing resources. This starts from the building itself, whereby the underlying structure of the landmark former REO Motor Car Company showroom was carefully revealed in the refit process and is now furnished with reclaimed design classics revitalized with custom-made, vegetarian upholstery. Events hosted at WeWork spaces for the past two years have eradicated single-use plastics and featured vegetarian catering – which may seem like a small change, but multiplied by the number of members and their guests for each event across 859 locations globally, has a huge impact.
The company’s scale also enabled it to have greater purchasing power to choose previously underrepresented materials that might otherwise have proven prohibitively expensive, and to have more input and control in the development process. This strategy prompted the development of SynSisal rugs, made from recovered nylon waste processed in Amsterdam, including fishing nets and nylon carpeting materials. In response to the heavy durability demands of co-working spaces – particularly when these spaces also need to accommodate leisure activities, as at WeWork – the rugs were manufactured in a tiling format to facilitate smaller-scale repairs while reducing long-term waste. The project has convinced WeWork’s creative director Scott Rominger that the industry doesn’t need to rely on conventional procurement and manufacturing in the design of interior spaces, and proves that a more ethically radical approach to design is feasible, both economically and aesthetically.
Jellymongers Bompas & Parr might seem unlikely innovators in the vegan design market, given their roots in spectacular pop-up events often orientated on gelatine-based food experiences (which on one occasion even involved the ingestion of ambergris, a substance produced by sperm whales). Yet their consistent challenge to culinary norms and expectations has positioned them perfectly to overhaul the hospitality industry’s approach to interior materials through the creation of the world’s first fully vegan hotel suite for Hilton Bankside in London. Director Sam Bompas credits the Hilton’s ability to innovate with its scale – with around 90 to 98 per cent occupancy before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the hotel chain can afford to be experimental and take risks to help it stand out from its competitors. But the expectations for the hospitality industry are notoriously high, and the primary concern is that such interiors must be as hardwearing as they are aesthetically impactful – the hotel has an average seven-year fit-out lifespan, throughout which it must not only remain viable for use, but immaculate.
The 2020 Polestar 2 eliminates leather upholstery from the car interior in favour of WeaveTech, a water-based modern PVC material inspired by divers’ wetsuits. Photo: Courtesy of Polestar
This imperative for durability has set the previously accepted norms for interior specification, privileging wool carpets over cotton alternatives, for instance, due to their longevity. As Bompas says: ‘Design is about making decisions.’ And making better choices, rather than those merely accepted by convention, opens up a new materials spectrum. He draws parallels between the textures evident in vegan foods and the language and palatability lacking in the Western palette, in comparison to the rich vocabulary and usage in Eastern – and particularly Japanese – cuisine.
Through reconsidering base principles of material choices more radically, and in learning from other cultures and disciplines, we can explore a far greater variety of possibilities for how we might live, as well as for what we might eat. The result of this radical rethinking is an all-pervading vegan experience, from check in to minibar – including snacks, toiletries, stationery (which excludes animal traces in the paper and ink that might ordinarily be used), and the products used to clean the suite. Rather than being stuffed with down feathers, pillows are provided with a choice of organic buckwheat or millet hulls, cotton-like kapok or bamboo fibres. Pineapple motifs dominate the interior, a reference to their social and architectural importance to the history of the local area – they feature in the design of St Paul’s Cathedral and Lambeth Bridge nearby. These also form the basis for a leather-like material, Piñatex, used in the upholstery and keycard. Invented by Carmen Hijosa in the 1990s, the material is made from the fibres of pineapple leaves that would ordinarily either be burned or left to rot as part of the harvesting process. These fibres are mixed with a corn-derived bioplastic to create a mesh that can be coated and finished to different effects. A similar product has also been developed by Dutch designer Tjeerd Veenhoven, from areca palm leaves.
Showcasing veganism as more than just a dining trend, the Bompas & Parr-designed vegan hotel suite at London’s Hilton Bankside contains only plant-based materials – no leather, feathers or wool. Photo: Courtesy of Hilton Bankside
The industry currently faces manufacturing challenges in scaling up the production of materials such as these to meet demand, but doing so may help overcome the additional production costs these entail – both in terms of time and money – which so often prohibit their use. As Bompas notes, the greater acceptance and awareness that these big brands have facilitated can enable vegan imperatives to become standard, best practice, rather than merely a dining trend. More prevalent use of these strategies will also lessen the necessity to convince clients, specifiers, quantity surveyors and contractors of the feasibility of such an approach.
As noted by Melissa Eagleton, a vegan architecture graduate from Central Saint Martins, vegan aesthetics may have come a long way from the handmade, hippie aesthetic it once adopted in seminal spaces such as the Wild Food Café in London’s Neals Yard, but it has yet to define its own path. She likens this to the potential for inventiveness in vegan cuisine, in comparison with the food industry’s current efforts to prove that vegan foods can be just like their carnivorous alternatives. At present there is a hesitance to determine a new aesthetic that celebrates the potential that vegan design affords, instead stealthily adopting its ecological and moral credentials while appropriating mainstream aesthetics we feel more comfortable and familiar with. Yet as can be seen from these examples, vegan approaches to interior design have created new provocations for innovation rather than proving a negative constraint, necessitating new forms of creativity. By valuing the process of material development within such parameters, we might also open ourselves up to the discovery of potential new applications, and reveal ways that vegan design strategies can be celebrated in their own right, as we continue to question what is normal now, and what is right to do for the future.
This is a shortened version of an article featured in our recent issue, Frame 139. To read the full article, including our market overview, get your copy here.