I heard about Maja Halilović a few weeks ago on F.fm podcast (if you’re from the Balkan region, do listen to it). I’ve never heard of her before even though we live only 400 kilometers apart and speak the same language. She is from Tuzla and has worked as a designer for 15 years now. On the podcast, she introduced herself as a bio-designer like it was something pretty common. And it should be common because it’s one of our few hopes to make fashion sustainable. However, as I write this, Grammarly keeps correcting the word bio-design and bio-designer to design and designer. And I’m sure Grammarly is not the only entity that has no idea what bio-design is.

That’s why I e-mailed Maja and asked if she would be so kind as to answer a few questions and try to explain to all of you why we need bio-design. After a dozen e-mails and one expired WeTransfer link, here’s what came out of our conversation.

How would you describe biomaterials to someone who’s never heard of them?

Biomaterials are materials that interact with the biological system and create a symbiosis in which they enhance the same system in which they are incorporated. When it comes to biomaterials until recently we have referred to materials used within the medical industry. Bioengineering invented materials for treating specific health problems. So we have already met them if we’ve ever worn a denture or contact lenses.

It is very important to mention biocompatibility when it comes to biomaterials. The term implies the perfect match of the material to the living tissue. This biocompatibility also implies that biomaterial will enhance bodily functions. Metals, ceramics, plastics, glass, and even living cells and tissue can be used to create biomaterials. They are often biodegradable and some can bio-absorb. This means they will gradually be eliminated from the body after fulfilling a certain function.

They are a direct consequence and resistance to capitalism that requires fossil fuel-based production.

Biomaterials have been developed in medicine for fifty years, where their main purpose is to improve human health and extend human life, but today we are talking about new materials that designers are dealing with. Those biomaterials will move the design into a revolutionary field where it helps change the market and the economy. These are materials that are healthy, biocompatible, and most importantly enrich the soil when discarded. They are a direct consequence and resistance to capitalism that requires fossil fuel-based production and threatens Earth’s stable climate.

Bio-designers work with living organisms such as algae, bacteria, yeasts, acids (recently used materials are being expanded to include bio-waste). modifying, experimenting, and promoting the production of materials that are widely used within the industry – from packaging to clothing.
This is a very exciting and new branch of design that will offer us much more in the future!

When did you start experimenting with biomaterials?

It has been going on for three years. The process has been exciting from the beginning to the present because I work with completely new material, and we depend on each other what the final result will be. And every process, whether it was ultimately positive (getting a quality material) or negative (getting a fragile material that cannot be manipulated), offered discoveries that pushed the research forward. It pushed me, I must admit with pleasure, to pursue natural sciences such as biology so that I could advance my work.

Today there is a wide range of opportunities in terms of bio-design. Discussions with other bio-designers around the world are going on, and a community is being created to share research. We all work to remove harmful and toxic materials from our environment and prevent or mitigate the effects of climate change. We have to answer the burning questions of today and give people a completely different approach to buying and using materials, which ultimately leads to a new approach to living. The healthier and happier you are as a customer you end up being an individual who not only consumes but also creatively engages with his environment and uses the resources of the planet smartly.

Which biomaterials are you focused on in your work?

I use SCOBY to get a biomaterial that is actually a specific type of cellulose. Scoby is a culture of bacteria, yeast, and acids. My research is strictly based on culture, and experimentation with spatial conditions and food that will enhance its growth, its quality, and its durability. Scientific experiments have also been carried out to show the components of SCOBY, the processes of biomaterial creation, its decomposition… I’ll conduct more experiments as soon as I find skilled people to assist me in this aspect.

For now, work continues without this because there is a plan for concrete production. This year, I started building a brand to fill a space that is non-existent in the Balkans, space where I can promote and introduce people to bio-material products. I started with myself. It’s really hard for me to find big biodegradable garbage bags, so I’ll start with them. Whatever the needs are, the brand will develop in that direction. I have said it once before, this brand will depend on people who want to try the products and they will not be charged because they are still in the test phase.

The test phase is not the biggest problem, I just want to change the industry that operates solely to make money. This approach makes us an entirely new branch that is there to help people and care for the environment and all its other inhabitants.

