Biobeauty: Sweden’s Tomorrow Machine

Published:  August 7, 2014
Bonnie Abbott

Hanna Billqvist and Anna Glansén have both eyes fixed determinedly on the future. Through their design work at the Swedish studio Tomorrow Machine, the status quo has changed for the packaging of food and products, into something inherently smart, resourceful and meticulously considered, and capable of making a definitive impact on the way we consider waste. Through their work the potential of biomimicry is espoused – with technology and nature coming together through human ingenuity.

What are the main ideas and beliefs that compel the work of Tomorrow Machine?

The environmental issue is the biggest threat to our planet in the modern age and we believe in finding creative and innovative solutions to that problem. Design can and will play an important part in shaping a sustainable world for the future. Our main focus is always to create innovative designs that are good for people and good for the environment, in everything that we do, but to do it in a way that is fun and exciting.

What approaches of the past are similar to what TM is doing? How much could you align your work with the reduction and pragmatic construction of modernism?

We believe that every design era has been important, and there were good and bad things with each era. Both the modernist and the post-modernist movement still has relevance to our work and the work of other designers today. The modernist designers and architects started to reduce elements and simplify their designs. They were also very inspired by nature. Their belief was that if they eliminate ornament and use basic shapes their designs would speak to everybody, across cultural references. We think it’s an interesting outlook, although we don’t agree with all the theories, some of the modernistic ideas are still relevant to us today. We can apply the idea of reducing and simplifying and to look at nature for inspiration to our work, but in a different way and for a different purpose – to create sustainable solutions for example. While the modernist design was very serious the post-modern design had a sense of fun and focused around experiences. Our work may be aesthetically closer to modernistic ideals, but the idea of creating design that is fun and revolves around experience has a lot more in common with the post-modern era.

Tomorrow Machine’s Micro Green kit

Tomorrow Machine’s Micro Green Kit

How does TM initially approach a new project? What parameters are taken into consideration first?

How we solve a task is very individual to each case, depending on whether we have a client, or if we do a project on our own. When we work with a client they often have a set brief that we need to work around. But as a start we always try to imagine not what is possible, but what would be ideal, and what the product would be like in a perfect world. Then we start sketching based on the image of that perfect product. The next step is to test and experiment with materials, for example when we developed the series of packages ”This too shall pass,” we did a lot of tests to explore how different materials react to each other.

For example, water melts sugar but oil does not, therefore sugar is an ideal material for packing oil in. To prevent the packaging made from sugar to react with the moisture in the air it is covered with a thin layer of wax on the outside. When the package is cracked open, it begins to break itself down, the wax no longer protects the sugar and the unprotected inside comes in contact with moisture. The sugar packaging can melt within a few minutes if it comes in contact with water, or in a few days when in contact with air.

Tomorrow Machine’s ‘This Too Shall Pass’ packaging

Tomorrow Machine’s packing for a smoothie is made of agar agar

The agar agar packaging breaks down very quickly, without leaving waste

The oil packaging is made from sugar, which breaks down in water very quickly.

As you have said, many of your projects take their materials and forms directly from nature. Specifically, what role does the study of nature play in your practice?

Biomimicry and how nature itself solves problems is a big inspiration for us. When we developed the “Self-opening package”, we studied how a flower bud is constructed and the mechanisms by which it wants to open itself. And when we developed the packaging series ”This too shall pass”, we started by asking ourselves the question – “Is it reasonable that it takes several years for a milk carton to decompose naturally, when the milk goes sour after a week?” After that, when we started looking at nature, our inspiration was fruit peel – and how nature itself packages food.

What role do the aesthetics of form play when designing something idealistic? Do you believe there is a “utopian aesthetic”?

It plays a big role, mainly we try to keep the material in focus and bring out the properties that we like in it, that’s why we keep the shapes simple. We also believe there is no need to make products and packaging more complicated than they should be. It’s a matter of reducing all elements that are unnecessary, not only for aesthetic reasons, but for sustainability reasons, we think that every component and detail that goes into a packaging or product should be absolutely motivated by the function, so we never add anything for aesthetic reasons only. But we don’t believe in “utopian design” in the way that there is only one aesthetic that is true, and that there is a perfect shape for a chair or a milk box. Design is constantly developing, what looked amazing yesterday might not be relevant to us tomorrow and we believe that is part of the charm when it comes to design, it is a document of time and a reflection of the society we live in.

