Design

Interview: Natsai Chieza Explains Her Process of Using Colored Microbial Compounds for Beautiful Textile Designs

January 23, 2018

Natsai Chieza's recent project fits somewhat outside the normal wheelhouse of Juxtapoz art content. However, Chieza's work using a colored antibiotic compound as a pigment to dye textiles and clothing shows not only immense talent as a designer, but also opens the door to exciting new opportunities in textile dyeing and design. Her work has been incredibly well received, even earning her microbe pigment a place in the Forbes Pigment Collection, a prestigious collection of paints and dyes in the Harvard Art Museums.

Juxtapoz: Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from? How did you start/get interested in pigments and dyes?
Natsai Chieza: I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, then moved with my family to London when I was 17. When I was 11, I decided I was going to pursue a design career, so after 6th form I went to the University of Edinburgh to study Architectural Design. I was always interested in fashion and textiles, and incorporated fashion into my architectural thesis. This was a crucial moment for understanding the theoretical alignment between the two disciplines and how textiles are central to it. Upon completing my degree, I went to Central Saint Martins for an MA in Material Futures to explore materiality from a technology perspective. I realized that technology, design craft could be bridged by the systems thinking approach to design that I’d been exposed to while studying architecture.

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Through my studies, technology was a precursor to much of my research, so when I dug into synthetic biology as a technology and the implications it would have on design, I was keen to learn about the possibilities beyond theory. I contacted Professor John Ward at the Department of Biochemical Engineering, University College London, and asked him to be a scientific advisor on my thesis. After graduating from Central Saint Martins, I became a designer in residence in the Ward Lab, where he showed me the possibilities of synthetic biology through a soil bacterium. Ward gave me time and space to determine how the colored antibiotic compound it synthesized could be used to dye textiles. We discovered it could do this with the kind of efficacy that rivaled traditional dye methods on water and chemical use – both synthetic and natural. At that point, I decided to focus on this microbe to re-contextualize it as a collaborator, a conceptual tool and material system for sustainable design.

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What types of art and design did you make before this current project?
Prior to this current project, I worked on a range of projects that called on different skillsets, from curatorial work for POSTtextiles (a collective I was a part of) to a future-focused brief with Central Saint Martins, Nanoforce and Stanton & Williams Architects on how buildings could be designed to allow for retro-fitting in 50 years with nanotechnology enabled surfaces for climate control.

While I was developing this current body of work (over six years) I also worked on other projects, including material design R&D for researchers at Textile Futures Research Centre. I worked with researchers to program workshops, symposiums and exhibitions around their work, which brought together a range of stakeholders, including The Bartlett School of Architecture, Medical Research Council (MRC), Imperial College, Incrops and Foundation EDF. This all fed back into my teaching at Central Saint Martins and The Bartlett on brilliant programs making this transition into design-led biology and material systems thinking.

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How much of your work is focused on design and how much on biology? Do you have a background in science?
I don’t have a background in science, but I’ve always had a deep appreciation of ecology as a performative and cultural space. I strongly believe consumer biotechnology will be vastly different from the biotechnology industry for pharmaceuticals and agriculture. If a microbe creates a fiber, it will be essential to bring design thinking to the scientific process to make sense of how it lives and interacts with society and frameworks that are not always obvious from the laboratory.

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My work focuses on design and biology beyond the technical perspective, looking at how design can inform biology and vice versa, and collaboration is a central component. I refined protocols pertaining to the organism I work with to enable specific material outcomes, and have collaborated with scientists and engineers for their expertise along the way. Scaling these systems of biofabrication requires a complementary way of working to leverage diverse perspectives for problem solving. Engineers, designers, scientists and ethicists are part of the knowledge groupings that will work together to shape this field.

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Tell us a bit about the Forbes Pigment Collection, is this a huge milestone for you?
When I visited Narayan Khandekar at the Forbes Pigment Collection during my time in Boston while I was a designer in residence at organism company, Ginkgo Bioworks, I recognized the extensive knowledge embodied in this stunning repository. For me it is an incredible index to understand human cultural evolution through color, science, anthropology, economics and literature; both our histories and futures are held in this colorful capsule. I love that researchers from any field of study can go here and find gold.

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I'll be donating a sample of pigment from the microbe I work with because it represents a part of the next wave of materials, processes, economies and cultural heritage that will emanate from biotechnology in the 4th industrial revolution. It’s a definitive moment for curatorial spaces to consider new languages, intertwined historical contexts and even conservational methods that will emerge when our materials – how we fabricate them and live with and inside of them – are derived from and driven by biological systems. I’m thrilled to be able to donate a small part of that with the hope that it seeds new research, ideas and critique from a wider context.

Photos courtesy of Natsai Chieza and Gingko Bioworks