A very stylish way to save the world
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.”
In love with light: Julian Melchiorri created Exhale, right, a “bionic” chandelier containing living algae that purifies the air