Jane ni Dhulchaointigh puts a lump of what she calls concrete sponge on the table. It is a curious blend of concrete and polystyrene balls, more specifically the kind found in bean bags, offering both solidity and a certain airiness in the same substance. "It has no real practical application," the 32-year-old concedes, "but it has a rather nice texture and looks interesting." Next comes what appears to be a wooden ball, made from a formulation of bathroom sealant and sawdust. "It appears wooden but look," she says, bouncing it on the floor. There seems no application for that either.
Dhulchaointigh was a sculptor and materials technologist manqué, drifting between studying various applied disciplines, "sometimes calling myself a designer, although I'm not very good at it", she says. "But I enjoyed messing about with materials and thought I could bring something to design through that." She has. The concept that shaped her Royal College of Art graduation show has, six years later, blossomed into a product that is little short of revolutionary. Eventually, every home will have some.
Dhulchaointigh's lightbulb moment came while washing up, struggling once again with an ill-fitting plug that allowed the water to drain away. So she took a piece of her sealant and sawdust concoction and moulded it around the plug for a temporary better fit. Her boyfriend suggested she had stumbled on an idea: a substance that allowed easy repairs or even improvements to everyday products.
"It was an awesome idea – to be able to think of everything as unfinished and half-made and for the consumer to complete," says Dhulchaointigh – such an awesome idea that before she had even left college, the corporate giants behind the likes of Blu-Tack, Pritt Stick and Sellotape all came knocking, although none were prepared to invest. "At that stage it was just a concept," says Dhulchaointigh. "But I was used to working with all sorts of materials – clays, silicones, resins, sealants, materials used in dentistry – and knew between those there had to be a way of creating a formula that would work."
There was – thanks to the help of Dhulchaointigh's now business partner, technologist Roger Ashby, and several investors of some foresight. The heavily-patented Sugru – the name has hints of "you", "glue" and the phonetic Irish for "play" – is a silicone-based putty that can be moulded into any shape, bonds to anything and sets hard in half an hour. It is dishwasher-proof. It can be peeled off. It is pleasant to touch. And it comes in four colours.
It launched online last summer with 1,000 little foil packets. But word had got out. All supplies were bought within six hours – "we suddenly found ourselves going to the Post Office to buy an awful lot of stamps", says Dhulchaointigh – such that Sugru's makeshift lab-cum-supply depot-cum-office, amounting to two rooms off an East London side-street, had to close or six months to scale up in order to meet demand. The six-person company has moved premises and reopened for business. It has orders from 63 countries and is soon to launch in the US.
There will be those who cannot grasp why this ingenious example of materials technology is as profound as it is, much more so than the likes of duct tape or the Post-It Note or Blu-Tack. In part Sugru's appeal is recessionary – why replace what can be fixed? It also lies in the demand for sustainability and in an anti-consumerist mood opposed to a deeply ingrained idea of disposability – that boom period mentality which convinced us to unthinkingly upgrade an object when bored with it, let alone whether or not it needed upgrading.
"Whether to replace or repair is a luxury problem for a throwaway culture but there has been a wider problem of generations growing up without tools to fix things themselves, as well as a design approach that makes things very hard to fix – in part because of the way they are made, in part because they demand too much expertise," suggests Joanna van der Zanden, curator, author of Curatorial Cooking (out next month) and co-founder of the Dutch design campaign group Platform 21, which started "Ikea hacking" – fixing together different flat-pack furniture items in a way that suits you rather than the instructions – and which last year released an influential Repair Manifesto. This calls on consumers and designers to see a deeper value in well-cared-for products in the way our grandparents would have done.
"There's a growing appreciation for the simple joy of being busy with your hands, and an appreciation that a repaired thing has its own beauty. More than that, there is the idea that the repair may also have its own innovation," van der Zanden adds. "Manufacturers will in time make more repairable products again. But technology like Sugru is allowing people to not only fix things but to improve them."
Indeed, while an estimated 25 per cent of Sugru users do so to repair, the rest are giving vent to their own inner designer – to, as Sugru's packaging has it, "Hack Things Better". "Products are designed to suit as many people are possible rather than to suit the needs of the individual," says Dhulchaointigh. "Sugru can just be a way of repairing – and, for what is actually a highly technical product, all that science can be followed by the fixing of a switch, or something small.
But I think of it as more of a tool to make things better," she adds. "It suggests that the designer of a product may not have got it quite right, that a small amendment would make it easier or more pleasurable to use. You have to buy into the notion of being able to shape all your stuff to make it more suitable for you rather than accepting what the manufacturer has offered. That's quite a radical idea."
With Sugru, the camera with the uncomfortable grip can have a new bespoke one. The pan handle that gets too hot can be insulated. Or, as one recent email to Dhulchaointigh put it, an intercom without a big-enough catch to securely support its receiver can now, after years of annoyance, finally do what it should have done in the first place.
"Not everyone is going to want to make things or control things in this way. And some people want all such choices made for them," says Dries Verbruggen of Belgian design agency Unfold, which has devised a concept for a 3D printer capable of "printing" in clay – another step towards consumer empowerment. "But we are moving back to a time when having control over objects will be normal."
It is no overstatement to say that that sense of control over one's physical environment hasn't been felt since the 1950s – when tinkering with the things we bought was natural. Sugru may be a step to redressing the balance. The huge "maker movement" in the US, for example, is seeing what was once the preserve of garden-shed hobbyists go mainstream, as organisations such as FabLab and TechShop provide enthusiasts with the tools to make their own products.
"Just as the internet has enabled the individual to regain some control in the virtual sphere, new technology will enable that in 3D," argues Max Fraser, curator of Lab Craft, a new touring exhibition from the Crafts Council showcasing makers and designers using high-tech mechanical systems – rapid prototyping, laser cutting, laser scanning, digital printing – to create craft objects from furniture to textiles and ceramics.
"Makers are taking technologies associated with perfection and uniformity and reconfiguring them for their world," adds Fraser. "The technology is still hard to access for most people, much as Xerox machines and desktop printers were when they were first launched, but as the price drops over time, these new technologies will be fully embraced as a means of creativity. The very idea of mass-production may become an old-fashioned one."
By then, Sugru may be an even better product. Dhulchaointigh is working on its next generation, solving problems such as the limited range of colours, the tackiness Sugru has when fresh out of the packet and, most crucially, its six-month shelf-life.
"I think Sugru has the same reach as Sellotape or Post-It Notes because its uses are so wide," Dhulchaointigh says. "This is the fun bit now and I don't want to rush it, but that's a very exciting idea. It will take some time before Sugru is that mainstream but the ways people are using it now are an early indicator that it could be that big. It's perhaps helping them discover that making the things we have better is so much more satisfying than replacing them."
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