Sustainable materials for furniture: where are we?

The road of new materials for furniture passes from recycling and biomass. There are many variations, while the process that goes from research to the market is decidedly long: «Up to now we have been used to the fact that their development lasted up to ten years. We hope that they will be available sooner for the various applications », says Professor Valentina Rognoli, of the Design Department of the Politecnico di Milano. «For 7-8 years – he continues – I have been dealing with DIY-materials: speculative materials self-produced by designers, in part bored by the homogeneous aesthetics of industrial ones, in part sensitive to the worsening of the environmental crisis. We are currently classifying 120 cases, a collection that is expanding ».

The Bell Chair, designed by Konstantin Grcic for Magis is made of recycled polypropylene, obtained from the company’s production waste and from those of the local automotive industry


Meanwhile, they can be recognized circular materials, i.e. those which, after having completed their life cycle, enter a new production process. Examples that already use it: the Bell Chair by Konstantin Grcic for Magis (pictured above), in polypropylene obtained mostly from production waste. Nendo’s N02 Recycle for Fritz Hansen made up of waste such as food packaging, straws and plastic bottle lids that are ground into pellets and fused together. The Smart Ocean chair by Niels Diffrient for Humanscale, made with recovered nylon fishing nets. Like the Musselblomma textile collection by Ikea, or the seats of the Spanish brand Vondom, which collaborates with Mediterranean fishermen to collect the waste from the sea at the basis of its production.

On & On by Barber & Osgerby for Emeco is recyclable “on and on”, being made for 70 percent by rPet (recycled Pet). Kartell is progressively replacing the polycarbonate of its best sellers with a more sustainable version: a polymer produced through a synthesis process derived largely from industrial waste from cellulose and paper. Polyester yarn produced from post-consumer recycled plastic takes hold: Arper uses it for the upholstery of the Kata lounge chair, designed by Altherr Désile Park. Other promising materials, according to Rognoli, are Solidwool, similar to glass fiber, but made with wool; Structural Skin, made from waste from the leather industry; NewspaperWood: sheets of newspaper glued, pressed and cut as if they were wood.

PaperStone, distributed by Sadun, is made with 100% recycled paper and cardboard and a plant resin: it is an option for the top of the Gao coffee table by Simone Bonanni for the new Babel D brand. The Acoustic Textile Felt FR line produced by Really – a company partly owned by Kvadrat that recovers fabric processing waste – is instead an acoustic felt made up of 70% polyester production residues. While the Forite Tile Collection developed by the Belgian duo Studio Plastique (evolution of the Common Sands research project), with Snøhetta and Fornace Brioni, transforms glass from electronic waste into tiles. It won the Wallpaper * Design Awards 2022 in the “best domestic design” category and «the production will be officially launched in spring», the studio said.


Scalability is one of the most delicate steps in this area. He knows it well Maurizio Montaltiwhich from the experimentation on materials made in his Amsterdam studio Corpuscoli workshop it then moved on to actual production with I cana company from Inarzo (Varese) that explores the potential of technologies based on myceliumthat is the vegetative system of fungi, in different application sectors and which has developed a range of materials, from soft and foamy to strong and high density: they are the result of the cultivation of mycelium strains on substrates composed of agro-industrial residues. They come to the market in the form of acoustic panels such as Foresta System, developed with Arup, resilient flooring, or wall coverings. «The technology at the base of our production starts from the valorisation of the residual material through fermentation processes and bio-manufacturing, as well as principles of green chemistry », says Montalti. As for products for flooring and cladding, he continues, «we produce a polyurethane bio-based with biological content higher than 70% of the mass.

The costs of production

For our Mogu Floor line we have created a completely natural high-density material, whose technical-mechanical performances exceed those of engineering woods albeit at a higher production cost. This is why it was important to introduce this innovation in a product context with high added value, namely floor tiles. Our ambition is to create products that are accessible to all, but clearly it is a path. The creation of the market therefore starts from a medium-high range product, so as to create the conditions that allow to further deepen both the research, the production scale and the costs associated with it ».


VALENTINA ROGNOLI, Design Department of the Milan Polytechnic

Montalti adds: «The investments necessary to create innovation are extremely substantial, and it is therefore also very important to be able to access both public and private funding, so as to allow the necessary advancements, both in terms of research and industrial development. In recent years, the public’s sensitivity has been growing considerably. This allows us to continue to effectively develop the scale on which we operate, and the related market. Faced with a choice about buying a high-value product, doubts may also arise: how much can you trust in a completely natural product? Ours are validated through all the necessary certifications ».


“And materials bio-based they are entirely or partially derived from plant biomass “, remembers Professor Rognoli: the goal is to replace some elements of fossil origin with others of natural origin. Any reference to plastic is deliberate. Then go on with Vegea’s Wineleather, obtained from waste deriving from wine and viticultural production, and Ananasse, from the Verabuccia company, obtained from the peel of pineapple, or with the bioplastic enriched with orange peels from the Krill Design lamp. Looking forward to the materials that Mario Cucinella will include in the 1,400 square meters of the project Design with Nature dedicated to sustainability and the future of living that we will see at the next Salone del Mobile, in June. “Consumers are starting to make sustainable choices. They are ready to go towards the transition, even if, at least initially, it costs more », continues Rognoli. There is no shortage of initiatives, he continues: «We have a doctorate underway, with funds from the NRP, in collaboration with Caimi Brevetti. We are working on the creation of organic matrix artefacts also thanks to the Venetian startup Mixcycling which produces materials with a low environmental impact by recovering organic fibers from waste from various processes ».


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