“I am deeply interested in the origins of things, how they were made and what we can learn from them.”
There is inherent value in process. Following our curiosity, experimenting, and searching for answers can be even more enjoyable than finding the answers we seek, and can sometimes lead us to unexpected places. Copenhagen-based designer and artist Sara Martinsen has a fascination with sustainability and bio-based materials, taking great enjoyment in experimentation and seeking new solutions. This has led her to pivot from a traditional design career to one centred on investigative research, where she focuses not only on expanding and developing her large archive of natural fibres but on artwork, environmentally-friendly design, and sustainability consulting.
A trained furniture designer, Sara credits her travel to China, where she carried out several design assignments, with igniting her interest in material experimentation. There, she saw a country that, while largely focused on mass production, possessed a proud craft culture: “I also saw how people and companies started searching for their craft history, cultural heritage, and would talk about how a rich life should include fresh air, access to nature, and quality objects made from clever hands. To see how the extreme world of fast production and consumerism was longing for another definition of life quality was very inspiring to me,” she explains.
It is something that got her thinking more deeply about our disconnection from both how the objects in our lives are made and from what they are made. Seeking more sustainable materials and processes for her furniture designs, she began inquiries and trials which led to, in some cases, works of art and, in others, furniture with a kinder environmental footprint.
Both in Denmark and internationally, Martinsen presents her work in exhibitions that are part sculpture, part scientific research, and part design, informing and delighting visitors with a variety of textures, tones, shapes and structures. At this year’s 3daysofdesign in Copenhagen, she presented the greatest breadth of her archive to date in the exhibition The Origin of Things. Taking place at the Bunn Studio-designed showroom of Garde Hvalsøe, masters of Danish design and craft, the exhibition was a celebration of nature and our connection to it, and the power of design and art to bring nature into our homes in meaningful ways. De La Espada had the honour of sharing the space during the event, with the Luca Nichetto-designed Sela Lounge Chair and Miguel Sofa.
Sara explains her vision for The Origin of Things exhibition thus: “For this exhibition I wanted to extend my material library a bit, going from wood, veneer and plant fibre adding materials like clay, soil and protein to the material palette. I am deeply interested in the origins of things, how they were made and what we can learn from them. Today, both farming and production happens far away from many of us so it is very rare to experience the raw and unprocessed materials up close. Therefore, my focus is always to deliver a sensoric and very tactile experience in order to bring back the fascination and curiosity for materials and their values.”
This translated to an exhibition with a wide array of experiences and engagement opportunities: textural totems of various materials and structures, glass display cases with fibres presented as scientific specimens, a sculpture playfully suggesting a campsite, an oversized cascade of invitingly soft fibres hanging from the ceiling, delicate weavings with ethereal beauty, and more.
In addition to her art and design work, Martinsen advises clients and corporations on sustainability, specifically those “who are interested in a responsible future within furniture, art or interior design. Here the focus is on materials, production methods, repair and reuse.”
With so many of today’s tech gadgets made from plastic or metal, materials that endure far beyond the function of the product, Sara sees a solution in looking to nature to make the lifespans of a product and its constituent materials better aligned. “If we could accept that materials degrade and also be better at repair I think we could come a long way. Here the bio materials play an important role with great potential,” she explains.
She continues, “There is an important lesson to learn about materials in general which is that nothing is maintenance free. The story about maintenance-free materials is an illusion. Understanding this also means accepting that all materials degrade over time and we need to like this. Having a solid wooden floor or tabletop means you need to maintain and also appreciate the patina of the material. The wind, the sun and the rain will put its mark on a building and we need to see the beauty of this. It is natural, unavoidable, it gives us an understanding of time and puts things into perspective.”
Well aware that there are no easy answers when it comes to sustainability, Martinsen is careful to point out that bio-based materials need to be used in thoughtful ways in order to remain kind to the environment. One example she highlights is eel grass: “Eel grass is a great alternative to foam rubber. In Denmark, we used eel grass for mattresses and furniture in the beginning of the 1900s. After the Second World War, eel grass was replaced with foam rubber and the use and production became minimal. I have to mention that we need to be aware of the volumes we use. If the entire furniture industry started using eel grass tomorrow, predation would happen and nature would not be able to follow the demands. This is applied to all materials but important to remember when talking about alternative and sustainable solutions so good intentions do not create new problems.”
Revelling in the investigative process, Martinsen continues to follow her curiosity to inform herself and others, through visionary experimentation and beautiful forms, about possibilities for sustainable design. She was recently honoured with a work grant from the Danish Art Foundation to continue her work and, in addition to developing new art pieces, has further exhibitions on the agenda including “Reset Materials” at Copenhagen Contemporary art centre, currently open, where ten teams of architects and artists present solutions for more sustainable architecture, and a forthcoming craft and design exhibition she is curating which will open in October this year.
All photography: The Origin of Things exhibition at Garde Hvalsøe photographed by Maja Karen Hansen