This website uses cookies to improve your experience navigating our site. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

OK, I understand

Experimental Designer Jessie French Is Shaping A Seaweed-Centric Future

Studio Visit

Did you know that seaweed has truly extraordinary carbon sequestering qualities – absorbing around five times more carbon than most land-based plants? But that’s not where its superpowers end. Seaweed also presents incredible opportunities as a biofuel and renewable bioplastic, and it’s these qualities which have spurred Melbourne based artist and experimental designer Jessie French on a passionate quest to investigate seaweed, and its potential to contribute to a ‘post-petrochemical’ world.

After studying the diverse material properties of seaweed for around five years, in 2019, Jessie befriended the founder of Seaweed Appreciation Society International (SASi), comically named Lichen Kelp (!), and together the pair applied for an artist residency in Morocco, which produces most of the world’s agar from red algae. They won it, and in 2020, the pair set out to North Africa, to experiment with seaweed-based recipes for bioplastics.

The resin-like pieces Jessie now makes under her practice, Other Matter, are the result of these years of research. We recently visited Jessie in the fantastic new studio space in Melbourne’s CBD she shares with ceramicists Fluff Corp. and asked her a million and one questions about her fascinating explorations!

12th April, 2021

Other Matter is Jessie’s studio in Melbourne’s CBD, which she shares with ceramicists Claire Lehmann and Jia Jia Chen of Fluff Corp. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

On an unassuming corner of the city, big things are happening! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The ethereal Jessie French, surrounded by her work. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

After a stint at an artist’s residency in Morocco, Jessie launched her design practice where she makes her own bioplastic and household products from it. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Most of the world’s agar comes from Morocco, where it is derived from red algae. She spent her time here doing deep research into supply chains and developing recipes for seaweed-based bioplastic. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘Things get confusing where the term ‘bioplastic’ is used because there is no legislation or standards in place specifying what can and can’t be called a bioplastic. Many bioplastics are made with only some organic materials. Many aren’t biodegradable. Many aren’t recyclable. Many aren’t compostable in anywhere but a commercial composting facility which we don’t have ready access to.’ Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Alongside space for consulting and designing, the Other Matter studio contains bioreactors which cultivate a variety of microalgae cultures. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Microalgae cultures are 4-5 times more effective than mature trees at converting carbon to oxygen and are extremely nutritious to eat, but Jessie uses them mostly as pigments.Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘I’d like to share this idea of growing microalgae with people because it can be done anywhere there is access to light – there’s enormous potential to green our cities by making use of small or vertical spaces to grow these algae,’ says Jessie. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘Unlike commonly used materials, the bioplastic materials I have developed can be recycled in a home kitchen in about an hour. The same ingredients can be made and re-made into different objects infinitely,’ says Jessie. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Jessie plans to develop workshops where she can teach people to make their own bioplastic, which will be run in collaboration with Fluff Corp. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Households of the future will be filled with products made from bioplastic! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Her exhibition for Melbourne Design Week, A Sea at the Table, focussed on the everyday uses of products made from bioplastic materials. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The beautiful homewares are almost like resin! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Pieces made from bioplastic can be recycled in an hour. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Sasha Gattermayr
Monday 12th April 2021

‘Unlike commonly used materials, the bioplastic materials I have developed can be recycled in a home kitchen in about an hour. The same ingredients can be made and re-made into different objects infinitely.’ – Jessie French

Just before the pandemic hit last year, Melbourne creative Jessie French returned from a life changing artist residency in Morocco. Most of the world’s agar (derived from red algae) comes from this North African country, and she spent her time there developing seaweed-based bioplastic recipes, and doing deep research into seaweed supply chains.

On her return to Australia, Jessie launched Other Matter – a multifaceted studio that explores the creation of seaweed-based bioplastics – and the first design studio in the world to offer custom-made, algae-based bioplastic designs, as well as consultation services. It’s all part of Jessie’s vision for a ‘post-petrochemical’ world: an economic model that substitutes plastic products made from mined petroleum with biodegradable ‘plastic’ made from biological substances.

