Exploring the potential of top performance material carbon, star design schools, écal in Lausanne and ENSCI in Paris join forces to combine creativity with functionality. Organized by EPFL-ECAL lab head Nicolas Henchoz, the exhibition Hidden Carbon highlights the successes of the experiment, including the carbon-netted glass vases by Claire Baudrimont.
A joint venture between top design schools, écal (University of art and design Lausanne) and ENSCI (Les Ateliers – Paris Design Institute) comes up with new ideas for the use of carbon, a material that offers the resistance of steel, while being four times lighter.
The seven projects in the show Hidden Carbon have been selected for their innovative and imaginative uses of carbon.
“The goal of this project is to transform the icon of high technology into a user experience,” explains Nicolas Henchoz, director of the EPFL-ECAL lab, “so that we bring a story, a meaning or emotion into our lives.”
Carbon fibre has been contributing to breaking new records in technological performance in areas as diverse as aeronautics and sport since it was invented 60 years ago.
More recently, Solar Impulse, the plane that aims to go around the world on solar energy only, and Alinghi, the successive giant catamarans that challenge the America’s Cups have been made possible with this material.
“But what we’re looking at,” says Henchoz, “is a new range of developments.” He holds an engineering degree in the science of materials, a field, he observes, in which designers usually lack strong teaching.
Because carbon has such interesting properties, he wanted to allow designers to get their hands on it, although he admits that “it was not easy to bring them together with engineers, because they don’t speak the same language.”
Thirty students piloted by Alexis Georgacopoulos for écal and Jean-François Dingjian for ENSCI – Les Ateliers took up the challenge.
With the assistance of the Laboratory of polymer and composite technology at EPFL and the Suter Swiss composite group in Bern who provided the materials, they were able to experiment with a variety of processes.
Alexis Georgacopoulos, who will become écal’s next director when Pierre Keller retires in July 2011, says that he encouraged the students to “materialize new ideas.”
“I didn’t want them to concentrate on the visual aspect of carbon, but rather to think of integrating it into objects with a different purpose,” he adds.
Carbon can however be difficult to work with as it requires the addition of resins to make carbon fibre (which are toxic) or sandwiching materials to add to its performance properties.
The production of several of the prototypes of the selected projects was therefore handed over to “carbon guru” Bertrand Cardis. His company Decision S.A. is behind most of the carbon fibre break-throughs, including the Solar Impulse and Alinghi ventures.
“A collaboration of this kind is really interesting,” Henchoz observes, “as the limitations of a material can become a new source of creativity for designers.”
“What we are doing here is combining the differences between a scientific and a more artistic approach, rather than attempting to merge them.”
The result is inventive as well as pragmatic: an acoustic amplifier that works without electricity (Pierre Bayol), a mural lamp that uses honeycomb technology for shape and lighting beauty (Raphaëlle Bonamy), a pocket swing that doubles up as a seat that can be improvised wherever there is a tree or beam (Quentin Caille), a table that unfolds like a popup card (Brynjar Sigurdarson).
One of the more spectacular projects, due no doubt to the fact that it is also one of the most aesthetically pleasing, comes out of the dogged inspiration of Claire Baudrimont, who is now in her second and final year of the écal masters programme.
She has used carbon not as the end product, but as a means to obtain gentle textured shapes for blown glass. Using nets of carbon fibre that resist temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees centigrade, she has worked with master glass blower Matteo Gonet to produce vases and light shades that appear to be in a state of semi-liquid.
“I wanted to keep an artistic side to my work,” Claire Baudrimont explains, “although never did I imagine that there would be so many variables that I would need to learn to control.”
She worked months on end to produce stands in equally resistant materials and in a variety of shapes to anchor the carbon netting into which the glass is blown.
“I drew and drew and drew,” she explains, destroying the idea that improvisation has a part in the development of her project.
“The whole point about design,” Georgacopoulos emphasizes, “is to make objects real.”