Designer Nienke Hoogvliet Wants to Save the Planet, One Strip of Seaweed at a Time


With her beguiling salmon-skin leathers, seaweed yarns, and wastewater pottery, Nienke Hoogvliet of Studio Nienke Hoogvliet works a strange kind of magic, melding urgent environmental inquiry with an engineer’s design sense and an artist’s inspired creativity. “When I started, I thought I was a designer, so I wanted to work on things you can actually use,” Hoogvliet says. “But the longer I’ve worked, the more important the story behind the project has become, and I think that’s more part of being an artist.”

The seeds of Hoogvliet’s passions were sown early on. “As a child I was already quite activistic,” Hoogvliet says. “I was trying to convince people not to use products tested on animals, and I became a vegetarian when I was 7, not because my parents wanted me to, but because I wanted to.” Still, it took attending art school—namely, the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam—for Hoogvliet to realize how design could be used to “tell the story of things that I think are a bit problematic.”

Indeed, with Studio Nienke Hoogvliet, which she established in 2013, Hoogvliet has made it her job to research, develop and make use of a wide range of sustainable materials; among them a biodegradable urn, furniture made from reclaimed toilet paper (part of a commission from the Dutch Water Authorities), and all sorts of things from seaweed. “Every material has its own surprises,” Hoogvliet says, “but I fell in love with seaweed because there are so many different types, and every type has a certain beauty of its own.” Over the last several years, Hoogvliet has spun the aquatic plant into a rug (hand-knotted in an old fishing net to underscore “the contrast between the polluting plastic waste issues and the beautiful things the sea has to offer”), a chair, and various dyes and paints; detailing her methodology in a short, illustrated book.

Small as her practice may be—at present, the Studio consists of only Hoogvliet and a part-time assistant, with Hoogvliet’s architect boyfriend, Tim, providing moral support—Hoogvliet has always wanted its ideas to be as widely accessible as possible. “If more people are working on the same topic, we can have a bigger influence,” she says. In the right hands, for example, her seaweed yarn could revolutionize the textile industry, vastly reducing the toxic waste released back into the environment; as could her recent experiments with dyes from medicinal herbs. (“I’m trying to find out if they have benefits for our health,” she explains.) “I don’t always want to keep my projects conceptual,” Hoogvliet says. “I really want to develop them further so that they can become industrial, as well. But that must be done by other people.”

It could be argued that Hoogvliet is never not working; when she isn’t physically in her studio, hand-weaving a garment or mixing pigments, she’s gathering inspiration. “I’m always looking at the structures of materials, or in nature,” Hoogvliet says, “and I try to analyze the shapes.” That impulse is especially strong when she’s down by the sea. “I love to go to the beach, but when I’m at the beach, I’m always looking for seaweed,” Hoogvliet laughs.

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This article was originally published by Vogue.