The design studio of Merel Kalhof is located in a railway arch close to the tube station Bethnal Green in East London. Next to it there is a car wash, some cluttered and crammed furniture shop called Hackney Furniture, and a store offering catering equipment. The area is authentic and instantly likeable. And so is Merel. The product designer works across diverse crafts and uses a variety of different materials. Her creations have one thing in common though. ‘What I’m trying to do with my work is revealing something that is kind of obvious but yet no one sees it,’ Merel explains.
The upholstered furniture she is currently working on, is a collaboration between three windmills in the Netherlands, one of them being her own. When Merel was still a student at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in 2007, she developed a wind knitting machine. With the power of wind, this device knitted woollen tubes. Merel first transformed them into felted scarves that were labelled with the time it took to knit them and the day they were created. Now, the machine Merel works with is much more developed and knits the upholstery of her furniture.
The other two windmills that are involved in the project are De Kat, a colour mill, grinding the pigments to colour the wool, and Het Jonge Schaap, a sawmill, cutting the wood used for the furniture. ‘I like this collaboration. We work really well together,’ Merel says. ‘I would love this to become sort of like a factory. That’s also why I called the project Windworks. There are these industrial areas, which are called ironworks, and this project is called Windworks. It presents the possibility of making an industry with wind and I would like to push it. I think it could be used in a commercial way. I don’t know what kind of energy is going to be the energy of the future but I do think that wind is an amazing power source with immense potential.’
Merel’s designs are produced in an environmentally conscious way. The dyes she uses for the wool for the upholstery are natural and due to the fact that she uses wind energy, her pieces are created sustainably. ‘I think everyone should be aware of sustainability and it should be normal to incorporate it in one’s work, although obviously not everything can be made 100% eco-friendly,’ Merel states. ‘My work is naturally eco, I didn’t try to force sustainability. My work is not based on the idea of creating green pieces – the eco-friendliness is just a side benefit.’
All the individual elements used for the furniture are sourced in the Netherlands – like the wood that is taken from trees that would have to be cut down anyway – and are assembled there as well. ‘I don’t want to transport the material to the UK, assemble it here, and then transport it back again,’ Merel says.
I ask Merel how she came up with the idea of working with wind. ‘When I was at the RCA we had to walk around the neighbourhood of the college, to get inspired for a new project. We had to somehow incorporate the area. Where I was, there were so many cul-de-sacs and there was so much wind. Like in the tube,’ Merel explains. She then tried to find a way to channel that wind and make use of it. She started studying it and its behaviour and created miniature windmills. Covering herself with those mini windmills, she carried out a performance walking through the streets and finding out where and when she caught wind. ‘The wind is so unpredictable. Sometimes the windmills don’t catch any wind and they don’t work,’ Merel states. ‘But then as soon as they start working and people see that, they are always positively surprised, because they almost can’t believe it. It’s nice to see people’s faces.’
The reaction of people is something that motivates Merel. Many of her projects take place in the public space, they’re almost like performances. ‘People like the immediacy of my work,’ Merel says proudly. ‘They like to see how things are done. It’s such a nice extra when people find out about the stories behind my designs. They like understanding them and I love seeing people’s reactions. I like things that are not super obvious but then when you understand them it’s a nice hidden surprise. That’s what I love about my work.’
When I ask Merel about her plans for the future, she tells me that she would like to expand her work with wind and cooperate with windmills around the world. ‘I would love to develop a book – kind of an inventory of what other windmills are making and how they could be combined to create something new. I’d look at them geographically as well and keep things local. Whatever products the mills that are next to each other produce, would then dictate the final designs,’ Merel explains. ‘It would be a complete story on how to produce with wind.’
Merel will present Windworks from the 12th to the 19th of May 2013. The event is taking place at the colour mill De Kat at the Zaanse Schans in the Netherlands.