Meet the designers who use human hair to create commonplace items and artwork.
We produce a natural substance that may be used to make garments, ropes, and even building materials, yet much of it is wasted every day. But possibly not for very long. Through provocative items and installations, a new generation of designers is utilising the power of human hair to address themes related to the circular economy, identity, and beauty.
Dutch designer Sanne Visser described the material via video conference as being “very lightweight, flexible, oil absorbent, high in tensile strength — and it doesn’t require any extra energy, land, or water to grow.” Visser is showing a new installation for London Design Festival (LDF) this month after just finishing a residence at London’s Design Museum to investigate recycling human hair. Eight mirrors are suspended from ropes made from hair that was gathered from West London barbershops and salons in the piece titled “Extended.”
In order to highlight its durability and use hair as responsibly as possible, Visser uses ropemaking as a method throughout all of her creations. She cleans, sterilises, and washes the gathered waste hair after classifying it by colour and length, after which she delivers it to a spinner who uses a conventional spinning wheel to transform the strands into thread and yarn. The yarn is then fed into Visser’s own rope-making equipment to produce various varieties of rope that have been used to build swings, netting bags, shoulder straps, and dog leashes.
The hairdressers Visser approached to get discarded clippings from were dubious when she first started dealing with human hair six years ago. Many people responded negatively. However, it has gotten simpler as she has accumulated a body of work and as new programmes advocating the reuse of unwanted hair have grown. One of these programmes is Green Salon Collective (GSC), which recycles hair by working with hairdressers in the UK and Ireland. GSC works with manufacturers or designers (such as Visser) to transform hair into new items and products, such as building materials and hair booms (cotton or nylon tubes filled with hair cuttings used to deter oil from spreading in oceans and on beaches).
With the latter, GSC will collaborate with architecture and design firm Pareid on an installation that will also be on display at this year’s LDF and consist of two linked columns covered in hair and located in a salon in West London. For the “Chiaroscuro 1” project, the hair is felted and used as a surface covering.
Pareid has been experimenting with using human hair as a binder for mud bricks in order to create a fully immersive environment. However, the early prototypes don’t exactly have a lovely appearance: Hadin Charbel, a co-founder of Pareid, said in a video chat that “we are drawn to things that can be considered ugly or unattractive at first.” Waste like human hair has an unsavoury quality to it and a confronting aspect.
The work of French designer Alix Bizet, who uses hair to address topics of racialized identity, community experience, and oppressed beauty, likewise emphasises confrontation and challenging stereotypes. “The concept began when I learned that there is good hair and bad hair in society as a Black person. Looking at this trash, we can discover so much about civilization “Over a video conversation, she remarked.
Afro hair crown-like headpieces that Bizet made for the “Afro Hair Futurity” project in 2020 were shown alongside podcasts of conversations with people discussing their personal and professional experiences with afro hair. Bizet created clothing from felted human hair for earlier projects like “Exchange” (2016), “Hair Matter(s)” (2016), and “Hair by Hood” (2017). For “Hair by Hood,” the designer led discussions with students from London schools about how culture and identity are related to hair as well as the role that hair salons play in communities. Other initiatives have looked at the displacement effects of gentrification on Afro hairdressers in South London’s Peckham and how to decolonize museum collections by collecting more varied hair-related tales. In order to give prominence and empowerment to all tales of hair, especially afro hair, Bizet stated, “My purpose is to design for diversity and with diversity.
Anouska Samms, who utilises human hair to examine mythology and symbolism as well as familial identity, will display some of her remarkable hair-infused ceramic works as part of the group exhibition Unfamiliar Forms back at LDF. These are part of her continuing “Hair Series” (2019–2022), which consists of sculptural clay vessels and a tapestry made from human hair, primarily gathered through Instagram callouts, to explore maternal bonds. During a Skype call, Samms recounted, “I was always made fun of for my hair.” “It was simply enormous, curly, and ginger. I come from a long history of redhead women, and my mother and grandmother are ginger.”
In Samms’ big hanging tapestry “Big Mother” (2022), cotton and thread are woven with red human hair strands, some of which have been chemically dyed. Samms intends to draw on a lengthy legacy of weaving that is linked to women and the concepts of birth and creation via it. Her ceramic pieces, on the other hand, make reference to the long-standing association between women and pottery: women were the main potters in primitive communities.
Utilizing waste hair differs from using other waste items, such plastic bottles. Hair is both a private aspect of the human body and a renewable resource that can be used in innovative and useful ways. Even though programmes like GSC have the potential to expand its use, several designers are eager to emphasise the value of preserving personal ties and tales.
Bizet declared, “Hair is a living fibre.” “It does not follow that we are free to use it without giving consideration to its ethical implications just because we gather it as a waste product. The identity of hair is lost in the quick-paced capitalist society when it is used as a new fibre. Sanitization removes the personal element and story from the hair.”
Like Bizet, Visser is eager to link the donors of human hair to the pieces that they contributed. She hopes that ultimately each of the eight salons and barbershops from which she collected hair will become home to one of her “Extended” mirrors. Regular local customers will be able to see the wall-mounted mirrors there and realise that, most likely, their hair is what caused it to happen.