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by Gabrielle Kennedy

It all started at a dinner party one night with an old friend from his Design Academy Eindhoven student days. She told him that she had heard that there was a guy, an alchemist, who knew how to recycle chemical waste into gold.

“Of course we thought it was a fairy tale,” says Ralph Nauta, who together with Lonneke Gordijn is Studio Drift – the Dutch design studio producing some of the most extraordinarily crafted light pieces in the world. “I just thought it was all fanciful nonsense.”

But still Nauta and Gordijn were curious enough to pursue it further. They met with the ‘alchemist’ and discovered that in essence the story was true.

The man, who prefers to remain anonymous for now, built a factory in the Netherlands that could treat chemical waste. He burned it at temperatures exceeding the melting points of the different constituent materials, then extracted them in liquid form - gold included.

Of more interest to Gordijn and Nauta was what the alchemist then did with the remaining ash. He reheated it in a furnace that behaved like a volcano to produce synthetic obsidian – man-made obsidian that on a molecular level is exactly the same as the natural obsidian found in and around volcanoes.

Being a type of glass, Studio Drift started their material research by working with a glass producer to explore how the obsidian could be melted and blown. They looked at temperatures, ways to reinforce the strength, noted its magnetic properties and recorded its ability to hold heat. Already Nauta and Gordijn had ideas of where this could lead.

“We were overwhelmed and excited by the entire thing,” says Nauta. “The alchemist is really a sort of genius, but he is also now paying the political price. As an engineer and a scientist he is very interested in discovering more about how nature can solve problems – but that is not a popular concern amongst big money, big power, big politics multi-nationals.”

Chemical waste – plastics, e-waste, factory-waste - spells not just a current environmental disaster, but a future catastrophe. Added to the environmental situation is the social dilemma that the mining and trading of rare earth metals is causing. “It is estimated that by 2020 some of the scarcest metals used for small mobile devices like dysprosium, for example, will be in dangerously low supply,” says Nauta. “But every high-tech society is in pursuit of profit and knowing that this expensive, but effective recycling system exists is not in anyone’s short-term financial interests.”

Nauta’s point is that the legal toxin limits are simply too high – the alchemist proved that. For a price and an investment the limits could be drastically lowered, which is not something the largest chemical companies or their shareholders want to talk about. It is the largest companies that have the biggest influence on governments. “You just have to look into how much subsidies the Dutch government provides to gasoline related companies,” says Nauta.

As The Guardian recently wrote: “[The] environmental costs associated with rare earth metals are quite significant. First, you have to extract them. Then, you have to purify them. After they're distributed into technology, they often end up in landfills because it is less costly to simply toss equipment than it is to recycle it. A push in the direction of electronics recycling has come with its own set of environmental and social problems. And addressing these issues is not a simple process, especially when consumers do not play an active role.”

And unfortunately under somewhat hazy circumstances the alchemist’s factory was recently closed down by the local government. Studio Drift under the guise of design research is trying to reestablish a production facility for synthetic obsidian (with the alchemist), but the costs and legalities are proving enormous and complex.

“The synthetic obsidian pieces we have now are not production objects, but conversation pieces,” says Nauta. “The mirrors relate to the story and connect people to what this material and its production process mean for society. A mirror reflects what it sees – the truth of a society.”

After graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven, Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn worked with Tord Boontje and then went on to set up Studio Drift. In the studio they find that their strengths are complimentary.

“We are both very precise,” says Nauta says. “Lonneke is good at translating emotions, she is very focused on how something moves or lights up. I am more concerned with the details and the finish of an object. So it is a great cooperation.”

The Obsidian Project is on exhibition in ‘Thing Nothing’ at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven from 17th October to 15th November. ‘Thing Nothing’ is a research into the meaning, value and future of things. 


Published: 16-Oct-2015 22:14
  • A chat with Ralph Nauta of Studio Drift

    Studio Drift - Obsidian Project as shown on the Thing Nothing Exhibition

  • A chat with Ralph Nauta of Studio Drift

    Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn of Studio Drift - Photo by Manon van der Zwaal