Interview with Ista Boszhard: Collaborating, sharing and sustainable innovation

11 April 2019

A kombucha leather bra, air-purifying folding screens made from wool, and new clothes made from yarn obtained by unravelling overstock items from major fashion chains...

Students following the Master’s programme in Industrial Design (MID) have been exploring new, sustainable materials, and revenue models for the textile industry under the supervision of Lenneke Langenhuijsen (Buro Belén), and in close collaboration with Waag's TextileLab Amsterdam, founded by Cecilia Raspanti and Ista Boszhard. The outcome of this collaboration was recently presented in a sold-out Waag.

Photos by Daniela Roșca

MID talked to Ista Boszhard about collaborating, asking critical questions and material research.

Interview by Merel Kamp

Waag’s TextileLab often works with students, creatives and researchers. Do you also collaborate with the textile industry?

‘Currently, we are doing that in the context of the Textile Clothing Business Labs project –a European project that enabled us to set up this lab – where everything revolves around partnerships between textile labs and the industry, and developing new business models. On a regular basis we also do material tests for fashion brands interested in dyeing textiles with bacteria. But real collaborations continue to be complicated because the textile industry tends to be relatively closed off. We never simply perform the operational tasks and want to collaborate exclusively with parties who are not only open to innovation, but also frank about their problems and ideas. We are happy to share our research agenda with external parties, if they are willing to share things with us in return; otherwise it would just be a one-way street. So it continues to be a journey of exploration, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. We can see that changes are slowly taking shape.’

Is collaborating with a group of students like these from MID mainly interesting for the students, or also for you as TextileLab?

‘Every encounter with an external party is a kind of reality check for us, a means to assess whether our work and the ideas we have developed also resonate with people from different backgrounds. It meant a lot to us to work with such a diverse group of people. Their reactions to our work will contribute to our process of research and reflection. And we also found out that the students had a very different approach to our own main question at TextileLab – that broad question concerning alternatives to the textile industry.’

In what sense?

‘In general, students seem to find it difficult to adopt a truly critical attitude with regard to this question. They are selling themselves short by not questioning the things that are handed to them and therefore get stuck with: “What would be a sustainable alternative for this or that material?”. In fact, you want them to move towards a broader question, like: “In What way do we actually think about material in general?” When you put the question like that, you are bound to arrive at completely different perspectives. Should we replace plastic with something else? No, it can be an amazing material if only we would think about and use it differently. One of your tutors, Yassine Salihine , encouraged the students to embed their research questions in their own personal narratives. Starting with yourself and your own personal interests enables you to look at things in a more critical way and encourages you to ask yourself: “How do I relate to this?”.’

‘To us, sustainability also means doing something that appeals to you.’

Why is that personal approach necessary for adopting a critical attitude?

‘According to us at the Lab, starting with yourself is the most sustainable way to work. It enables you to think less in systems and roles and more about approaching the problems as a human being. We think that sustainability also means doing something that appeals to you. Of course, we all have to do things we don’t enjoy sometimes, but it would be strange if we were setting up systems we do not feel at home in ourselves. So that personal aspect functions like some kind of signposting during your process. In a system that is so rigid and complex as the textile industry, it is extremely difficult to find out in what areas you can start to make a change. Recognising and seeing opportunities – and problems – is crucial, although it will take quite some time before the students get to that point and start asking their own, uniquely personal research questions. For that reason, contextual research and this personal approach are vital.’

How does a research process like that work?

‘It can, but doesn’t have to, start from the material. Whenever you start making something, problems or questions will arise from your encounter with the material. If you start with extensive reading and analysing, it could well be that you will reach the conclusion that something doesn’t work on a material level much too late. The process of making will also immediately give you something concrete to talk about. In this way, the making process and material research on a small scale can help you identify larger problems. This is an important starting point for our lab. Besides that, it is important that you continue to ask questions and recognise the value of the small findings from that material research that at first sight may not have seemed important, but in actual fact can contain precious information. In the end, to us it is all about combining material research, reflection and product design.

Why should students start making rope out of flax again when we already know how that is done? Aren’t they all just reinventing the wheel?

‘In some way they are, yes. At the same time, you simply cannot avoid carrying out certain processes. You should at least understand the wheel before you can reinvent it, and therefore you have to find out something about the basics and the craftmanship. In general, people would do well to spend more time exploring what has already been done, and subsequently depart from that instead of starting from scratch. And that’s why it would also be great if research results were widely shared and open source.’

‘It’s not about the individual designer, it’s about the bigger picture.’

At the same time, it seems as if designers always have to come up with something original. Building on the work of others, as is common in the scientific community, is not standard practice in the design world.

‘That’s true. It has to do with revenue models and how people are educated. Our work at Waag's TextileLab is completely open source. We are transparent and share everything, including our failures. We have noticed that people really appreciate being part of a network where they can contribute to the research. More and more people are recognising the added value of that openness, shared language and interdisciplinarity as opposed to working on something by yourself and protecting your idea. For us, this way of thinking and working is embedded in our methodology.

Note: In this interview, Ista Boszhard is also expressing the views of Cecilia Raspanti; the entire text concerns their shared and jointly developed body of thought.

About Ista Boszhard

About Ista Boszhard

Ista Boszhard studied Design at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, and Cultural Studies at the University of Amsterdam, graduating with a thesis on interdisciplinary education and the value of art. Ista also participated in an interdisciplinary Master’s programme at the University of Utrecht. Together with Cecilia Raspanti, Ista founded Waag's TextileLab. Apart from her activities for TextileLab, she supervises graduation projects at the AMFI and is affiliated to the minor Design Thinking & Doing.