Tessa Silva: The Protein Project

Hi Tessa! Please, tell us a bit about yourself. I believe you have just graduated from an MA Design Products at Royal College of Art?

I'm a material investigator sitting within the fields of design and sculpture - process and form are prioritised over function in my work. I graduated from the Royal College of Art two years ago, where my interest in material experimentation led to the Protein project. 

We have heard much about Protein: your graduation project that has been both on Dezeen and most lately on Hole & Corner. Can you tell us about the concept behind Protein?

The project began with an interest in pre-industrial plastics, in particular the processes used to produce natural materials prior to the mass manufacture of synthetics. This led me to experiment with a variety of pre existing natural materials, including the milk-based material I now work with. The protein is extracted from cow's milk to form a clay-like putty that can be manipulated in various ways.

The dairy industry has been known to throw away skimmed milk due to the separation process used to make butter and cream - the project therefore utilises a material that would otherwise be wasted. I make objects completely from scratch in small batches and on a small scale, with no intention to mass produce any pieces from this material. It is an exploration of the potential uses of a surplus material, encouraging designers and makers to be more creative with the materials they use and explore the resources available.

It is also very much a process-led approach to design, whereby the systems and techniques I apply to the material inform the outcome. The most exciting aspect for me is the intensely hands-on process of making the material, creating my own set of rules and learning how to manipulate it. I feel that this is infinitely more interesting than buying a ready made material with an established set of instructions. 


You used waste milk sourced in a dairy farm in Sussex. How did you find the farm and what were the struggles with the initiation of the project?

I was put in touch with the farm through a colleague, and began building up a relationship with them over a few visits. They showed a great deal of interest and were extremely supportive of the project. The initial experimental phases of the project were challenging and required a lot of patience. Any exciting breakthroughs in terms of how to make and manipulate the material were all down to trial and error - with a lot of errors. 

During the first year I was never entirely sure what I was creating and how the material would react over time, but I knew that the project would be one that developed slowly and required the accumulation of a specific set of skills. I've been working on the Protein project for over two years now, and although I am very familiar with the process and material, I still make discoveries daily. 


Sustainability is an on-going topic that seems to pop up everywhere today. Was the aim of Protein reaching out towards a deeper awareness of sustainability?

I am weary of how the term 'sustainable' is used in relation to my work, as it is often applied to projects that do not necessarily support any sort of long-term ecological harmony. I take extreme care in sourcing milk for the project from organic farms that only produce milk on a small-scale - in no way is the project supportive of industrial farming or suggesting an increase in dairy production.

The project exposes the fact that most systems are not self-sustaining; there are always waste streams. By inserting myself in this particular system I'm able to exploit that waste, producing work without the need for excessive labour or materials. The intention is to discourage the mass consumption of oil based plastics and synthetics by creatively using a surplus material, with the aim to inspire similar thinking.


What was the reaction of your colleagues and of the general audience to Protein?

The project has been received with a diversity of reactions! Some people understand the concept instantly and are impressed with the outcome of the material, and others have repelled at the fact that the material is so unconventional and comes from both an animal and food product.

I enjoy this aspect of Protein, it hasn't failed to challenge perceptions of the material world. Initial research for the project emerged from my MA thesis, which explored notions of taboo and disgust in association with materials. The project is intended, at the very least, to create a catalyst for debate. 

Finally, do you see yourself pushing the project further or starting on a new sustainable project?

Protein is by no means wrapping up - I am only now at a point whereby I understand the technical aspects of the material enough to push the production of more refined pieces. I'm working on a new collection of small furniture pieces, experimenting with colour, texture, and form, that will showcase the variety of finishes the material is capable of achieving, and embody the research that has been carried out over the past years. 


You can find Tessa’s work at  http://www.tessasilva.com/