Samuel Tomatis is an eco-design warrior who is exploring seaweed's potential as a biodegradable material in order to make a variety of objects. Count in a chair, bowls and textiles, all of which testify to the diversity of algae species that the French designer has been experimenting with over the last two years.

The young French designer's prodigious efforts have paid off. The Alga chair (2016) was shortlisted for the Rado Star Prize, launched by the Swiss watch brand, during Paris Design Week (6 – 15 September). Tomatis, 26, was also tapped by Maison & Objet to design trophies made from seaweed for the Designer of the Year (Ramy Fischler) and Rising Talents awards at the September edition of the Parisian interiors fair.

Container. Photo: Samuel Tomatis
Tomatis' curiosity about using seaweed in his work was sparked during a holiday on the coast of Brittany a few summers ago. Astonished by the sheer abundance of seaweed proliferating along the shores, an abnormality caused by the eutrophication of the water, he began wondering whether he could use it to any positive effect. His mindset ran counter to that of the locals, who bemoan how the decay of seaweed depletes the sea's shallow waters of oxygen in the summer.

‘When I saw the seaweed problem in Brittany, rather than thinking of it as a waste, I saw it as a gold mine and as an incredible raw material,’ Tomatis recalls. ‘I thought of creating a material out of it that would highlight this waste.’

Containers. Photo: Samuel Tomatis
Tomatis, who was completing his studies at ENSCI - Les Ateliers, a design school in Paris, returned to Brittany a few months later to harvest some of the seaweed with the harvesters, conduct tests once it had dried, and made square and rectangular samples. ‘Initially, I had a very artisanal approach,’ he says. ‘I tested several different species of seaweed until I found a resistance, aesthetic and thickness of material that I liked.’

Successive experiments led to Tomatis creating the Alga chair, achieved by placing a single piece of material realised from seaweed onto a wooden mould. This enabled a curve formation at the point where the chair's back seamlessly meets the seat. ‘For me, it's more of a demonstrative piece rather than a finished object,’ Tomatis says.

Harvesting in Brittany` Photo: Jill Vincent
Alga chair Photo: Matthieu Barani
The multitude of small objects in varying tonalities that Tomatis has made is revealing of seaweed's material scope. As yet, they are insufficiently water-resistant for commercialisation but this is something that Tomatis is working on. He has also discovered seaweed's potential for horticultural and construction applications, and has realised a textile sample with a fellow graduate from ENSCI.

Determined to delve deeper into the properties of seaweed, Tomatis applied for, and won, the 2017 Agora grant awarded by France's culture ministry. Worth €15,000, the grant is given every two years to a France-based designer under 40 wishing to carry out a personal research project. The 2017 jury was presided by Erwan Bouroullec.

Through the grant, Tomatis has been collaborating with chemistry researchers at a laboratory in Toulouse, southwest France, to learn more about the intrinsic composition of seaweed and develop new materials made from algae thanks to a semi-industrial process.

‘The first difficulty is procuring the seaweed, drying it and harvesting it at the right moment, and bringing it to Paris,’ explains Tomatis. ‘We're trying to understand why one species works better or is more resistant or supple than another, and what substantial results can be achieved with the materials. The aim is to find ways to transform seaweed as optimally as possible for industrial processes.’

Asked about what appeals to him about seaweed besides the ecological dimension, he replies, ‘It's interesting to work with a material that's alive and that moves; it's a real challenge. Seaweed materials and algae products don't create any waste. On the contrary, they're beneficial to the environment.’

This article appeared in DAM70. Order your personal copy.
Textile in algae Photo: Véronique Huyghe
Container. Photo: Samuel Tomatis
Samples. Photo: Samuel Tomatis