Meet Marilu Valente: Sustainable Designer Extraordinaire

By Jody McCutcheon

The market for sustainability is hot right now, and getting hotter every day. This is welcome news, as more and more people–producers and consumers alike–seek the kind of future ecological certainty that sustainability promises. While many established designers have changed their focus to embrace green practices on the fly in their respective fields, more and more up-and-comers have graduated from programs focused exclusively on green methodologies and philosophies. In fact, it could even be said that the designers emerging from these programs have become, more or less, saviors and guardians of the planet.

One such savior is Marilu Valente. A young designer and visionary, Ms Valente is working towards  a sustainable future we all can enjoy. As her website  so  aptly puts it, she approached her academic interests of sustainable architecture and biomimetic design with hopes of achieving “a more intelligent and efficient build environment.”

Valente creates everything from eco-friendly architecture to furniture to technology to consumer products. Her green-centric products and technology include her award-winning biomorphic table and first-prize-winning Nepenthes shampoo bottle, as well as the Oceanid water recycling toilet system. Architectural and infrastructural projects include her boxcar/shipping container Intercity House and what she calls a Viscous Bridge, which is constructed from bioplastic material stretched between two surfaces.

She’s also engaged in various community initiatives. Shortly after graduating, she found placement at The Crystal in London, a Siemens-sponsored sustainable cities initiative. There’s also New Energy, a public art installation that harnesses wind power to produce electricity; ReHub, a program that offers recyclers credits they can redeem for products from participating businesses; and Binee, a smart recycling program and recycling educational tool.

Here, in this exclusive interview, we learn what and who inspires Valente, and why she thinks design can truly change the world.


Vicious Bridge: bioplastic inspired

Why did you go into design, and specifically sustainable design? What got you to start thinking about sustainability?

I chose to study architecture because it is at the intersection of art and science. Since I liked both subjects, I thought this would be a good compromise. However, reality differs greatly from the expectations I had back then. Architecture is its own subject, one with a very narrow focus. So at the end of my first year, I was actually ready to give up on studying architecture until I discovered sustainable architecture and the impact that such a discipline can have on the environment. Buildings are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. By finding clever ways of designing them, you can drastically reduce the energy consumed inside them. Basically, sustainability is what kept me going–sustainability not only in terms of building design, but also extended to the design of objects we use every day.


Bioplastic desk

What designers have inspired you?

I grew as a designer by looking at buildings designed by star architects such as Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Richard Rogers. In my later academic years, I discovered the extraordinary minds of Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller. The latter were extremely influential in the development of my design approach. Lightweight structures inspired by the analysis of natural phenomenon and experimenting with different types of materials were very tangible design processes I could relate to. My inspiration also comes from bio-mimicry, which is a subject that fascinates me. In this field, pioneers like Janine Benyus and William McDonough are also great inspirations. In nature, the very concept of waste doesn’t exist; why on earth do we keep producing so much waste every day? This is an example of a question I would ask myself when designing something.


Abalone house, inspired by the natural shape of shells

Do you envision the future of sustainable architecture/design as something that’s accessible to all, or only to the privileged (i.e., wealthy) few?

Listening to the market, I find that more and more green products are being designed, and big companies enabling mass consumption are very attracted by these innovations. So we will eventually reach a point where mass production will also have to shift towards sustainable manufacturing techniques and distribution methods, so in my opinion more people will have access to sustainable products. At least I hope so, and I am also fighting hard to get there!


Oceanid water efficiency toilet system

What are some of the methods of sustainability you use in your own daily life?

I am a member of a great initiative organised by local farmers who grow fruits and vegetables in the vicinity of where I live, so I only (with a few exceptions) eat locally grown vegetables. I also really want to start making my own DIY natural shower-gels and shampoo. And I cycle to work!

What is one bad habit you’d like to eliminate from your life but are having a hard time doing so? (For me it’s eating meat!)

I really do not see the point of having to throw away the container and buy a new bottle every time the shampoo runs out. I would love to enter a supermarket one day and refill my shampoo bottle instead of buying a new bottle, or for there to be a refilling station where I could bring my own bottle and refill it with the content I want.


Nepenthes sustainable personal products bottle


Whether materials or production methods or something else, what in your opinion is the biggest sustainability issue facing the architecture/design world today?

Here I would separate architecture from product or industrial design. In the architectural field, finding alternative materials is a big sustainability issue that the sector faces. Metal, glass and concrete are the materials most widely used for construction; introducing more natural, ecological alternatives would be a great achievement. For industrial and product design, the big challenge designers face in terms of sustainability is how to influence people’s behavior towards more sustainable habits. In this regard, designers have a major role to play and can really make a difference!


Jody McCutcheon

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