Accompanying the exhibition Acquired! Shaping the National Design Collection, Cooper Hewitt’s conservators offer a closer look into the process of preparing collection objects for display and long-term preservation.

Spun gold, ancient glass, or . . . algae?  This small vessel may look like the most delicate of glass bottles, but in reality it is composed of a vastly different material. This piece, and several others collected alongside it (shown below), are Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printed from an algae-derived bioplastic polymer. The pieces were first displayed at Cooper Hewitt in the exhibition Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in 2019 as part of a collaboration named Algae Lab, which was established between Atelier LUMA, a think tank and design and research firm based out of Arles, France, and the Dutch design firm Studio Klarenbeek & Dros.

Algae Vessels, 2018
Designed by Erik Klarenbeek (Dutch, born 1978) and Maartje Dros (Dutch, born 1980) of Studio Klarenbeek & Dros and by Atelier LUMA, including Clara Montrieul, Iiris Moller, and Johanna Weggelaar (Project Manager)
Manufactured by Atelier LUMA (Arles, France)
3D-printed biomaterial (microalgae, sugar-based biopolymer)
Gift of Atelier LUMA / LUMA, Arles, s-a-272, 274, 277, 278, 280

Writing on the studio’s website, Klarenbeek and Dros note their interest in algae as a material because it bonds to carbon dioxide while producing oxygen.[1] This positive impact on climate change might allow makers to “bring about a revolution” with “negative emissions.” The team joined Atelier LUMA in 2017 to further this research. During this investigative phase, the designers 3D scanned Roman archaeological glass found in the region of southern France. They then printed replications of these ancient forms using local algae species, producing the pieces acquired by Cooper Hewitt following their presentation in the triennial exhibition.

Unlike traditional media that have been well studied, such as glass or ceramics, bioplastics often present unknown aging properties and questionable longevity. These materials can then raise questions about embracing material aging and change within the collection in a field that is often concerned with maintaining stasis. Given these considerations, the group of objects acquired by the museum was divided into two categories: a study group to reside within the conservation department and a more formally accessioned group to enter the Product Design & Decorative Arts curatorial department as part of the museum’s collection. This distinction allows museum staff to investigate the study pieces to inform their care (such as the optimal light levels and storage conditions), as the study group is not subject to the strict guidelines and standards set forth for museum collections. Conservators can subject the study objects to more interventive testing and analysis to learn about how the material degrades or, conversely, whether the bioplastic is more stable than previously thought.

Often, conservators gauge aging or visual shifts in sensitive media by measuring changes in color, such as fading or yellowing; this type of damage can be caused by exposure to light over time. Such degradation is both cumulative and irreversible, meaning that, once faded, media that is vulnerable to this sort of change will not regain its original color by simply resting in the dark following display. In order to reduce the risk of undue damage due to light, conservators often give guidelines to the exhibition design team such that light levels are within acceptable range for particular collections.

Our concern that the algae vessels would be susceptible to this sort of deterioration led us to visit our friends in the Conservation Science department at the Museum of Modern Art to attempt to perform microfading analysis. Microfading testers are machines that expose a tiny area of an object’s surface, barely perceptible to the human eye, to a known level of light over a specific period of time. The machine contains a device called a spectrophotometer that measures any color changes during this exposure.[2] The information gleaned through this technique might then inform guidelines on light levels, allowing conservators to extend the life of the object by restricting this exposure during exhibitions. Unfortunately, the translucency of the algal media ultimately complicated useful outcomes of this testing, and we did not acquire any useful data. After discussions among ourselves and our curatorial colleagues, however, we concluded that, given the experimental nature of this media, we were not unduly concerned with change and would accept visual shifts in the objects that may occur. We therefore did not set low light levels in the exhibition Acquired!, but rather have allowed for illumination typical for stable media.

Algae vessels on display in Acquired! Shaping the National Design Collection at Cooper Hewitt.

We look forward to continuing to monitor and study the vessels over time and learn about how this unique media will age.

Sarah Barack is Senior Objects Conservator and Head of Conservation at Cooper Hewitt.

The exhibition Acquired! is on view at Cooper Hewitt through August 26, 2024.



[1] “Algae Lab – Klarenbeek & Dros with Atelier Luma, Luma Arles,” .unusual: designers of the unusual,

[2] For more on this type of testing, see Vincent Laudato Beltran, Christel Pesme, Sarah K. Freeman, and Mark Benson, Microfading Tester: Light Sensitivity Assessment and Role in Lighting Policy (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2021),

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