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Interview Art & Photography

Reimagining the tulip petal


Words by Suzanna Knight

Photos by Lonneke van der Palen

If you thought flower petals had no purpose beyond adding a romantic layer to many an uninspired marriage proposal, Tjeerd Veenhoven would like to prove you wrong. In his studio in an old warehouse in Groningen, Tjeerd has been finding new uses for discarded tulip petals for the past three years. All of of Tjeerd's projects, including his latest, H&M Global Change Award-winning project which attempts to create sustainable kinds of textile using algae, have one thing in common: to discover opportunities and creative purposes for raw materials readily available in our own backyards. We followed Tjeerd around his studio as he welcomed us into his world of innovative sustainable design.

Tell us about Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven. How did you start working with raw and natural materials like flowers and palm leaves?

We’ve always been interested in things you can find in your own backyard. The quality of the stuff you can find there is incredible, and most of it is usually thrown out or not used to its full potential. The art is to find or create the potential and value for that material. While many designers want to create sustainable and natural products, it’s incredibly difficult. Sustainable products need to have an added value, an intrinsic value, or be just as good as their unsustainable counterparts (which is often not the case), for consumers to be interested. And that’s completely understandable. We analyse the value chain of a material, show the possibilities of what could be done, and design products as proof of principle, to show that it works. Our goal is to get bigger stakeholders involved who can take it further. And every now and then we start production ourselves.

Can you walk us through the process of finding a material to making a product?

One of the projects we’re producing ourselves are the ‘palmleather’ products. I saw these little bowls you get at festivals – the ones that look like they’re made from thin wood. I saw those and loved the veins in the material. How amazing is it that mother nature can create perfectly linear veins like that? As it turns out, the material was the shed bark and leaves of an Areca Palm. You can just pick that up from the ground in any city in Southern India, so I ordered a box of them to experiment with what it could be. It’s a brittle material that breaks easily, but it turns out that when you soak it in a specific biological solution, the leaves become soft and flexible, and incredibly strong and leather-like. It’s been five years since we started, and we’ve designed a whole line of ‘palmleather’ products including hats, sandals, bags, and journals. A large American company is releasing a line of ‘palmleather’ women’s sandals this year. All of that made from stuff you can just pick up from the ground.

Tulips can’t just be picked up from the ground, though. How did you start working with those?

The tulip industry is a tough one. It’s a really intense form of agriculture, and most of the time not at all sustainable. There’s a problem there, and it’s one I wanted to help solve. Basically, tulip farmers are trying to use less pesticides to produce their tulip bulbs. Pesticides were needed to prevent the tulip heads, the actual flower part, from developing fungus, which is bad for the bulbs. As a solution, they now remove all the tulip heads before the fungus has a chance to grow, which is around April every year. That’s 800,000 tulip heads per hectare thrown away each year. We figured there must be something we could do with that many flower petals and prevent them from becoming waste. I suppose it sounds kind of sweet, collecting flower petals. But how fantastic is it to have a natural, raw material that is genetically predestined to have the exact same colour every time? You could produce the exact same pigment colours year after year. Something that’s considered useless, like a discarded flowerhead, suddenly has an incredible amount of value.

We figured there must be something we could do with that many flower petals and prevent them from becoming waste.

How is the flower pigment produced?

We receive the dried flower petals from the farmers around May. It can be up to 40 huge boxes of flowers in several colours. That’s about 1,200 kilos of flower petals per hectare. We pulverise the petals into a soft powder, mostly by hand because pulverising machines are quite expensive. The process takes a few days, and then you have a deep, really intense colour pigment in the exact same colour as the flower head, ready to be used.

What value or purpose did you discover for the flower pigment?

We’re still working on that! In 2014, the first thing we did was use it to make paint. We produced several pots of paints in all sorts of colours. My father, who is a poet, gave the colours a name and we created a colour guide. But we realised pretty quickly that the market for sustainable paint is small and competition is tough. It’s too expensive to produce, and not at all profitable, or at least not yet. The next logical step was to use the pigment to colour textiles, but there’s no challenge in that. So we developed a way to use it as powder coating for furniture. You spray the pigment powder onto a surface and it creates a beautifully deep, natural coating. A new thing we’re working on now is compressing the powders, like the way you compress wood but without the formaldehyde. As it turns out, you can turn the powder into a pretty solid object when you put a 60 ton compressor on it. We’re still working on making the material stronger, but I can imagine the variety of products we could make from it: jewellery, small interior design objects, or even coins for festivals. All of that, with just a whole bunch of flower petals.

The work in progress is an end product in its own right.

What’s next for the tulip heads?

We’ve been working on this for three years – it’s a long process. TulipPigments is a project we initiated ourselves, and those kinds of projects are usually made up of two parts. On the one hand, we have something that’s very marketable: raw, sustainable materials that could be developed into something products can be made of. With the tulips, we have that beautiful raw material, but we haven’t developed it into something tangible. We’re doing many fantastic experiments, and there’s so many different roads we could take with this material. It’s very much a work in progress. But the work in progress is an end product in its own right. With the methods we’re using and the different perspective we provide, we’re pushing a tough industry like the flower industry to start seeing things in a different light and start to be more innovative. That story is already a fantastic result.