Profile: Director of UCL’s Institute of Making, Zoe Laughlin

Now’s a good time to be interested in materials, says Zoe Laughlin, co-founder and director of UCL’s Institute of Making.

Words by Clare Dowdy

‘It’s the sweet point of access to cheap kit, so you can do something in your garden shed that will potentially scale to be industrial,’ says Zoe Laughlin, citing a resin 3D printer, which allows multiple types of materials (rigid and plastic) to be printed. ‘Two years ago that was a £50,000 machine, it now costs £1,500. That’s enabling people to try and think differently about the materials they’re making. If it’s expensive you’re not going to be playful and take risks.’

What’s more, these reduced costs bring with them the ability to switch between processes more easily. Laughlin is at the interface of the science, art, craft and design of materials. Her work ranges from formal experiments with matter, to materials consultancy and large-scale public exhibitions and events with venues including Tate Modern, the Hayward Gallery, the V&A and the Wellcome Collection.

Part of her role is to help the institute’s 6,000-plus members as well as non-members to reignite their curiosity.

‘If you work in the lighting industry, you probably end up with a limited palette of materials that become your bread and butter, and you can become stale. Here, you can be reintroduced to materials for materials’ sake. As a designer, it takes you back to why you went into it in the first place. ‘She encourages people to play with materials and reacquaint themselves to their wonders. ‘If not, you’ll never find something new.’ The institute runs master classes to help people reinvigorate their design practices. Then they can step back to their specific world,’ she adds.

When people engage with the institute’s consultancy services ‘rarely do they just commission us an answer to a problem they already have,’ according to Laughlin. ‘The interest comes when you bring something from one discipline to another.’ So, she might get together an anthropologist, a chemist and an architect. ‘Unusual connections can happen, that’s one of the roles of the institute,’ she says.

Likewise, it is about enabling designers to think beyond boundaries. ‘One member developed a new type of material for bicycle helmets, making them using 3D printers,’ she adds. ‘These have been taken to market. But as a protective material, it could be relevant for the automotive industry, or anywhere, where protection from impact is important.’

Biomimicry is also on the agenda, with experiments around elements that come from the biological world which, once treated, can become inert. That could be ‘mushroom leather’, where there’s the potential to farm it rather than harvest it from the wild. ‘Designer-makers are starting to grow their own materials,’ she says and predicts that in the future more people could ‘design their material not just their object’.

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