Amid the creativity of Victoria Yards is the not-for-profit workshop Big Circle Studios, an experimental and innovative space focusing on sustainability, design innovation and alternative materials. Matthew Edwards cofounded the studio with Kiera Pettersson and together they are proud prototypers, engaging with the grassroots circular economy. The studio is a firm proponent of the African Circulatory Database, sharing knowledge and the archiving of materials, and focusing on a shared present of indigenous, sustainable and futuristic advancements in manufacture and design.
I interviewed Edwards, clad in Yeezy shoes, FIELDS cargo pants and beaming enthusiasm, at the studio, a space rich with the exhalations of kombucha leather, orange-peel coffee cups and the waste of the Victoria Yard’s neighbours metamorphosing into consumer products and New-Age materials. To his friends and the design world through his eponymous solo-company, he is known as Matte and is a multidisciplinary designer who has reached worldwide acclaim through his concept of “make-do” and processes led by materials. Aside from Big Circle Studios, a concept and ideology that deserves its own article, Edwards has provided designs and influential research and development for multiple brands, but not limited to, Adidas, Levi’s and Wanda Lephoto. Recent solo projects have included the terracotta lights of Pantry JHB and numerous offices and apartments across the City of Gold, and the striking trefoil of the Adidas V&A store. He reached semi-virality with his Moss shoes and his conceptual designs are as curious as they are groundbreaking. Contemporising and innovating the materials of mass consumption or cultural significance, he uses traditional and newfangled techniques, expanding on Johannesburg’s progression to a circular economy.
Who are you and what do you do?
I'm Matthew Edwards, founder of Matte, an experimental design studio in Johannesburg. I'm an industrial designer by training and have a strong interest in how products can be made in low-tech and experimental ways. I interact with grassroots waste systems, experimenting with and redesigning processes, products and materials to transform our dependence on single-use plastics and widespread waste.
I design and manufacture in a way that uses the resources around me. Processes are material-determined, and I used the concepts of low-tech manufacturing or make-do — the idea of creating with what is around you, which is quite relevant to production in the South African context. My practices are sustainable; as we are moving into this space of sustainable thinking, materials and processes become the two most important aspects of ethical manufacturing. ‘What’ and ‘how’ are the two things that inform my work and my thinking.
What have been some of your recent projects?
Through Matte, I produce pendant lights made from terracotta, designed with the idea of rethinking the way that clay has been used in SA. Clay is one of the oldest materials that we have, it's straight out of the ground, it's got so much significance in our continent regarding the narratives of clay products and surrounding cultures. However, I focused on how digital media could distort and disrupt the form of the material, I used a process called decimating or pixelating, which is essentially pixelating and de-resolving an existing pendant light through computer software. I used the process of slip-casting, creating a mould, pouring watery clay into it and when it is poured out, the shell of the light remains. It’s a really interesting way of manufacturing and it is replicable; I am able to make a few lights a day. The lights are gaining quite a bit of traction, so I'm hoping to expand the range and introduce a few more lights in a variety of colour ways.
I have a strong focus on sustainability, and I am always thinking about how to place that theory in a South African context. I do quite a bit of work for Adidas SA for one-of-one-concept shoes for display at their stores. At the end of last year, I did a trefoil for their new store at the V&A Waterfront. It was entirely made from recycled plastic. A way of showing people the possibilities of recycling from an aesthetic point of view, it's quite an intense visual.
A lot of your designs are conceptual or one-of-one rather than large scale or mass produced. Why this route?
My practice is as low footprint as possible, because I'm not expanding on the space the studio inhabits. A lot of what I do is batch produced or it's one-of-one, focusing on processes rather than looking at scaling up to an industrial level, a low-tech or make-do way of making. I love the idea of designs that purely live online, one-of-one releases that often don't see the light of day, but do tell a story. The pendant lights are my only solid, purchasable product, while the rest of my practice involves projects with brands, bricks in my house of design and innovation. I exist in the space between art and design, and something lives there, maybe living on a wall like the Adidas trefoil, but it’s a moment that I then move on from. The processes to make these experimental projects are intense and just as important as the finished project.
I keep going back to making-do with the spaces around us, the processes inform the outcome. The trefoil, for instance, I made little plastic tiles which were collected together to form the bigger trefoil, rather than trying to reach the scale of the project from the get-go. It is about how to use the machinery at hand to create something and being limited to their scale, ability and size, but then increasing not the scale of production, but the use of small elements to create something mind-blowing and impactful. In this space of considered creation, through being material-led, you find so many interesting things, processes and solutions to implement your ideas.
Elaborate on your Moss shoe and work with global companies?
I think corporates, particularly at the moment, are looking at sustainability very seriously as everyone should be. A lot of people are looking for answers, and when you explore sustainable materials, you offer a tangible one. Even if that answer is just a one-of-one concept that solely exists on social media, if it asks the right questions and provokes the right ideas, it can change people’s minds and freak them out a little bit. My work, especially when being put out into the world of advertising, media and social platforms, poses questions to the public, not necessarily offering a solution but providing a small part of the answer to the question of sustainability. My Moss shoe and its other iterations went semiviral, which I found deeply interesting. People were reacting that it was crazy, or it was cool or that they would never wear that in 2,000 years. I was confronting people with an object, which was important because rather than just focusing on alternative materials or sustainability, we told the story of these materials. Companies, designers and manufacturers need to bring people on the journey of sustainable materials and sustainable thinking, because that's the way we get buy-in from people.
A lot of brands struggle with spending all this money and time in research & development creating products that use less plastic or use recycled materials, and then look the same or drown within the tide of generic products. We live in a moment where it is so essential to be sustainable, and clearly, we are not doing enough, but there is so much potential to amplify these products, stories and processes and to get consumers on your side, as partners of the movement. I think that working with corporates is important, but we also have to be honest about their roles in producing and consuming and focusing on the responsibility of that, manufacturing within our means and within the spaces we inhabit or influence.
Big Circle Studios, Victoria Yards — bigcirclestudios.com