Art reference

Meet the designers who create everyday objects and art from human hair

Written by Francesca Perry, CNN

There is a natural product that we grow ourselves that can be used to make clothes, ropes and even building materials – and much of it is wasted daily. But maybe not for long. An emerging wave of designers is harnessing the power of human hair to tap into issues of circular economy, identity and beauty through provocative objects and installations.

“It’s very light, flexible, oil-absorbent, high tensile strength – and it doesn’t require any additional energy, land or water to grow,” Dutch designer Sanne Visser said via video call. Having recently completed a residency at the Design Museum in London to explore the recycling of human hair, Visser presents a new installation for the London Design Festival (LDF) this month. Titled ‘Extended’, it features eight mirrors suspended from strings made from hair collected from salons and barbershops in West London.

Visser adopts rope making as a technique in his projects with hair, both to emphasize his strength and to use it in the most sustainable way possible, without the need for other materials. Sorting the collected hair waste by color and length, she sterilizes and washes it, then sends it to a spinner who turns the strands into yarn and thread using a traditional spinning wheel. Visser then feeds the yarn into its own string machine to make different types of strings, which have been used to create dog leashes, mesh bags, suspenders and swing sets.

Using rope making and a traditional spinning wheel, Visser creates everyday objects like bottle racks out of human hair. Credit: Sanne Visser

When Visser first started working with human hair six years ago, the hairstylists she approached asking for waste cuts were skeptical. Many said no. However, as she built a body of work – and new initiatives promoting the reuse of used hair grew – it got easier. One such initiative is Green Salon Collective (GSC), which works with hairdressers in the UK and Ireland to recycle hair. GSC collaborates with manufacturers or designers (including Visser) to transform hair into new objects and products, hair socks (cotton or nylon tubes filled with cut hair used to prevent the spread of oil in the seas and on the beaches) to building materials.

The latter sees GSC working with architecture and design studio Pareid on an installation also at this year’s LDF, consisting of two intertwining columns covered in hair in a west London living room. The hair used for the project, titled “Chiaroscuro 1,” is felted and applied as a surface coating.

Entitled "Chiaroscuro I," by design studio Pareid, brings together two columns of intertwined human hair.

Entitled “Chiaroscuro I”, from design studio Pareid, brings together two columns of intertwined human hair. Credit: Andy Keate

Pareid wants to create a fully immersive space using human hair and has experimented with using it as a binder for mud bricks. However, early prototypes aren’t exactly beautiful: “We’re drawn to things that might be considered ugly or unappealing at first glance,” Pareid co-founder Hadin Charbel said in a video call. . “Trash like human hair has a kind of yucky quality to it – it has this element of confrontation.”

Confronting and challenging perceptions was also central to the work of Alix Bizet, a French designer working with hair to address issues of racialized identity, community experience and marginalized beauty. “I discovered, as a black person, in society that there is good hair and bad hair – that’s where the project started. Looking at this discarded material, we can learn a lot about society,” she said via video call.

In a 2020 project titled “Afro Hair Futurity,” Bizet created crown-shaped headdresses from Afro hair, featured alongside podcast interviews with people talking about their personal and professional experiences with Afro hair. For earlier projects such as “Exchange” (2016), “Hair Matter(s)” (2016), and “Hair by Hood” (2017), Bizet made clothing, including hoodies from felted human hair; in workshops with London school students for ‘Hair by Hood’, the designer sparked discussions on how culture and identity are tied to hair and the role hair salons play in the communities. Other projects have explored the displacing impact of gentrification on Afro hairdressers in Peckham, South London, and how to decolonize museum collections by bringing together more diverse hair stories. “My goal is to design for diversity and with diversity, giving visibility and empowerment to all hair stories, including Afro hair,” Bizet said.

Back at LDF, Anouska Samms – who uses human hair to explore family-level identity, as well as interrogate mythology and symbolism – will display some of her striking hair-infused ceramic pieces as part of the exhibition. of Unfamiliar Forms group. These are from her ongoing “Hair Series” (2019-2022), which uses human hair – collected mostly via Instagram captions – to create sculptural clay vessels and a tapestry, as a way to reflect on maternal relationships. . “I was always teased about my hair,” Samms recalled in a video call. “It was just huge, curly, and redheaded. My mother and grandmother are redheaded, and I come from a long line of redheaded women.”

In Bizet's project

In Bizet’s “Afro Hair Futurity” project, she features afro hair crown headdresses. Credit: Boudewijn Bollmann

Samms’ large hanging tapestry, “Big Mother” (2022), weaves strands of red human hair together (some tints artificially) with cotton and yarn. Through her, Samms hopes to refer to a long tradition of weaving linked both to women and to the idea of ​​birth and creation. Its ceramic vessels, on the other hand, evoke the ancient relationship between pottery and women: in prehistoric societies, women were the main potters.

Using hair waste is not the same as using other waste, such as plastic bottles. Hair is both an intimate human material and a sustainable resource that can be harnessed in practical and creative ways. While initiatives such as GSC offer the opportunity to expand its use, some designers are quick to stress the importance of keeping personal stories and connections alive.

“Hair is a living fiber,” Bizet said. “Just because we collect it as discarded material doesn’t mean we’re free to use it without thinking about the ethical aspects. This fast-paced capitalist world that uses hair as a new fiber removes its identity. Grace upon disinfection, the hair will lose its human and narrative appearance.”

Like Bizet, Visser is keen to connect works that use human hair to the people who have donated it. She hopes her “extended” mirrors will eventually find a place in each of the eight salons and hair salons where she has collected hair. There, regular local customers will be able to see the mirrors hanging on the wall and know that, most likely, their hair made it.

London Design Festival from September 17 to 25, 2022.

Top image: A clay sculpture adorned with red hair as part of Samm’s “Hair Series”.