A very stylish way to save the world

Evening Standard - West End Final Extra - ES Homes and Property - - Design Meets Science -

CAN sci­ence save the world? “Def­i­nitely,” says Lon­don­based de­signer and en­gi­neer Ju­lian Mel­chiorri, 30, op­ti­mistic and beam­ing. “Well, it can an­swer a lot of our prob­lems, at least.” This talk­a­tive young Ital­ian, with the good looks of his Lon­don mother, a former model, is an­nounced to­day as the win­ner of the 2017 Emerg­ing Tal­ent Medal in the an­nual Bri­tish Land Cel­e­bra­tion of De­sign Awards.

His lit­er­ally liv­ing proof of sci­ence power is Ex­hale, a “bionic chan­de­lier” that Mel­chiorri is in­stalling in the Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum in South Kens­ing­ton as a key fea­ture of the Lon­don De­sign Fes­ti­val, which runs from Septem­ber 16 to 24.

The chan­de­lier’s 70 trans­par­ent “petals” in three sizes con­tain green al­gae har­vested in Mel­chiorri’s work­shop at Im­pe­rial Col­lege. Th­ese mi­cro or­gan­isms, ac­ti­vated by a mix of day­light and LEDs and sus­tained by a drip-feed of nu­tri­ents, take car­bon diox­ide out of the air and put it back again as oxy­gen. This is a large air-pu­ri­fier, pow­ered by na­ture.

Mel­chiorri’s par­tic­u­lar pas­sions are syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy, bio-mimicry and bio-ma­te­ri­als, where de­sign learns from and even copies na­ture.

“But I am not a sci­en­tist,” he has­tens to ex­plain. “I am an in­ven­tor, a cat­a­lyst. I take from bi­ol­ogy, chem­istry, en­gi­neer­ing and art, and make things hap­pen.” He ticks off some use­ful tech­nolo­gies along the way: dig­i­tal, sen­sor, ro­botic and hy­draulic.

Mel­chiorri has made a lot hap­pen so far. Born in Rome, he stud­ied in­dus­trial de­sign at univer­sity there. Then he spent a year at the Univer­sity of Canberra in Aus­tralia. “Here I con­nected with na­ture, and be­came aware of its power. Na­ture is the per­fec­tion of sci­ence and cre­ativ­ity. How can we har­ness that?” Back in Italy, he joined the prac­tice of light­ing de­signer Enzo Catel­lani. “I fell in love with light, and have worked with it ever since.”

It is light, he points out, that en­ables life on Earth, mostly through pho­to­syn­the­sis, when plants us­ing sun­light con­vert car­bon diox­ide into oxy­gen. “I be­lieve we can use pho­to­syn­the­sis both in prod­ucts and ar­chi­tec­ture. Us­ing only wa­ter and light we can pu­rify the air we breathe, and make valu­able bio­fu­els and food.” Mel­chiorri came to Lon­don to de­velop his the­o­ries, com­plet­ing an in­ten­sive dou­ble Masters in Sci­ence and Art, run jointly by Im­pe­rial Col­lege and the Royal Col­lege of Art. This cul­mi­nated in the launch of his ground­break­ing “silk leaf” in 2014, which earned him in­vi­ta­tions to talk and ex­hibit all over the world, and a res­i­dency at the V&A— the first for en­gi­neer­ing.

He is a win­ner of a pres­ti­gious Ma­te­rial In­no­va­tion Fel­low­ship from the Arts Foun­da­tion, sup­ported by the Cloth­work­ers Foun­da­tion, and a Forbes-se­lected “30 un­der 30” Europe so­cial en­tre­pre­neur for 2017.

The silk leaf made in­ter­na­tional sci­ence head­lines. Mel­chiorri en­cased chloro­plasts — the plant parts in­volved in pho­to­syn­the­sis — in silk fibres. This sta­bilised them so they could go on work­ing. Veined, green and with a nat­u­ral sheen, it was billed as the world’s first ar­ti­fi­cial leaf. Mel­chiorri made 30, but grad­u­ally all have gone brown, save two — as is the way of leaves.

How­ever, the silk leaf was just the be­gin­ning. The new Ex­hale chan­de­lier works dif­fer­ently. “Of­ten you have to keep the vi­sion but change the tech­nol­ogy.”

Ideas go nowhere with­out busi­ness acu­men. Mel­chiorri set up his own biotech com­pany called Ar­borea, based at Im­pe­rial Col­lege’s pi­o­neer­ing In­cu­ba­tor hub, with its new build­ing at White City.

WE HAVE been talk­ing at the V&A, the sun flood­ing in, on what we agree is “a great day for pho­to­syn­the­sis”. The chan­de­lier is tak­ing shape, petal by petal, a lonely ex­er­cise, and it will be stun­ning. It hangs at the end of the sculp­ture gallery.

“I am also a de­signer, you see,” says Mel­chiorri. “Here at the V&A I have ex­plored Art Nou­veau, Is­lamic art and 18th-cen­tury iron­work. Things must work but they must be beau­ti­ful as well. You could say that’s my per­sonal credo: form­ing through func­tion.”

ju­lian­mel­chiorri.com lon­don­de­sign­fes­ti­val.com

In love with light: Ju­lian Mel­chiorri cre­ated Ex­hale, right, a “bionic” chan­de­lier con­tain­ing liv­ing al­gae that pu­ri­fies the air

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