Bringing food to the table

What are designers doing?

September 2015
The next design frontier is food. Innovations range from production to consumption, taste to shape; from how and what we eat to how we digest it, all infused with a high dose of technology. Have you ever imagined eating a delicious burger, minus the guilt of killing animals to satisfy your desires? Eating as much chocolate as you want, without the added calories? How about a different grocery-shopping experience, where you can find products in the supermarket organised in relation to calories or recipes, and find info on display that allows you to track down all the data related to your produce, from its country of origin to its route to the supermarket shelf? These options are all available right now. Welcome to the future!
[caption id="attachment_9356" align="alignnone" width="1024"]Foodpairing, by Bernard Lahousse Foodpairing, by Bernard
Although designers have been exploring such things since around 2006, food design is now at its peak. This year, two of the world’s most prestigious design schools, Design Academy Eindhoven in the Neth-erlands and Scuola Politecnica di Design in Italy, launched programmes devoted to the subject. Expo Milan 2015 is also dedicated to food, its challenges and possibilities. In mid-July, MIT Media Lab, in its first ever summit, Knotty Objects, discussed four items and their social, economical, material, and ethical entanglements, from a critical design view-point. The steak was one of them, symbolising the reality of modern food production, demand, supply, and consumption. In this complex, engendered, and already existing food chain – business, market, science, and gastronomy – what else can designers add? How would the largest industry in the world benefit from a designer’s approach? And how exactly are designers contributing?
Food – the substance itself, as well as its methods of production, processing, and consumption – has al-ways been the subject of tinkering and design”, says Nicola Twilley, journalist and writer of that mouth-watering, mind-bending food blog Edible Geography,and an absolute expert in everything related to food. From the shape of watermelons in Japan, to the de-sign of kitchenware, to the layout of supermarkets, designers have always been involved in creating for the food industry. But the idea that food designers are designers working with the subject of food falls short of explaining the term. To demystify food de-sign, Twilley, in an interview for GOOD magazine that she conducted in 2010 with Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of R&D at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, brilliantly helped identify three spheres of food design: the world of genetic and molecular modification; the level of the food unit, with so many chefs and designers reinventing food at the unit level; and the systemic level – considering herein the systems of production, distribution, and even digestion. Fast-forward to 2015. We analyse these three levels to find that the next frontier of food design is the pairing of food and technology at a systemic, unit, or molecular level.
Expo Milan 2015, under the theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, sought the best answers, technologies, and concrete ideas the world has to offer to satisfy the planet’s vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe, and sufficient food for every-one while respecting the planet and its equilibrium – as stated on the Expo website. Future Food District, one of four thematic areas, explains how technology will change food storage, distribution, purchase, and consumption. Designed by architect and professor Carlo Ratti, head of the SENSEable City Lab at MIT, the pavilion explores how data could change the way we interact with the food that we eat, inform-ing us of its origin and characteristics, and thereby promoting more informed consumption habits. Through big data, data visualisation and storytelling, the project intends to clarify and make available all information related to the products we buy.
[caption id="attachment_10028" align="alignnone" width="1024"]Future Food District. Photo © Delfino Sisto Legnani Future Food District. Photo © Delfino Sisto Legnani[/caption]
A project by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby taled the human digestive system, in a dystopic scenario that considered the likelihood of there being no more food left on the planet in the near future. Called Designs for an Overpopulated World: No. 1, Foragers, it proposes a new device inspired by the digestive systems of other mammals as well as that of birds, fish, and insects, in combination with synthetic biology, which would help us extract nutritional value from non-human foods or foods that we are currently unable to digest. It proposes a solution to the problem we face of ignoring the warning signs of resource abuse and overpopulation.
Using algorithms to decode food smells, bio-engineer Bernard Lahousse creates unusual food pairings, helping chefs and amateurs alike innovate in their recipes. On his website, Lahousse states that 80% of taste comes from our sense of smell, and explains that at the molecular level it is easy to understand why strawberry and chocolate make such a perfect match. With this in mind, other curious pairings are formed; for example, smoked shark and jam or oysters and pears. It sounds delicious.
Harvard professor and inventor David Edwards has a different input in relation to food and smell. He has found a way to receive nutrition through one’s nose instead of through one’s mouth. Characterised as Quantum Design, he also creates at the molecular level. One of his most amazing products is inhalable chocolate, whereby you can taste the chocolate and get some nutrition from sniffling it instead of actually eating it – this means lots of chocolate minus the calories. There is inhalable coffee, too. Edwards is also concerned with sustainability issues; he created WikiPearl, an edible wrapper for desserts, in a quest to avoid packaging waste in the food industry. His inventions are already being commercialised in the U.S. and France.
[caption id="attachment_10029" align="alignnone" width="635"]© Dunne & Raby © Dunne & Raby[/caption]
To make matters on food design even more complicated, at the Knotty Objects summit, it was suggested that there is perhaps no design subject more complex than food, considering the many different agendas intertwined within it. The steak served as the object in focus, serving to represent food. Researchers presented studies that attempted to develop a commercially viable laboratory-grown meat product that they hope will replace conventionally raised animal meat. Issues like synthetic biology, animal slaughtering, technology, and ethics were raised as design topics, together with taste, desire, sustainability, and more. Behind questions about technology or in-vitro meat being able to solve current problems, a bigger query was posed to the designer: are those the right questions? Daisy Ginsberg, the designer who introduced the subject at the summit said, pertinently pondering: “Is it a matter of redesigning the supply or redesigning the demand? To change what we eat and the way we think about it involves redesigning desire, as then the problem is not in the meat but in the scale. Solving the scale means changing our expectations, our demands, our desires and our tastes, as well as our systems.” And who else better to do this than a designer?