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Interview Architecture & Design

Doing like mother nature does


Words by Suzanna Knight

Photos by Lonneke van der Palen

From her small, cottage-like studio in Groningen, interior designer Carolijn Slottje looks to the natural world to find ways to incorporate plants into her designs in order to make sure they become an essential and necessary part of every living room. Her air plants, which float through her studio like colourful jellyfish, have recently taken over design stores around the world. And Carolijn has every intention to make sure the plant and design world keep overlapping, until they’re one and the same.

When and how did you decide to incorporate plants into your design work?

Plants and flowers are aesthetically beautiful, to start with. But I found out that they have all these other properties beyond just their looks; They can even influence how people feel. Everyone is an outside person by nature, we need plants and flowers and fresh air to feel better. There has been research that plants can reduce pain stimulants; people in rooms with plants experience less stress than those in rooms without. I wanted to design things that serve those different functions and properties. I wanted to make a statement, design for a bigger purpose and use the way Mother Nature does things as my main source of inspiration. That’s what led me to participate in Driving Dutch Design, a kind of start-up programme for young Dutch designers. I’ve been working with plants ever since, there are so many things you can do with plants as a designer. I’m currently working on a project to design a green wall for smaller interiors, one you can buy one piece at a time instead of making a big investment for the whole thing. And there’s so many more ideas floating around my head, so many opportunities. But the air plants have become quite popular so most of my time is spent putting those together.

Where did the design for the air plants come from?

Usually a design starts with a lot of trial and error, but in this case it all originated with the plant. Air plants are pretty weird, when you think about it. They’re quite far from our usual experiences with plants, which we put in a nice pot with a limited purpose and hope there’s care instructions of some kind to keep them alive. We like our plants to be predictable. Air plants don’t need a pot or a windowsill or care instructions, they just need something to fall from or hang on to. In the jungle, they use tree branches as support, and since most people barely use the space between their heads and the ceiling, why not hang them in the air the way it’s done in the natural world? Except we use copper nets instead of branches. I think they’re a nice way to fill empty space in an interior. They’re also good for your indoor environment and very easy to take care of. Air plants live off the air, they have little scales that catch moisture from their environment. Inside, they’ll need some sunshine and to be sprayed with water every now and then, but that’s all.

How are the air plants made?

There’s two parts to the design: the plants and the copper nets. We use Tillandsias, the most typical air plant. It’s from Central and South America, but the last part of the cultivation is done here in the Netherlands. There are 700 different kinds of Tillandsias, so you have to make sure you’re not using an endangered type. And removing them from the jungle is not exactly good for environment either, but if they’re cultivated from seeds it’s fine. The nets are made in Bosnia, by a fairtrade company that outsources work to local women. Dutch Design Development helped me select them as a fair trade partner. They also do projects for the fashion industry, and I plan to involve them in my future projects as well. In our studio, we finish the design by combining the plants and the nets. One takes about an hour, and we can finish 10 air plants per day. We ship about 80 to 100 air plants per week to 10 different countries.

It makes so much sense to copy the solutions nature has already made for us, and use them to solve human challenges.

The plants are designed according to biomimicry. Can you explain what that is?

Biomimicry makes use of the systems, patterns and models of the natural world. It makes so much sense to copy the solutions nature has already made for us, and use them to solve human challenges. I worked with biologist Julian Vincent who studied leaves and the way they unfold. That same folding method is used for solar panels: shot into the sky as small packets, and unfolding once they reach their destination. For the air plants, we looked at the way they’re caught by the trees, and mimicked those tree branches with the copper nets.


How do you think we could bring more plants and flowers into people’s living rooms in terms of interior design?

When I started the project, I talked to a lot of professional interior planters. They want to sell plants, but as a designer I want to sell an experience. There are some creative interior planters who want to do more, but they’re not sure how. There’s still a gap there that needs to come together. Things need to become more accessible. Plants and flowers have already made their way from the florist to the design stores, and we should encourage the two to work together. As designers, we should make things that integrate plants and not just serve as plant displays. People buy an experience, a way of life. A flower is just a flower at a florist, but at a design or a concept store it becomes part of a lifestyle and an identity. In this new light, plants and flowers become a necessity in any living room. That’s what we should strive for.