Other Matter opened in Melbourne just in time for Melbourne Design Week a few weeks ago. Alongside ceramicists Claire Lehmann and Jia Jia Chen of Fluff Corp., the space acts as an HQ for Jessie’s seaweed-based practice, where she can make her bioplastics and consult on projects with other practitioners who are interested in using the material. She and the Fluff Corp. girls are even trialling covering ceramic bodies with an algae ‘glaze’!

Curious about how all of this works? Let Jessie explain her fascinating process in her own words.

Okay, so what are algae-based bioplastics and how do you use them in your practice?

First thing’s first: plastic. We tend to associate this word with petrochemical plastic, but this association began following the industrial revolution and the proliferation of fossil fuels – which are in fact made of ancient algae that has been compressed under the earth for millions of years. Plastic, in material terms, actually refers to a material that is malleable or pliable. With this context in mind, it usually refers to a synthetic material. Bioplastics are those made from organic materials. Algae-based bioplastics are those made specifically with algae as the main ingredient, to make a material that is malleable, shapeable or pliable.

However, things get confusing where the term ‘bioplastic’ is used because there is no legislation or standards in place specifying what can and can’t be called a bioplastic. Many bioplastics are made with only some organic materials. Many aren’t biodegradable. Many aren’t recyclable. Many aren’t compostable in anywhere but a commercial composting facility which most people don’t have ready access to.

The algae-based bioplastics I make are safe enough to eat (though they aren’t designed for their taste at the moment!) and they are made from completely organic materials. Unlike commonly used materials, the bioplastic materials I have developed can be recycled in a home kitchen in about an hour. The same ingredients can be made and re-made into different objects infinitely. If not recycled into new items, after use, they can be composted in a few months in a home system. This is vitally different to many materials described as bioplastics that require transport to and processing in a commercial facility.

When disposed, critters including microbes living in soil (as well as waterways, should they end up there) can consume them, and they act as fertiliser for plants as they break down. Because they are completely biodegradable in good time, they will never become caught around or inside the body of a living being that comes across them in the environment.

Can you tell us about your new studio space, and what will happen here?

The space is managed by Creative Spaces, a City of Melbourne program, and I’m interested in making a contribution to the city by inviting people in and sharing ideas and knowledge.

Installed in the space are my growing bioreactors, cultivating a variety of microalgae cultures. They are 4-5 times more effective than mature trees at converting carbon to oxygen, and are extremely nutritious to eat. I use them in the studio as pigment. I’d like to share this idea of growing microalgae with people because it can be done anywhere there is access to light – there’s enormous potential to green our cities by making use of small or vertical spaces to grow these algae.

I’m also going to develop workshops to teach people how to make their own bioplastic and in collaboration with Fluff Corp., workshops where people can come to glaze their own ceramics with bioplastic.

Talk us through the process of actually making your bioplastic pieces. What are the steps and techniques involved?

The process of making my pieces, particularly the moulded vessels, is difficult. In simple terms, I pour heated bioplastic mix into moulds as a liquid, cure it, remove it from the mould then dry it out.

This description is like explaining that to fly a plane is to use motors to fly a specially-designed vehicle through the air and land onto a runway at the other end. It doesn’t capture it.

Developing a simpler recipe and techniques that I can teach others is something I am working on. It is a challenging process. I am completely self-taught, and I’ve learned what I know about using these materials from trial and error. It’s something I’m working on to make these skills teachable. Watch this space.

How did you arrive at the distinct look, shape and feel of your bioplastic pieces?

Controlling the material is a challenge, as it is completely handmade and always different.

The colours are created with microalgae. I use microalgae commonly known as spirulina (which I grow in my studio) for the dark tones and an algal carotene extracted from the algae that makes pink lakes to achieve the orange and yellow tones. It is grown in SA and WA in open-air ocean lagoons by BASF, who supply it to me. Being able to have contact with the suppliers I use is important to me so that I can ensure the sustainability practices involved. The patterns are created as I pour, and I have learned how to do them through an iterative process.

Can you tell me about your recent project for Melbourne Design Week?

A Sea at the Table showcased the potential for algae as sustainable material through a collection of algae bioplastic tableware. The works shown were outcomes of deep research into materials and processes. They investigate the potential of this medium for designing for a post-petrochemical world through creative solutions that do not harm our planet.