Tomorrow Machine’s self-opening packaging

Tomorrow Machine’s self-opening packaging

You have discussed the initial questioning and testing your work goes through, and the aim for it to be as sustainable as possible. What other qualities are applied unsparingly, uncompromised, to a Tomorrow Machine project?

We have actually discussed the question with each other many times and we believe that typical Tomorrow Machine design is to solve an environmentally issue in a different, fun and creative way. Our philosophy is that you should get something extra when you choose an environmentally friendly product that we are designing. It’s very common to have to compromise something when choosing an environmentally friendly alternative, but we do not think it needs to be that way. We believe that the next generation of eco-friendly products are more fun, more interesting and smarter than the non-environmentally friendly products available today.

What TM project in particular do you believe epitomises this approach, and represents the possibilities for the future?

”This too shall pass”, because it describes us and what we want to achieve in every project perfectly. That sustainable design and packaging doesn’t have to be boring – it can be colourful, smart and engaging.

The materials used are basic materials that we surround ourselves with in our daily life, that we wanted to use in a new way and within a new context. For example, we are used to viewing sugar and agar-agar as something you would only use for cooking. But when you apply them to a product instead, we can use many of the properties of the material in a new way.

Tomorrow Machine’s expanding packaging

Tomorrow Machine’s expanding packaging

Tomorrow Machine’s expanding packaging

What difference do you believe your approach could make, if adopted widely?

Companies need to offer an environmentally friendly alternative that is more attractive and more interesting before we will see a big change on a global level. Only when eco-friendly design adds something interesting to the product, instead of taking something away from it, can this approach compete with conventional design. Therefore, we as designers have a responsibility to think outside the box and provide companies with those kind of environment-friendly solutions.

What are some of the biggest problems or oversights in contemporary design process?

Designers are creative and problem solving people at heart, so we think that the reason that this approach to design is not the norm is more linked to the process of how designers and brands are expected to work together, rather than to the actual design process. For example, designers are often expected to have very quick processes that may not allow for the time to experiment and explore new ideas. Brands and producers are conservative, and usually more driven by economic interests than an interest in producing sustainable solutions for a better world – at least in the past. Many companies have believed that green design is expensive, complicated and boring, but we, and many other designers, have proved that it does not have to be that way, it can actually be the opposite.

What do you wish clients and companies would consider?

We feel that the industry is starting to change its view on sustainable design – the new generation of brand owners grew up in the same era and culture as us, and are equally aware of environmental problems and are looking to find new ways to deal with them.

We wish they would think about environmentally friendly and sustainable design as something that can be innovative, new and fun, and strengthen their brand. In a world where we all have to start taking responsibility for our environment and planet, consumers are starting to request more sustainable solutions and the consumer goods industry need to accommodate to that.

Tomorrow Machine’s self-cleaning tableware

Tomorrow Machine’s self-cleaning tableware

Tomorrow Machine’s self-cleaning tableware

What have some of the different responses you receive on your work?

We have gained attention especially  because we are innovative within a product area where development has been at a standstill for a long time. We have mainly received positive response from other designers, clients, customers and users. The only negative criticism we have got is that some of our products are a bit too complex and different compared to what’s on the market today. But we believe that you need to be different to make a change.

What does the future hold for the further development of packaging and products such as these?

There will be more of this smart and interactive packaging in the future, and we can start applying new technology to packaging that could help us determine if the food has been exposed to excessive heat, cold or damage during transport. The same technique can also be used to communicate with the customer in more fun and innovative ways. But the biggest difference in how graphic design will be used in packaging in the future is that the printed and the virtual will be intertwined. Right now, this technology is primarily used for production information, but we believe that it has very big potential and will soon be used for something much more fun and useful for the customer.

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