Meet designers who create objects and art every day with human hair

Written by the author Francesca Perry, CNN

There is a natural product that we grow that can be used to make clothes, ropes and even building materials, much of which is wasted every day. But maybe not for long. An emerging wave of designers is harnessing the power of human hair to harness themes of the circular economy, identity and beauty through provocative objects and installations.

“It is very light, flexible, oil-absorbing, with high tensile strength, and does not require additional energy, soil or water to grow,” Dutch designer Sanne Visser said in a video call. Having recently completed a residency at London’s Design Museum exploring the recycling of human hair, Visser will present a new installation at the London Design Festival (LDF) this month. Entitled ‘Extended’, it features eight mirrors hanging from ropes made from hair collected from west London salons and barbershops.

Visser uses stringing as a technique in his projects with hair, both to emphasize its strength and to use it in the most permanent way possible, without the need for other materials. Sorting the collected waste hair according to color and length, it sterilizes and washes it, and then sends it to a spinner who turns the strands into yarn using a traditional spinning wheel. Visser then feeds the yarn into his rope machine to make different types of rope, which have been used to create dog leashes, mesh bags, shoulder straps and buckles.

Using traditional ropemaking and spinning, Visser creates everyday items like bottles made from human hair. Credit: Sanne Visser

When Visser started working with human hair six years ago, the hairdressers he approached to cut the scraps were skeptical. Many said no. As a job is completed, however — and as new initiatives that promote the reuse of hair scraps grow — it has become easier. One such initiative is the Green Salon Collective (GSC), which works with hair salons in the UK and Ireland to recycle hair. GSC collaborates with manufacturers or designers (including Visser) to turn hair into new objects and products: from hair booms (cotton or nylon tubes filled with hair clippings to stop oil spills on seas and beaches) to building materials.

In the latter, GSC works with architecture and design studio Pareid, also at this year’s LDF, on an installation consisting of two interconnected columns covered in hair, in a salon in West London. The hair used for the project, called “Chiaroscuro 1”, is felted and applied as a surface coating.

The title "Light-light I," By design studio Pareid, it features two strands of blended human hair.

Entitled “Chiaroscuro I”, design studio Pareid brings together two columns of intertwined human hair. Credit: Andy Keate

Pareid wants to make a fully immersive space using human hair and has experimented with using it as a binder for mud bricks. Early prototypes don’t look pretty, though: “We’re attracted to things that might be ugly or attractive at first,” Pareid founder Hadin Charbel said in a video call. “Debris like human hair have a certain quality to them, they have this element of confrontation.”

Confrontation and challenging perception were also central to Alix Bizet’s work, working with hair to address issues of racial identity, community experience, and marginalized beauty. “As a black person, I discovered that there is good and bad hair in society, that’s where the project started. Looking at this discarded material, we can learn so much about society,” he said in the video call.

In a 2020 project called “Afro Hair Futurity,” Bizet created crown-like heads with Afro hair, along with interview podcasts with people talking about their personal and professional experiences with Afro hair. For projects such as “Exchange” (2016), “Hair Matter(s)” (2016) and “Hair by Hood” (2017), Bizet made costumes, including hoodies with felted human hair; In workshops with London school students called “Hair by Hood”, the designer encouraged discussions about how culture and identity relate to hair and the role hairdressers play in communities. Other projects have explored the displacing impact of gentrification on Afro hairdressing salons in Peckham, South London, and how to decolonize museum collections by gathering more diverse hair stories. “My goal is to design for and with diversity, giving visibility and empowerment to all hair narratives, including Afro hair,” Bizet said.

Back at LDF, Anouska Samms — who uses human hair to explore identity at the family level, as well as to question mythology and symbolism — will show some striking hair-infused ceramic pieces as part of the group show Unfamiliar Forms. These are her ongoing “Hair Series” (2019-2022), which uses human hair — mostly collected through Instagram solicitations — to create clay vessels and a tapestry as a way to reflect on maternal relationships. “I was always teased about my hair,” Samms recalled in a video call. “She was gorgeous, curly and ginger. My mother and grandmother are ginger, and I come from a long line of red women.”

In the Bizet project "The future of Afro hair" shows crown heads made of Afro hair.

Bizet’s “Afro Hair Futurity” project shows crown heads made of Afro hair. Credit: Boudewijn Bollmann

Samms’ large hanging tapestry, “Big Mother” (2022), weaves locks of red human hair (some artificially dyed) with cotton and thread. Through this, Samms hopes to refer to a long tradition of weaving linked to women and the idea of ​​birth and creation. Her ceramic vessels, on the other hand, touch on the ancient relationship between ceramics and women: in prehistoric societies, women were the main potters.

Using waste hair is not the same as using other waste, such as plastic bottles. Hair is an intimate human material and a sustainable resource that can be harnessed in practical and creative ways. While initiatives like GSC offer the opportunity for increased use, some designers are quick to point out the importance of maintaining personal narratives and connections.

“Hair is a living fiber,” said Bizet. “Just because we collect it as a melted material, it does not mean that we are free to use it without thinking about ethical aspects. This fast capitalist world of using hair as a new fiber takes away its identity. Through sanitization, it does not mean that hair will lose its human aspect and its narrative. ».

Like Bizet, Visser wants to connect works that use human hair to the people who donated it. He hopes his “Extended” mirror will eventually find a home in the eight salons and barbershops where he collected his hair. There, regular customers of the place can see the mirrors hanging on the wall and probably know that their hair has been done.

London Design Festival It will be from September 17 to 25, 2022.

Image above: Clay sculpture decorated with ginger hair, part of Samm’s “Hair Series”.