Designers Rutger de Regt and Marlies van Putten, the principals of Handmade Industrials, are both inspired and concerned by today’s production processes that are increasingly driven by computers. They ask, are we reducing or removing the presence of human experience and experimentation in manufacturing? Are we losing touch with our environment—is it becoming increasingly artificial? This RYB vessel is part of their Sculpt series that addresses these questions and explores biodegradable thermoplastics and their industrial applications. The vessel is made of caprolactone, a biodegradable bioplastic derived from caproic acid, a fatty acid found in animal fats and oils. It is also a component in vanilla.

To make each vessel, Handmade Industrials manipulates and heats caprolactone granules in a flexible latex mold. The technique grew out of an earlier project based on a patented single wall molding method devised by the studio. For this series, the designers pour tiny caprolactone pellets into a balloon-like mold that can be made in any size or configuration. The designers extract all the air from the mold with a vacuum pump, then seal it. They push, pull, and sculpt the pellet-filled “balloon” into any shape, by hand, or with elastic bands or other constraints. Next, they heat the shaped form to melt and bond the pellets, resulting in a thick-walled form. Once the vessel cools, the thin latex mold is peeled off and any unmelted pellets are poured out.

The result is a hollow vessel of unique form, with a smooth outer wall and a rough inner wall that has retained the texture of the bonded granules. The designers utilized industrial tools, methods and materials in making the RYB vessel, yet its curved and indented free-form shape shows the influence and touch of the human hand. A peek into the rough interior reveals traces of the industrial process. The vessel is a contemporary exploration of the relationship between craft and industry; it is also an exercise in color experimentation. The pellets are colored with a combination of mineral and synthetic pigments (here, dark chalk yellow and ultramarine blue, respectively) before they are poured into the mold. The color is bonded along with the bioplastic.

This object is currently on view Nature by Design: Plastics.

Cynthia Trope is the Associate Curator of Product Design and Decorative Arts at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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