Think Global, Dig Local

— Lecture Atelier NL

What can local raw materials teach us about a place? How does familiarity with the origins of material help us to use them more wisely? Can a deeper relationship with materials improve humanity’s approach to the environment as a whole?

In their efforts to answer these questions, Nadine Sterk and Lonny van Ryswyck of Atelier NL have created a library of hundreds of sand and clay samples. The thorough analysis of these materials on many scales – from the landscape as a whole down to the molecular level – has evolved into a unique philosophy. Projects, born out of this philosophy, feature aesthetics that emphasize the link between raw materials, their origins, and possible new functions. Through a unique combination of careful exploration, sensible research and analysis and creative material transformation, Atelier NL shows us how to ‘think global and dig local’!

A good example is the Polderproject for which the soil from over 2,000 farm fields was dug up. All clay samples were processed and purified to become rectangular tiles. These tiles were then used to form a wall of clay. Each tile had a unique colour and texture, derived directly from the quality of the soil that composed it. In the end they were meticulously attached to a wall, drawing a huge, geological map of the polder where they came from. Besides the clays and tiles, Atelier NL also developed a series of Polderceramics tableware from a few of the local clays. To deepen this whole process the designers connected to the people who live and work on the farms, to gain more understanding of how people shape land, but also how land shapes people. The farmers from the polder, for instance, embodied the knowledge of their soil, gave direction and helped in the gathering of clay samples. Thus closing a loop, the tableware made of the earth from a field can contain the food grown on that field, by the farmer who owns it, who helps in the making of the meal and eats it. 

Following different clay projects, Atelier NL applied their methodology to collecting natural sands from Western Europe, following tracks the Romans had left behind. Besides digging sands in quarries and sandy areas, the designers also archived all kinds of other information: pictures, stones, twigs, geological history and the chemical composition of the samples. Brought together, all this information becomes a material archive. Back in their studio Atelier NL started to heat the sands, turning them into pieces of glass, each one presenting a different colour, clarity and crack pattern and culminating in the recent works Glass and Sand Bank. 

These projects and products each tell the story of a country or an area; the result brings out the colour spectrum of historical patterns in agriculture and industry. All the clays and sands used by Atelier NL hold the exact identity of the region they come from, while their use gives direct insight into the purity of the material, the strength of local initiatives and the heritage of our immediate surroundings.

Connecting objects with raw materials, and local territory with traditional crafts; the aim is clear, and the research never stops. In Atelier NL’s practice, design is not a vehicle to produce plain objects; it’s a method to reveal hidden patterns in the landscapes of information around us. It’s pure and analogical data visualization. To remember that glass comes from sand, crockery from clay and paper from plants is a different way to deal with nowaday's fast living, and to focus on elementary knowledge of making. Like archaeologists dusting the truth out of the earth, Nadine Sterk and Lonny van Ryswyck, put back the observation of a raw material’s quality in the centre of production, asit should be, in projects that are as poetic as they are meaningful.