If you were of schooling age at any point during the twentieth century, chances are your memories of agar are most likely confined to the chemistry lab, as a vehicle for the cultivation of bacteria to be prodded, poked and examined under the microscope. First discovered in the mid-1600s in Japan, the substance, which is extracted from the cell walls of certain species of marine algae, has been used widely in medicine since the late nineteenth century, providing the necessary platform for the investigation of microbial activity.
If you happen to have a sweet tooth, the chances are you’ve also probably encountered agar in its culinary form, as a vegetal substitute for gelatin in desserts and condiments including ice cream, preserves and jellies.
Soon, however, agar could be breaking free of its shackles and making a major appearance in the packaging arena, thanks to the groundbreaking work of a team of Japanese designers.
Agar Plasticity – a Potential Usefulness of Agar for Packaging and More was a project we first encountered at Milan Design Week earlier this year, where it was on display in the Zona Tortona as a shortlisted entry for the 2016 Lexus Design Award. And we were well and truly blown away.
By reimagining the possibilities of this centuries-old material, Kosuke Araki, Noriaki Maetani and Akira Muraoka – a three-man Japanese collective who go by the acronym AMAM – have devised, with the help of their British mentor Max Lamb, a biodegradable, sustainable packaging solution that draws on agar’s natural properties. It’s a forward-thinking, real-world attempt to answer to one of the twenty-first century’s biggest problems, so it is no surprise that the judges saw fit to award AMAM the competition’s Grand Prix.
The structure is formed when certain varieties of agar are boiled, and the resulting liquid dehydrated until it once again morphs into solid form. Once compressed, it becomes a soft, Clingfilm-like cushion that protects all around it; something which AMAM discovered first-hand when they sent a perfume bottle from their base in Tokyo to their hotel room in Milan, in advance of the city’s design week.
The annual Lexus Design Award is a breeding ground for the world’s most talented and innovative young designers from a multitude of disciplines. By providing the shortlisted entries and eventual Grand Prix winners with a global platform to exhibit their work and concepts, it aims to connect designers with the industry personnel they need to bring their ideas to life on a larger scale. That is precisely the hope for AMAM, whose ultimate aim is to see plastics totally eradicated from all walks of life, owing to their detrimental impact on the environment. It won’t be an easy road, but you sense that Agar Plasticity is the start of a brighter future.