Sustainable design interviews: a conversation with Keep Life

in sustainable interviews

As part of the fully digital edition of Milan Design Week 2020, I’ve had the pleasure to be a media partner for Isola Design District (opened in a new window/tab), a district focused on emerging designers and sustainable design.

On that occasion, I’ve had some interesting conversations with young and resourceful designers that are exploring new paths to make the design industry more sustainable.

One of them is Keep Life (opened in a new window/tab), which is both the name of a brand and of a sustainable material obtained from dried fruit shells (hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios and peanuts).

A piece of Keep Life with a nut on top.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Keep Life (opened in a new window/tab)

The thing about Keep Life that has struck me since the beginning is that it’s perfectly in line with biophilic design and my overall design philosophy (it's not by chance that I also featured it among my highlights from Milan Design Week 2020 that merge biophilic & sustainable design).

Besides being a sustainable material, Keep Life embodies an identity rooted in respect and celebration of nature.
Indeed, Keep Life is not a recycling project, but a continuity one. It tells the story of a shell that – having concluded its function on the tree – continues its life in the shape of objects made with Keep Life.

So let’s explore this fascinating project by talking to its creator Pietro Petrillo!
Scroll to the end of this article to watch the video version of this interview

Let’s start from the very beginning. How did you come up with the idea of Keep Life?

The idea for this project came at the end of 2015 during Christmas time.
Here in Southern Italy (I’m from Campania) we traditionally eat a lot of dried fruits at Christmas time. And I realized that all those shells were almost creating a problem, as they were one more thing to dispose of.

So I started observing them. The first feature that caught my eye was that the different sizes & colours in the shells created a harmonic coat on the table.

Soon after, that same dinner table became a working table where I started discovering more about dried fruits shells.
Firstly, different shells have different mechanical properties. For instance, an almond shell has a double layer that gives it better resistance with respect to a chestnut or peanut shell.
I also discovered that shells contain lignin – a substance that is also contained in tree trunks. And here is where I got more convinced that shells could actually become a material, one that represents a continuity process.
So I kept experimenting and eventually got a patent for industrial invention at the beginning of 2017.

Close-up view of crushed dried shells.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Keep Life (via Instagram) (opened in a new window/tab) - Photo by Oscar Vinck

From a practical point of view, how do you transform dried fruits shells into a wood-like material like Keep Life?

Production happens in several stages. To start with, we sort shells by mechanical characteristics and by colour, separating different grain sizes.
Next comes a grinding phase, where shells are sieved to create different textures into the final products. This phase is what determines the composition of the material itself.
After that, shells are mixed with a binder (that doesn’t contain harmful substances like formaldehyde). The mixture is laid into moulds and then left to dry naturally for at least 20-30 days.
Once cured, the material is processed with traditional joinery tools or numerical control machines that shape the final products.
Overall, it’s a pretty old-style process that we chose because we want to revive and value artisanal production.

The material is extracted from its mould.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Keep Life (opened in a new window/tab)

As a material, Keep Life has a very deep connection with nature. Could you share a bit more about that?

Keep Life’s mission is keeping shells alive. We achieve that by continuing a process initiated by Mother Nature and transforming shells into a versatile material that can be used for objects (lamps, containers, tables) or other interior applications (wall panelling for instance).

As a material, Keep Life wants to recall the woods and nature itself, which explains its slightly primordial aspect.
Also, it stimulates all 5 human senses. Besides its highly tactile surface, it also has an olfactory aspect to it. The smell of dried fruits remains recognizable on objects made with Keep Life for a pretty long time after production!

What does the word “sustainability” mean to you?

To me, the term sustainability means a conscious use of design.
Designing an object without choosing its materials carefully is like designing it in a lab! In other words, it’s essential to think about what happens at the end-of-life stage.

This is the mistake that was made with plastic. At the beginning of the 90’s, plastic was born as an ecological material, to substitute materials coming from animals. But then, overuse and wrong use turned it into a polluting material.

In the case of Keep Life, its premises are sustainable, but its good use lays in a virtuous community that takes the concept of the material to heart and uses it at its best!

A vase made of Keep Life and ceramic leftovers.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Keep Life (opened in a new window/tab)

Since Keep Life comes as an alternative to wood, which have been (or still are) the difficulties you’ve faced? I mean both technically in the making process and – from a communication point of view – in proposing an alternative to a material like wood, that’s so rooted in the tradition.

Well, initially Keep Life was confused with cork. So the first difficulty has been in showing the material for what it really is. This is important also because Keep Life can stand treatments that cork can’t stand (like processing under a numerical control machine where cork could burn).

Do we want to substitute wood? Absolutely not! Keep Life is just an alternative, a little dot, a link connecting nature and men.
Substituting wood would seem pretty absurd to me. We even use wood in our processes. For instance, we make some of our moulds with fir wood!

From a practical point of view, how do you collect shells? Is there a way to support you?

Well, we do activate public campaigns to recover shells, especially during Christmas time. This is also a communication action to show that we exist and we work with this type of material (that used to be employed only as fuel or to drain soil).

Even though we’ve seen good results from these campaigns, we cannot rely on them only. The biggest part of shells is recovered from companies working with dried fruits that take care of the shelling phase.

A nut cracker made of Keep Life.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Keep Life (opened in a new window/tab)

Coming back to your goal of supporting the environment on a wider level. I’ve seen you're also in contact with local & national authorities to support the development of greener cities. How are you moving in this sense?

Our vision is indeed increasing global greenery by planting more fruit trees.
In practice though, it’s always pretty complex to interact with authorities.
Our final objective would be to plant our own orchard and start a cultivation from scratch!

Our world is in urgent need for sustainable development in all fields. In your opinion, what would speed up the change in the interior design industry?

Surely what we’re doing today is extremely important to speed this process up.
So I’d say communicate, express our thoughts openly and discuss about them.

The rest lays in our hands and our mind. As designers, we have the power and the responsibility to create conscious designs and continue on this path despite the difficulties. Because launching a material like Keep Life and pursuing this approach is indeed very hard. We’ve just made one first step ahead so far, and we’ve been here since 2015!

Marble containers with a Keep Life lid.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Keep Life (opened in a new window/tab)

I wish you to walk many more steps ahead because this is such a worthwhile project! Many thanks to Pietro for joining me in this interview!

DforDesign X Isola Design District.
This interview is an editorial collaboration with Isola Design District.


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