I presented a series of bespoke vessels made using an algal polymer and algal pigments. The objects encompass of range of colours, transparencies and capacities and all pieces are organic, compostable at home, and able to be remade in a generative closed-loop system.

What is your hope for the future of sustainable design in tackling environmental issues? (Big question we know!)

Taking things slowly, from the bottom-up and doing it with care. People often ask me about scaling up to a level that is able to produce packaging or products on a commercial scale. The fact is that this is not possible while there is no financial implication for the impact that petrochemical plastics have on our environment, because petrochemicals are so cheap.

We need things to change on a big scale, but not necessarily by big, centralised groups and organisations. Big businesses are bound to legal obligations to shareholders to act in ways that are most likely to make profits each quarter. The political and economic systems in place do not accommodate change like this yet, and to try would not be viable.

I hope that change can be more considered and collective. My work is an invitation to start on a small-scale, to impact change directly in the face of top-down delay.

This Week

News

Shop These Plush Woollen Rugs And Get A Special TDF Discount!

Carpet Court’s customisable rug range is made with 100% New Zealand wool and can be cut to suit the size, shape and colour of your interio...
Sponsored

Interiors

A Glam ’60s-Inspired Makeover For A Drab Suburban Home

Kaiko Design transform a forgettable suburban space into a ritzy family residence, with big personality!

Indigenous Art

15 Excellent Indigenous Art Centres To Support And Celebrate!

We've spoken to some experts, and pulled together this guide on purchasing Aboriginal artwork ethically, and some ideas of where to find it!...

Homes

A Designer’s 1970s Bells Beach Dream Home!

The incredible eclectic home of interior designer Léo Terrando and Jessica Watts, on Victoria's surf coast.

Interiors

Get The Look: Dark + Moody Bathrooms And Kitchens

All the product and styling advice you need to achieve the dark, moody bathrooms and kitchen interiors trend, brought to you Oliveri.
51:47

Podcast

Country Road’s Managing Director On The Stickiness Of Sustainable Fashion, On TDF Talks

In this podcast conversation, Elle Roseby talks leading one of the country’s most iconic brands through a new age in the fashion industry....

Gardens

A WOW-Factor 'Secret Garden' In Blairgowrie

Ian Barker Gardens creates a private outdoor sanctuary on the Mornington Peninsula.

Interiors

A Colour-Drenched, 'Grandmillennial' Home In North Sydney

Bold colour, and both English and Moroccan influences come together in this North Sydney home by Lisa Burdus.

Architecture

Everything You Need To Know About Working With An Architect

Four of Australia's best architects answer your frequently asked questions, from what an architect does, to how much they cost!

News

The TDF ‘ALL THE THINGS’ 500k Giveaway!

Help us celebrate half a million (!) Insta followers with epic prize packs for three lucky readers! 

TDF Design Awards

The Sensational Interior Design Finalists In The TDF + Laminex Design Awards 2021!

The 12 incredible residential projects in the running to win the Interior Design award at the TDF + Laminex Design Awards 2021, presented by...

On The Market

A Light + Bright Beachside Home Hits The Market

This property in Sunrise Beach, Noosa is a full time home that feels like a holiday home - and it’s ready for new inhabitants!

Creative People

The Mother and Daughter Duo Uncovering Perth’s Hidden Terrazzo Treasures

A community exhibition uncovering Fremantle residences containing terrazzo floors by master artisan, Giuseppe Scolaro - as part of the city'...

Studio Visit

Two Best Friends' Lockdown Hobby Turned Cult Candle Business

Creative entrepreneurs Ruby Kannava and Emma Cutri pooled their respective small business knowledge to found Blazed Wax - a colourful, cult-...

News

Get Luxe Designer Furniture For Up To 15% Off!

Designer furniture retailer DOMO is discounting in-stock and custom items from HC28 + HC28 Cosmopolitan.
Sponsored

View Comments

Similar Stories

Sustainability

Paul West On Why It’s More Important Than Ever To Grow Your Own Food

The chef and urban farming advocate shares three simple steps to livin' the good life over a visit to CERES' awesome market garden.
Elle Murrell

Sustainability

The Australian Film Tackling The Greatest Issue Of Our Time

Director Damon Gameau discusses his inspiring climate change documentary, '2040', as it hits cinemas – kids watch for free this weekend!
Elle Murrell

Sustainable Homes

A Zero-Waste, Two Bedroom Home In The Middle Of Melbourne’s Federation Square!

