‘N*thing Is Possible’ charts Bali-based hospitality group Potato Head’s journey to zero-waste with stylish furniture made of eco-friendly materials
Part of Singapore Design Week, it also showcases furniture by internationally acclaimed designers including Futura, Max Lamb, Andra Matin and Kengo Kuma
“It’s kind of like clay but softer, maybe more like playdough,” muses designer Andreu Carulla on a Zoom call, holding up what looks like a twisted pink marshmallow stick. It is, in fact, a sample of an innovative new material made of discarded polystyrene.
Carulla, from Spain’s Catalonia region, recently designed colourful aluminium-frame stools with the putty-like material wrapped around the legs, topped with a recycled plastic seat made from products like old shampoo bottles.
The stools are among the many stylish pieces of furniture on display in “N*thing Is Possible”, an exhibition opening at Singapore’s National Design Centre on September 16 as part of Singapore Design Week.
The exhibition traces Bali-based hospitality and lifestyle brand Potato Head’s quest to go zero-waste while also showcasing furniture by internationally acclaimed designers the brand enlisted along the way.
“We called it ‘Nothing is Possible’ because … everything is possible but without any footprint or waste,” says exhibition co-curator David Gianotten, who is also a managing partner at architecture firm OMA, a long-time collaborator with Potato Head.
While Potato Head is best known for its eponymous beach club in Bali, as well as for a restaurant in Singapore and the Sou Fujimoto-designed eatery in Hong Kong, the company’s founder Ronald Akili has become a pioneer in sustainability over the last decade.
When the DesignSingapore Council – a government agency that promotes design – contacted him to tell his story, Akili leapt at the opportunity.
“The process of going zero-waste can be very overwhelming, so we hope from this journey people can see [that] when you combine very small changes [over 5 years] you can achieve so much,” he says.
Since August, only 4.6 per cent of waste generated by Akili’s hotel, beach bar and restaurants at his Desa Potato Head creative village in Bali has gone to landfill. The exhibition takes an honest look at how the organisation reached this number.
“Along the way, we made mistakes and needed to find the right direction,” says Gianotten. “To show that is interesting. You don’t want to say to people, ‘You also need to embark on this process and it will be a walk in the park.’”
Instead of simply putting furniture from Desa Potato Head on a pedestal, the exhibition aims to raise awareness about universal issues of waste and climate change.
It opens by confronting viewers with the impact of waste in Bali, much of it generated from tourism. A dramatic collage of images of the island’s landfills is made more poignant with a video on ocean pollution.
“It doesn’t look like a design exhibition about products,” says Akili. “When you enter the main atrium [at the heart of the show], you are immersed in a waste-landscape installation, which should spark inspiration and trigger questions.”
Carulla’s stools, for example, are displayed atop a mountain of polystyrene waste, while a pile of green plastic bottles accommodates on its peak an emerald-green woven chair, designed by London-based design studio TooGood in collaboration with Jakarta-based studio BYO Living.
Each of the hand-woven chairs, scattered across Desa Potato Head’s outdoor areas in Bali, is made with 280 to 320 plastic bottles.
Near the entrance of the atrium is an installation of intricate architectural woven panels by Jakarta-based BYO Living made using its signature technique of hand-weaving plastic that has been salvaged, shredded, melted and extruded into long strips.
BYO Living used a similar weaving technique to create passive-cooling ceiling panels – panels that increase heat loss in an eco-friendly way – used throughout Desa Potato Head’s public outdoor spaces. Through this project the company saved 1.7 tonnes (1.9 tons) of plastic from landfill and created jobs for locals.
Alongside the exhibition – which includes work by American graffiti artist Futura, British furniture designer Max Lamb, Indonesian architect Andra Matin and Japanese architect Kengo Kuma – will be Carulla’s workshop, showing participants how to turn discarded Styrofoam (a trademarked brand of polystyrene) into a highly functional grip for household items.
The Spanish designer will walk participants through the process of creating the material, including melting Styrofoam with acetone, and adding coffee grounds or sawdust for colour, to then wrapping the pliable material around bamboo kitchen utensils for better grip.
“Styrofoam waste is a problem right now in hawker centres in Singapore so we wanted to draw attention to that problem and make people more conscious,” Carulla says.
Ironically, when he was developing the material, he struggled to find used polystyrene around Banyoles, a small city outside Barcelona, where he lives.
“I had serious problems finding it because single-use Styrofoam products are forbidden here,” he says, explaining that he eventually tracked some down at a remote food packaging company.
In many parts of Asia – Hong Kong included – the situation couldn’t be more different, with Styrofoam still used extensively in food containers.
Gianotten adds: “Singapore has a reputation of having a big footprint because everything is imported and so much goes to landfills after one-time use. There is hardly a recycling system and limited awareness among people about waste.”
He describes a display running down a staircase showing the timeline of Potato Head’s zero-waste journey beside a timeline of Singapore’s progress towards its goal of becoming a zero-waste nation. It’s a striking pairing underscoring the fact that for many countries, there’s a long way to go.
“N*thing Is Possible” runs from Sept 16 to Dec 25 at National Design Centre Singapore, and Singapore Design Week runs from Sept 16-25.