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Studio Sarmite: Harvesting, producing, designing pine skin leather through bark

«I extract the bark on my own and it’s not regularly harvested either. The final product ranges from earthy brown to pink to deep terracotta colors with a scent of wood» – Sarmite Polakova

Studio Sarmite learning from Sami tribe

A pine tree requires eighty to a hundred years to grow fullest and finest until it stops producing oxygen and is considered old enough to be taken down. These decisions are made by the legislation and forest owners to maintain the health of the forest and the overall quality of the ecological system. The Scandinavian tribe Sami used pine bark for their bread in the extremities of cold and knew the exact amount of bark that needed to be harvested so that the tree didn’t die.

This information intrigued Sarmite Polavoka, founder of Studio Sarmite, and made her dive further into this design project. In 2019 Studio Sarmite received a Worth Partnership Grant and partnered with a network of Latvian tree cutters and Seistag, a wood manufacturer from Spain, to create a product for interiors that embraced the particularity of local landscapes through surfaces and patterns seen in nature. Both in Latvia and the North of Spain, pine trees grow in abundance, but for various economic reasons, their future is endangered. 

Sarmite Polakova

Sarmite Polakova is a Latvian designer who spent her childhood playing in the forests in the village of Roja, near the seaside and forests of Latvia. Polavoka then moved to study architecture at Riga College and Kunst University Linz. She then studied design and art at the Art Academy of Latvia, where she got her Bachelor of Art in Product Design and completed her Masters from Design Academy Eindhoven.

After being tasked with a project, she could reconnect to her childhood roots, where she found the inspiration behind her work. In the beginning, Polavoka wanted to work with other materials such as herbs, flowers, leaves, and roots, but then she realized their instability, so she turned to pine bark instead. 

An unconventional approach to pine bark

At first, using pine bark, she was aware of its rustic texture, but when she got the samples back, she noticed the changes it had already begun to take on for its hardness. She consulted with Tjeerd Veenhoveen – a Dutch designer who was also working on incorporating natural materials in his work, on seeing how she could work around the material’s natural resistance.

Her project as a designer has required her to harvest the pine bark fines it, making it usable to be converted into the design for her final products: «Earlier it was a difficult, slow and gradual process, a sort of experiment at the start to understand the nature that pine skin as leather would turn out for my design. We work in a strictly limited parameter of design. The leather goes through its special cleaning, softening, and waxing procedure with natural ingredients. There are limitations in terms of width and organic structure. Organically, the bark fibers are woven vertically, which is a design constraint. It is further enhanced with color pigments and coated with wax, to maintain durability».

The skin presents holes on its surface because of the branches that shoot out of the trunk. It also has natural flexibility and thickness variations according to its height and age. These are the challenges that Polavoka had taken on, and it took her around three years to accept the entire process and the unique quality that this material provides. «I extract the bark on my own, and it’s not regularly harvested either. The final product ranges from earthy brown to pink to deep terracotta colors with a scent of wood».

Lampoon, new textures, shapes and structures, Studio Sarmite
Pine resin, sawdust, bark and cellulose become building blocks that together shape new textures, shapes and structures, Studio Sarmite

Inviting people to slow down and experience the forest’s tactility and smell

Such a design approach has never been applied to pine trees, and thus it makes it a material that feels familiar yet unseen. Products designed from pine skin leather invite people to slow down and experience the forest’s tactility and smell. Its natural texture prickles the senses: when walking barefoot on the bark rug, the bark pattern does not reveal all of its variety at first sight, but a closer look adds an element of surprise to the experience.

«The wood needs care – extreme heat and drenching will destructively affect it according to the core nature. To enhance the quality, it needs waxing and polishing. It’s neither wood nor leather». When asked about the source of her inspirations, she replies, «Designers and studios such as Fernando Laposse, Stine Mikkelsen, Studio Corkinho, Formafantasma, Pauline Esparon, Nienke Hoogvliet, Sebastian Cox and many more. The designers develop a conceptual approach to materials and let the material become the main carrier of the story»

Pine Resin: a glass-like composite

Polavoka had also been working on a collection of vases made with Pine Resin in a quest to discover new inputs from the byproducts of the timber industry. The glass-like composite pays tribute to the pine tree, the most industrialized tree globally. For this design collection, she has used pine resin, pine bark, sawdust, and charcoal to fuse them to shape new structures, functions, and aesthetics. With the help of natural pigments and varying proportions, the material differs in color and texture. 

Being a thermoplastic, Pine Resin can be re-melted and shaped back into the same or any new shape every time, and thus it lives a continuous life-cycle. Polavoka believes that designers and manufacturers should consider how their products live and how they die. Each broken design of her collection of vases made through this project is welcomed back, re-melted, redesigned on requests to be returned to the owner.

On a broader level, Polavoka looks at the resources of forests and aims to create alternative production paradigms for the tree cutting industry with less emphasis on timber production. 

Pre-loved Wool: an upcoming project

The upcoming project for Studio Sarmite is called Pre-loved Wool in collaboration with Mara Maizele, which aims to disrupt the concept of fabric as we know it. Once worn, torn, or dirty – clothing is considered expired. Upon buying new garments, consumers strive for pure blends, while mixed blends are associated with inferior quality. Polavoka and Mara aim at transforming textile waste into a new fabric. A textile invites the consumers to focus on the material as a whole and not individually.

The designers have combined techniques from traditional textile-making processes with experimentation and biomaterials, which led to new material discoveries. Ones that bring contemporary aesthetics celebrate each fiber’s previous lives and reveal traces of each worn garment through color and structural nuances.

The resulting material has a smooth, leather-like feeling and can be created in various thicknesses, colors, and pattern combinations. It is water repentant and can be sewed, glued, folded. The designers imagine the material as an alternative to leather within clothing and accessories.

The Studio received the New Material Design Award in Shanghai, 2020. Studio Sarmite has exhibited in Dutch Design Week (2015, 2018, 2020), ‘Earth Matters’ exhibition (2018) in Tilburg Textile Museum curated by Lidewij Edelkoort, MAISON&OBJET (2016), Design Week Shanghai (2019, 2020), and Milan Design Week (2016, 2019).

Studio Sarmite

Sarmite Polavoka owns Studio Sarmite, devoted to sustainable materials and design. A recent graduate of the Design Academy Eindhoven, where she completed her MA in Art, Social Design. Her work with natural materials involves harvesting, treating, and experimenting with neglected materials. She hopes that this approach results in social and philosophical changes for consumers. 

Jagrati Mahaver

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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