In a world that needs to transition to a circular economy with cleaner production models, Professor Elvin Karana takes the quest for solutions to the next level. In the new BioDesign Lab, the professor of materials innovation and design works on living materials that help us find our way back to living in harmony with the ecosystem. 

It more or less started at a Tupperware party. Elvin Karana was studying design at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, when she accompanied her mother one evening. “I was truly astonished by what I witnessed: seemingly ordinary plastic containers were skillfully presented as high-end objects”, she recalls. “Naturally, the design, quality, and the unique method of sealing the boxes – referred to as 'burping' – contributed significantly. However, the material itself remained plastic, typically perceived as inexpensive and environmentally harmful. Hence, the question arose: how did these plastic objects manage to attain such high desirability?” It inspired her to explore the way people experience materials: “Why is silk considered luxurious, or metal cold, for example”, Karana says. She would continue the subject during her PhD at TU Delft.

Karana’s thesis, Meanings of Materials, established itself as a foundational piece on the concept that materials convey meanings, and on how designers can integrate this concept in their design process. Oft-cited in academic circles, her work also attracted attention from industry. In particular businesses that were developing novel materials like bioplastics, were interested in integrating user experience early on in their strategy. Working with such companies, Karana realised she wanted to be closely involved in the development of novel materials. “I aspired to be the one who explores and tunes the qualities of a material to unravel its design potentials. In my lab, we started with hands-on explorations of materials and fabrication processes, resulting in unique material outcomes through a methodology I coined material-driven design”, she says.

“The journey of material-driven design starts with the conception of a novel material. Subsequently, we delve into the material's experiential qualities, encompassing the perceptions, emotions, and actions it elicits, along with its technical characteristics. Armed with this insight, we unlock the material's latent potential, crafting diverse objects that embody its essence.” So instead of replacing a traditional material with a biobased one, whole new applications are being explored in a 360 degree perspective.  

Biodesign lab

In recent years, Karana’s research has focused on living materials, working in the new Biodesign Lab that opened at the end of 2022 – one of the first Biosafety Level 1 (BSL-1) labs located at a design engineering faculty. Here, Karana and her multidisciplinary team explore the design potential of living organisms. “Working with materials capable of sensing, growth, adaptation, and evolution is a captivating endeavor. While environmental sustainability is undoubtedly an important factor, my fascination extends beyond the realm of material lifecycles. I firmly believe that biodesign holds the potential to facilitate a deep reconnection between humanity and nature, cultivating empathy, care, and ecological awareness within societies”, she says. “As we delve into the societal and ecological aspects of living materials, we place distinct emphasis on their temporal characteristics. We delve into questions about how living materials undergo changes and transformations over time. We also consider how these dynamic shifts can be manifested to convey the well-being or struggles  experienced by these living organisms. In doing so, our specific objective is to unravel the means by which we can help elicit caregiving practices from individuals toward entities that defy categorization as pets or plants, yet inherently possess life.”

In my group, we delve into the social and ecological dimensions of living materials.

“Imagine if the everyday artefacts embedding living materials could offer us substantial functional advantages, such as air or water purification, or illumination. This scenario could foster a unique synergy, where our care for these objects is reciprocated by their care for us”, Karana continues. As an example, she describes new types of lighting designed with bioluminescent microorganisms that don’t need an external source of energy. The organisms themselves need to be fed though. “Cohabiting with such artefacts could heighten our sensitivity to living entities. Recognizing that our actions impact these artifacts could foster a fresh, more balanced connection. Given the necessity to alter our interactions with nature, this transformation is crucial.”


That will take some doing, however. “Microbes tend to be negatively perceived by the general public. In our research, we've noticed that people frequently exhibit reluctance to touch objects that integrate living organisms, despite our assurances of their safety”, Karana says.  She posits that size might contribute to this phenomenon. “We can't perceive the individual organisms; we only notice their outcomes. Perhaps that's why we tend to link them more readily to negative qualities, such as mold on bread, for example. Few people realize that we actually gain advantages from microorganisms in our daily lives—like the yeast utilized in beer fermentation or the microbiome within our bodies.”

Karana believes we need positive examples to help change that mindset. She recalls the development of bioplastic coffins some years ago. “Sustainable as it was, people still considered it a plastic box, and the concept never really took off” she says. “It is vital to take user experience into account, but in materials development that is usually left until the end”. It is one of the aspects she aims to transform through her research efforts. In stark contrast, the Loop Living Cocoon stands as a notable achievement. Launched in 2020, the Loop is constructed from mycelium, the interconnected network of fungi roots. Its creator, Bob Hendrikx, initially began exploring mycelium-based materials during his MSc project in Karana's laboratory. “” Bob's material aligns seamlessly with the application context. It ties in with the narrative that humans are interconnected with nature, and through the assistance of natural fungi, our remains will contribute to soil enrichment after we pass away.”

Acceptance of living materials is an important factor in the Next Skins project that received an EIC Pathfinder Challenge grant of four million euros. In the project, led by Professor Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, Karana will be working with colleagues from Imperial College London and Aalto University on the development of two new living materials. One of them is a therapeutic skin for the treatment atopic dermatitis (eczema). “Skin conditions can significantly impact individuals, sometimes even on a psychological level, especially when a definitive cure isn't readily available. The concept of a living material that engages with patients' skin is incredibly personal. My focus will be on studying how this innovative treatment is received by individuals.” She will do so by developing research artefacts that will help convey the potential experience of the new material in user studies: “In the realm of emerging materials, we are continually searching for novel means of self-expression, akin to discovering a fresh language. These research artifacts will serve as tools enabling us to communicate with patients, medical experts, and designers alike.” 

In the realm of emerging materials, we are continually searching for novel means of self-expression, akin to discovering a fresh language.

In this respect, Karana also values her collaboration with bio artists whose critical perspective and provocative way of telling stories can help create awareness and understanding. She is currently supervising Risk Hazekamp, the first candidate studying for a Professional Doctorate in Art and Design at Avans University of Applied Sciences, as part of a Dutch pilot. “Their work is on Unlearning Photography. Using cyanobacteria that interact with light, they are trying to create images that capture a moment, but disappear over time.” In Hazekamp’s work, the photographer is no longer in control of the image, but rather creates conditions in which it can occur. “Their approach toward the organisms under their study is remarkably empathetic. For instance, they contemplate the consequences of leaving these organisms unattended during their vacations. Within my team, we're presently deliberating on ways to nurture and integrate this same sensitivity into biodesign research.”

“We have to explore the concept of living materials holistically”, Karana emphasizes. Thinking big, she envisages developing a whole new ecosystem: “The ultimate goal is regenerative development, a paradigm where we transform the system as a whole rather than just its individual components. My aspiration envisions a decade-long endeavor wherein we thoroughly investigate biodesign from diverse viewpoints and across various scales – encompassing small-scale products to cities.” Even if such a project would not come to pass, things have come far since she visited that Tupperware party all those years ago. “Last year, we ran two new courses on biodesign, and nearly all of our students expressed a desire to undertake graduation projects in this field.”, she says. “Although living materials remain relatively novel, the biofabrication of everyday artefacts has gained significant momentum in the past decade – spanning textiles to construction materials. When I initially embarked on this journey, such endeavors were still within the realm of design fiction.”