Anti-waste crusader Joost Bakker takes us inside the culmination of his life’s work - a completely non-toxic, self-sufficient home!
Sasha Gattermayr

This Week

Gardens

A WOW-Factor 'Secret Garden' In Blairgowrie

Ian Barker Gardens creates a private outdoor sanctuary on the Mornington Peninsula.

On The Market

A Light + Bright Beachside Home Hits The Market

This property in Sunrise Beach, Noosa is a full time home that feels like a holiday home - and it’s ready for new inhabitants!

News

Get Luxe Designer Furniture For Up To 15% Off!

Designer furniture retailer DOMO is discounting in-stock and custom items from HC28 + HC28 Cosmopolitan.
Sponsored

Homes

A Designer’s 1970s Bells Beach Dream Home!

The incredible eclectic home of interior designer Léo Terrando and Jessica Watts, on Victoria's surf coast.

Architecture

Everything You Need To Know About Working With An Architect

Four of Australia's best architects answer your frequently asked questions, from what an architect does, to how much they cost!

Interiors

Get The Look: Dark + Moody Bathrooms And Kitchens

All the product and styling advice you need to achieve the dark, moody bathrooms and kitchen interiors trend, brought to you Oliveri.

Indigenous Art

15 Excellent Indigenous Art Centres To Support And Celebrate!

We've spoken to some experts, and pulled together this guide on purchasing Aboriginal artwork ethically, and some ideas of where to find it!...

TDF Design Awards

The Sensational Interior Design Finalists In The TDF + Laminex Design Awards 2021!

The 12 incredible residential projects in the running to win the Interior Design award at the TDF + Laminex Design Awards 2021, presented by...

Interiors

A Glam ’60s-Inspired Makeover For A Drab Suburban Home

Kaiko Design transform a forgettable suburban space into a ritzy family residence, with big personality!

News

Shop These Plush Woollen Rugs And Get A Special TDF Discount!

Carpet Court’s customisable rug range is made with 100% New Zealand wool and can be cut to suit the size, shape and colour of your interio...
Sponsored

News

The TDF ‘ALL THE THINGS’ 500k Giveaway!

Help us celebrate half a million (!) Insta followers with epic prize packs for three lucky readers! 

Studio Visit

Two Best Friends' Lockdown Hobby Turned Cult Candle Business

Creative entrepreneurs Ruby Kannava and Emma Cutri pooled their respective small business knowledge to found Blazed Wax - a colourful, cult-...

Interiors

A Colour-Drenched, 'Grandmillennial' Home In North Sydney

Bold colour, and both English and Moroccan influences come together in this North Sydney home by Lisa Burdus.

Creative People

The Mother and Daughter Duo Uncovering Perth’s Hidden Terrazzo Treasures

A community exhibition uncovering Fremantle residences containing terrazzo floors by master artisan, Giuseppe Scolaro - as part of the city'...
51:47

Podcast

Country Road’s Managing Director On The Stickiness Of Sustainable Fashion, On TDF Talks

In this podcast conversation, Elle Roseby talks leading one of the country’s most iconic brands through a new age in the fashion industry....

Similar Stories

Sustainability

Paul West On Why It’s More Important Than Ever To Grow Your Own Food

The urban farming advocate shares three simple steps to livin' the good life, at CERES' awesome market garden.
Elle Murrell

Sustainability

The Australian Film Tackling The Greatest Issue Of Our Time

Director Damon Gameau discusses his inspiring documentary, '2040', as it hits cinemas – kids watch for free this weekend!
Elle Murrell

Sustainable Homes

A Zero-Waste, Two Bedroom Home In The Middle Of Melbourne’s Federation Square!

Anti-waste crusader Joost Bakker takes us inside the culmination of his life’s work - a completely non-toxic, self-sufficient home!
Sasha Gattermayr

The Design Files acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files – we would love to hear from you.

Please email us here.