Marjan van Aubel (born 1985, The Netherlands) is better known as the ‘solar designer’, since she integrates solar technology naturally into our daily lives, turning everyday objects into power sources: a window, a table or a glassware are not only furniture or common items, but also power sources that generate electricity.
This might sound quite futuristic or imaginative, but it’s the present and there is a real transformative process in her projects, which are mostly inspired by sustainability and nature. We can see, for example, organic designs that technologically simulate the photosynthesis in plants, adding a double function to the objects: whether you are drinking from your glass or having a rest in a table, they’re absorbing energy from the light that surrounds them.

The Dutch inventor seems to reflect on the way we interact with objects, obtaining the answers from the minimalistic and simple functions of nature. Thanks to this approach, her conception of the power of the sun together with Design is making us rethink our relationship with energy and the aesthetics we find around. “Solar cells no longer have to function as an add-on technology, where we only focus on efficiency and cost, but can be a beautiful, natural part of our surrounding”, she explains.

She has exhibited at world-class institutions such as the V&A (London), the Design Museum (London) and the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam). Her work is also part of the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York, the Vitra Design Museum, Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, The Montreal Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. Marjan came to Madrid for the first time to give a masterclass at IED, where amazed by the solar energy of the city, we could talk about the possibilities of energetic efficiency through intelligent design.
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You are known as the ‘solar designer’, redefining our current relationship with solar technology by integrating it in our domestic lives. When and why did you start to experiment with that?
I think I started when I was studying my Master’s degree (Design Products MA) at the Royal College of Art in London. Colour glass is beautiful and aesthetic, and it’s a sort of productive surface as well, so I was just thinking at my graduation that if a glass surface could be productive, then it could be everything around. This is a technology that works also indoors, charging electricity. So I made this cabinet of glass that was producing electricity just with this first idea: What if every object in your house could be a solar cell?
When you work on this sort of projects, how long does it take you to materialize the idea?
It depends a bit on which kind of project is it. It can take from a couple of months to two years. I collaborate regularly with scientists and engineers, so I design with their technology – for example, for the table, I collaborated with a company in Switzerland. The cabinet with the glass took me a couple of months because I went to the lab and learned how to make these solar cells. I started making them myself from blueberry juice because the inventor, Michael Graetzel, discovered this technology like that: he started to look into chlorophyll in plants and was able to duplicate it using blueberry juice. So I went to the lab to make my solar cells more efficient and developed that together with the lab.
How can intelligent design improve our lives? We can save money, be respectful with the environment…
It can go in different directions. If you make the cost calculation of how much money you can save by charging a phone, it’s not really that much. But if you think of it on a bigger scale and include everything around us that could be charging itself, then it’s different – you don’t need external electricity anymore! But it all starts with this awareness of where electricity comes from.
When you plug something, you have no idea how energy/electricity is being made. But if you know that your table needs a certain amount of light to generate it, then you start to understand how it’s made. It’s a bit like in the past, when we had to go to the forest to cut trees to make a fire. That way, you know how much work and effort it takes to make it, and also, what you take back from it. But again, the first step is to change our perception and awareness in a way that is beautiful and that doesn’t require much work. Because if all these services here are generating power, then we can change things.
You also experiment with different materials like resin or wood – like in the work Well proven chair.
Yes, it was bio-resin. A curious chemical reaction occurs when mixing timber waste with bio-resin: it expands into a strong, foam-like material almost twice its size.
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You are the founder of the award-winning sustainable design collective Caventou. Can you tell us about this project?
It’s a company I founded to bring the projects to the market and focus more on the research and development of, for example, power plants, and to think about how to implement them from a designer’s perspective. I work with bigger companies to create on a bigger scale.
The speech you are giving today at IED is framed under the series of talks that encourages to change minds and make a positive change. What would you like students to keep in mind after your speech?
It’s nice to talk to students about how you get through, I mean, not only the result but how you got there. What works and what doesn’t, how to work in collaboration with someone else, the process, etc. is what I would have liked to hear as a student.
For example, your collaboration with Swarovski. Are you the one who looks for it? How does it come up?
It depends. Sometimes, I go to the companies and introduce myself, but in this case, Swarovski came to me because they awarded me with the prize Design of the Future. That’s how I got this collaboration, which means you can use their crystals, teams, and facilities.
What are you working at the moment?
I’m working with the ECN (Energy Centre of The Netherlands) to design and develop new products within the domestic field that integrate solar energy/systems. We’re working on small objects, on a small scale, so they can be portable and don’t require a big system. I live in the centre of Amsterdam and I don’t have access to a big solar roof, so this is the first step. We’re just getting started!
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