“I see no future without technology, but even future without nature, they must find a balance at some point.”

This is the statement by Markus Kayser, German designer with a studio in London, who with his latest project Solar Sinter, has won the Arts Foundation Fellowship 2012 (http://artsfoundation.co.uk/Artist-Year/2012/all/318/Kayser) for the Product Design category and was shortlisted for the prestigious Design of the Year 2012 sponsored by Desing Museum of London  (http://www.designsoftheyear.com/category/genre/product/product -2012/page/2/).

With Solar Sinter, Markus found a meeting point between technology and nature, going behind the process of creation of objects: sun, heat and sand. In addition to the marriage between technology and nature, he has also found a link with the history and the origins of the creation of glass objects, which have appeared in Egypt since ancient times. The idea is simple: the sand in the Egyptian desert is mainly silica, ie when heated to a certain temperature it melts and is transformed into glass, once it has cooled down. In industry, the process that transforms the powder into a solid through the heat is called sintering and in recent years has become a widely used process in the 3d printing, in which plastic or metal are heated and fused with a laser to gradually compose, layer upon layer, a three-dimensional object previously drawn on computer. The solar sintering created by Markus uses as raw material the desert sand and as heating source the sun, powered by a game on lenses.

In 2010 he began to experience right in the Egyptian desert his first machine, Sun Cutter, that uses solar energy transforming it, through a spherical glass lens, in a sort of laser connected to a system driven by a camera, which allows you to cut the raw material first in 2D with a thickness of 4 mm. Sun Cutter allows to obtain very thin and rough objects, halfway between artificial and natural, because this result is due to both the technological process, but also energy and therefore subject to natural weather variations. The objects obtained, although with the same shape, are unique.

Reading the latest research in terms of 3D printing or SLS (Selected Laser Sintering), in which are used materials such as plastics, resins or metals to quickly obtain prototypes, to evolve the design of the Sun Cutter, Markus has decided to use the desert sand and natural sunlight, things which certainly are not missing in the Sahara desert, as inexhaustible sources for the creation of glass objects. The Solar Sinter was developed about a year ago and after two weeks of testing in Siwa – Egypt, the result was truly amazing and has opened the discussion on the potential use of this machine, future development simply by returning to the origins of the process, industrial if so it can be called.

The Solar Sinter, it shows not only how the sun and sand become an energy and raw material nearly limitless energy for the production of glass objects, but also it makes us look to the desert with new eyes, to imagine it as the ideal factory of a future not dominated by scarcity. With the prestigious prize of £10,000 allocated by the Arts Foundation in London, Markus was able to further develop his project The Solar Sinter Mk2, which he is finishing in the desert, this time Morocco, in these days. During the last Salone del Mobile (Design Week), Markus was guest of the show held at Palazzo Clerici in Milan and organized by Domus, giving us the opportunity to interview him and find out a little more about the genesis of his project and future developments.


Alessandra Saviotti: How did you discover the potential of the desert?

Markus Kayser: I saw the potential of the desert for future manufacturing while i was in the desert with my first solar powered experiment – the Sun Cutter. I thought to myself ‘why am I bringing material to the desert when there is plenty of raw material all around me’. I was already using the energy but to combine the energy and the material on location and just have a ‘translator’ in-between turning these raw mediums into objects seemed to be logical.

Alessandra Saviotti: How did the project evolve?

Markus Kayser: The Arts Foundation fellowship helped me to produce a new machine as well as to undertake another research trip to the Moroccan desert, where i tried different sand and could achieve a better resolution in the objects. The layer thickness is thinner, which gives the objects a more precise appearance and quality. 

Alessandra Saviotti: You talk about technology in an ideal relation with nature. Do you believe to have opened a new way in this sense?

Markus Kayser: I think in terms of manufacturing this project could start a new dialogue about not only the coexistence of technology and nature but to some extend their union. As stated before the Solar Sinter machine shall mark a starting point in this new dialogue and make people dream about this potential and hopefully gives an impulse to industry for new developments.

Zoe Romano: Isn’t it common for a product-design student to know about technology in the way in which you are using it? What is your background? Is there something hidden in your biography or is this do-it-yourself training?

Markus Kayser: My background is in furniture, lighting and product design, but I have always had a strong interest in understanding how things are done and where they come from. My technological knowledge is the result of self-training, but technology is everywhere. The design of the Solar Sinter is the first in which I faced a real technological challenge. Before I learned a lot about the mechanics working on the Solar Cutter, which essentially takes over the operation of pre-digital machinery. I learn the necessary skills talking to experts, searching in Internet but also going in the good old library. In the case of the Solar Sinter I consulted an experimental laser physicist and another who works within the photovoltaics. I also took advantage of all open-source knowledge found on the Internet, visiting also forums and watching videos in youtube. Even the old books are an excellent source to research forgotten ideas but hard to find in this era. Moreover I find that the most important research method is my direct experience – just by trying. Every step of my working process involves verification of my theories through experiment and the results are often unexpected even for the experts themselves.

Zoe Romano: Often the best innovations happen in interdisciplinarity,when did you start to experience it and what are its positive and negative aspects?

Markus Kayser: The work I do involves very different fields such as physics, mechanical engineering and computer science, and at the same time it takes you to explore hard environments such as deserts. On the web, you can access the content in various ways and you can almost do anything, and has become a fantastic learning tool, without attending an academic setting, and this is possible at all levels. Today people, just with an internet connection, can access an enormous amount of knowledge,  available for free. Of course, when the content is constantly expanding it becomes more difficult to find the right answer but I think the positive aspects have far more significance than the negative ones and has become an essential tool in all disciplines.

Zoe Romano: When and in which circumstances did you decide to start working on the Solar Sinter and Sun Cutter?

Markus Kayser: I started working on the Sun Cutter while attending a Master of Arts at the Royal College of Art in London. The experience I had in the Egyptian desert with the Sun Cutter made me understand the abundance of raw material and energy that can be found in the deserts of the world. So I knew I wanted to work on this positive message, which focused on this sort of union between technology and nature.

Zoe Romano: Some projects such as laser cutters and 3D  open-source printers work in a transparent way and receive important help from the community. Your projects have this type of opening or will in the future?

Markus Kayser: No, my project is not developed as an open-source platform, only the software I use is, as adapted to run on this type of machine. I think the project  Solar Sinter will provide inspiration to the industry because I do not think that everyone needs it to make its own glass tableware. My intent is to show the potential that I see, so that the industry will seize the idea and turn it into reality on a larger scale to create a special production of glass objects.

Zoe Romano: Which are your future plans on digital production?

Markus Kayser: The second Solar Sinter was sponsored by a large company, Kohler, who has already expressed interest in producing objects in a similar way. My interest has now shifted to experiment the process of “solar sintering” on an architectural scale. I’m imagining a quick way to build durable and livable shelters in desert regions.

Zoe Romano: Do you believe that contemporary innovation comes more from DIY experiments or research done in the industry?

Markus Kayser: I believe that innovation and the “new” comes from experimentation and sometimes do-it-yourself experiments lead to very interesting and unpredictable results. Referring to the industry in my work, I emphasize the need for a real change in manufacturing processes and the do-it-yourself experiments  can lead to an inspiring change in a larger scale. I do not think this is due to the fact that innovation is a “top-down” or “bottom-up” process but rather that everything is happening and the DIY movement is slowly moving the industry toward that direction. It’s exciting that there are so many people interested in the future of manufacturing and involved in trying to pursue new replies.