This table is rubbish – or at least it was. Its smooth surface is inlaid with thousands of tiny fragments, carefully arranged by colour to achieve a fine gradation from white to dark blue fanning out from the centre. It looks like a contemporary take on a 19th-century specimen table made by a designer from an imperial nation and decorated with exotic wood or stone from all corners of the empire. It’s true that the material was gathered from around the world. But there is no marble or mahogany here. This table, called the Gyro, is made from recycled ocean plastic.
It’s the work of Brodie Neill, a Tasmanian furniture maker, and is Australia’s entry at the London Design Biennale, which runs at Somerset House until September 27th. Earlier this year Neill teamed up with a marine biologist at the University of Tasmania, Dr Jennifer Lavers, an expert in the environmental consequences of plastic pollution. It is estimated that there are as many as five trillion bits of plastic floating in the sea. Through an international network of beachcombers Neill began collecting debris washed up on shores from Tasmania to Hawaii, in order to make a piece of furniture which would highlight the environmental problem and encourage the idea that, far from being worthless garbage, the bottles and bags littering the tideline can be a valuable resource.
He is one of a growing number of designers at both the high and low ends of the market using recycled materials. Last year, the clothing brand G-Star Raw launched a collection made of plastic dredged from the sea, and Adidas has made trainers using discarded fishing line. This year at Paris fashion week the Dutch company Viktor & Rolf showed dresses made with old scraps of fabric. Ikea has launched a range of furniture for 2017 made from recycled wood and plastic, including old Ikea packaging and waste from its own factories. You can even recycle the plastic from your home into a raw material using a machine developed by Dave Hakkens, a young designer from the Netherlands.
Neill began upcycling waste in 2008, when he made a sculptural, sinuous chaise longue called Remix (above) from reclaimed plastic, plywood and chipboard. The tiny particles that he chose for his new table are among the most nefarious in the sea. Small enough to be ingested by even the tiniest fish, they leach their toxins into the bloodstream, and thereby into the food chain. “Plastic doesn’t break down, it just breaks up,” says Lavers, who began specialising in this area after a research trip to the Midway atoll, which bears the brunt of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an island of plastic created by ocean currents. “It also acts like a sponge, sucking up other pollutants such as heavy metals. Over 25% of marine fish have chemicals in their blood from this stuff.”
Neill has turned something deadly into something decorative. The surface looks cosmic, like a galaxy’s disc or a solar system. And while from a distance its tones are smooth, up close you see all the colours on the spectrum: reds, yellows, oranges, greens and blues. The problem was how to use this found material with precision. Sometimes the colour of a bleached piece was only revealed when you cut into it. Then there was the chemical variability. “You can’t identify what kind of plastic it is when it’s broken down into these tiny bits, and you don’t know how old it is. And different plastics melt at different temperatures, so you can’t fuse them together with heat.” Neill decided to create hexagonal tiles in 32 different sizes from resin, in which the plastic particles are set. “It’s a kind of terrazzo,” he says, referring to the composite originating in 15th-century Italy, where artisans began using scraps of marble or quartz to make finely speckled floors.
After being shown in London, Gyro will go into the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. While he hasn’t set a price for it, the tables he makes for retail start at around £4,000, his one-off pieces as much as ten times that. Collectors’ items, though, are more effective as talking points than as a means of putting waste to good use. He hopes that the terrazzo design from his table could be used in more commercial products like work surfaces: from a sea-borne poison to something to eat your dinner off.