Why SCOBY? What did your first encounter with it look like?

I knew I wanted to work combining my two biggest interests – design and science. The work of Susanne Lee, founder of bio-design, the first bio-designer, offered me to try a new field that combines scientific experiments with product design.

I started strong, quickly, enthusiastically, built a two-story construction from stuff I found at a scrap yard, improvised to make bulb heaters, and waited. For months nothing happened. Today, I know it was because of the extremely low temperature. I started growing it at the beginning of winter, which didn’t kill the SCOBY but did prevent fermentation and thus stopped the production of cellulosic material. Later I found that SCOBY will give a rather flexible material, although it is not its main feature when it comes to ideal production conditions.

SCOBY has quite an interesting appearance and smell. It fascinates me. It’s a small, transparent matter built of very thin layers that can be seen through a magnifier. It’s intriguing. We still know too little about SCOBY to stop researching now. Everything about it interests me – every process, why, and how it happens. Many questions remain unanswered.

How did your relationship with SCOBY evolve? Do you experiment today?

I always do a couple of experiments at a time and spend at least two or three hours a day observing their progress. I’ll often repeat the same experiments, too. This is my call. I’m building a business with this material and am discussing some projects for the future. Ideas are slowly developing and spreading beyond the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, beyond the borders of the Balkans.

You have already interviewed Adrienn Újházi who is a bio-artist. I met her last year, she has some very interesting bio-projects behind her. Both of us are passionate about this and I can tell, and I think Adrienn would agree, our work together could offer something completely new. Finally, we are also discussing specific opportunities and moving very fast!

Can SCOBY or any other biomaterial ever replace or at least look like some of the materials that we wear on a daily basis that may not be sustainable?

Each material has specific characteristics and appearance. I would not dare to push biomaterials to be what they are not. I don’t paint them, process them, nor modify them to look like other materials. Not only because I don’t want to, but it’s simply impossible to turn cellulose into synthetics, for example. The question is great because it opens up an interesting discussion about the aesthetics and human habits that depend on multilayered social constructs.

The biomaterial you get out of SCOBY is very healthy for the Earth. It leaves vitamins and minerals in the ground after decomposition.

The material is repulsive to some people, it reminds them of human skin while others find it fascinating and would even like to wear it daily. I often mention that it could replace plastics, not because it has identical or similar characteristics but because it is even more convenient to use in the way plastic is used today. Plastic is not biodegradable, it is more toxic when it decomposes and contaminates air, water, and organisms that accidentally eat it. The biomaterial you get out of SCOBY is very healthy for the Earth. It leaves vitamins and minerals in the ground after decomposition.

How do people in your surroundings react when you tell them you’re making clothes with SCOBY? Do they understand the need for new materials?

They are very interested, they ask questions, ask for explanations, they ask me to show them the material. They want to know, preferably, everything. But since I don’t know everything either, I hope they don’t feel deprived of information. What I know I share without hesitation. Bio-design seeks community, solidarity, and sharing of experiment results to help, to inspire. And it succeeds in that. It is a great honor for me to hear that students discuss my work at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, and one professor even encourages them to think about working in this field.

I also had offers from companies, individuals who wanted to sew clothes. I declined them because research on biocompatibility with human tissue still has to be conducted. Also, I got offers from certain smaller companies that want to pack their products in biomaterials, again I rejected them for the same reason. I’m conducting a compatibility experiment with tofu now, and I realized that it might help me determine how this cellulose reacts to food.

There are also some people, very rare though, who do not respond well to the look of SCOBY, they find it repulsive. It would be great to determine why, and that is why we need experts in aesthetics. There are also some very angry individuals, I can only guess why. I assume they only speculate from a subjective perspective. Reactions are never indifferent.

What is the next step for you? Where can you (or want to) take these experiments with SCOBY?

Let’s go step by step. I can’t work hastily, that was never my trait. My focus is on this material and although I have been researching it for several years it is still a big mystery to me. For example, I have not discovered whether the mold that develops when contamination occurs has a certain advantage, etc. I’ve said a lot about plans for the future so I’ll leave this answer short.

Photos courtesy of Maja Halilović