Small Living

Plastic Fantastic

Adam Fairweather and Rosalie McMillan want to change your perceptions about waste. The design duo behind the UK materials design and manufacturing house, Smile Plastics, are using art and technology to unlock the hidden potential of recycling with dramatic results.

Photo: Kristy Noble.

We first encountered Smile Plastics in Dusky Parakeet in London, showcasing the work of 31/44 Architects and their transformation of a humble houseboat into a calm and contemporary home. Smile Plastics was responsible for the material used for both the kitchen surfaces and cabinet fronts and its subtle marbled, almost terrazzo, quality lends a quiet modernity to the compact space. The aesthetic and philosophical appeal of these materials is not lost on luxury brands such as Stella McCartney, Christian Dior, and iconic UK department stores, Selfridges and Liberty which all feature on Smile Plastics’ recent client list.  

We recently caught up with Adam to talk about making kitchen surfaces out of yoghurt pots, his design process and the narratives begging to be found in the things we throw away.

Rosalie and Adam as featured in Heal’s Discovers, a UK platform for emerging design talent, in 2017. Photo: Heal’s.

NTS: How did you come to be doing what you do? 

Adam Fairweather: I’ve always been fascinated by materials and how they evolve over time. During my industrial design degree 18 years ago I became interested in how celebrated experiences like drinking coffee are enjoyed for such a short space of time and their ‘waste’ coffee grounds hastily discarded, their value suddenly lost after the espresso is made. I started designing materials and concepts that could extend the life of the coffee bean beyond the cup of coffee. I have since been involved in making biochar and fertiliser out of spent grounds as well as high-value panel materials made from various composites of bioplastics, recycled plastics and coffee grounds.  These materials have been used in furniture and fittings as well as in products such as the exterior of Sanremo’s Verde Coffee Machine.  

Our relationship with materials is a complex one and people often don’t see the value of the materials they use beyond their present function.  Packaging is usually designed to be used once in a very short life and then discarded.  My focus has now expanded to making beautiful products from a variety of waste materials in an effort to encourage us all to value the materials around us for longer, and therefore discard less. 

Smile Plastics itself dates back to the early 90s making decorative panels from recycled plastics. The business closed down in 2010 and my partner Rosalie and I took the reins in 2014, evolving the business to its present day. 

NTS: What inspires you in your design process?

AF: For me, it is usually the materials themselves that provide the direct inspiration for my designs. I start by exploring the waste materials themselves to understand their intrinsic value and their potential in a new life, looking at their quality, colours, textures, patterns etc. in combination with other waste materials. I then go about re-imagining them through our production processes into panel materials that are beautiful and can be cherished by people for a long time.

Smile Plastics table top as featured in Granville Park. Design: 2 Lovely Gays, Photo: Megan Taylor.

NTS: What are you looking to achieve with Smile Plastics?

AF: Our mission at Smile Plastics is to encourage us all to value the materials around us more and therefore waste less. We do this by re-imagining end-of-life materials into beautiful new products that tell a story and that people can connect with. The materials themselves usually have a strong narrative that is shared directly through the colours and patterns in the panels themselves, and we pride ourselves in making some of the highest quality and striking decorative materials around that can be used for wide-ranging applications in both commercial and residential spaces around the world.

At the moment we have one small microfactory in Wales but we are looking to start building a distributed network of microfactories around the world taking local waste streams and transforming them into panels and products for local markets around the world. 

NTS: How significant is the rise in demand for sustainable materials?

AF: We’ve certainly seen a growing demand for sustainable materials. This is no doubt driven by a building realisation that we have been destroying our planet for too long, using up finite resources and causing climate change. There are far better approaches to building an economy that is fundamentally embedded in the idea of the circular economy that eliminates waste and works in harmony with nature. There are some really fantastic sustainable materials out there now where designers don’t need to compromise on quality or aesthetics to meet their needs.

Smile Plastics vanity as featured in Granville Park again. Design: 2 Lovely Gays. Photo: Megan Taylor.

NTS: What different types of waste materials make up your current range?

AF: Smile Plastics’ current classics range consists of seven different product types that are made from plastic packaging including yoghurt pots, cosmetic pots, medical trays and other food packaging.  We also work on custom materials where we choose other waste streams for the aesthetics or technical properties that they will offer or for the interesting narrative behind those materials.

NTS: What’s the strangest or most ambitious waste product you’ve experimented with?

AF: We were commissioned a year or so ago to make a material made with embedded cigarette butts in it which proved technically quite challenging.

NTS: What advice can you offer people who are renovating or building and want to make responsible choices in the materials they use? Where should they start?

AF: These days there are so many more sustainable and inspiring choices for construction projects from the design itself to minimise energy usage, to walls (recycled insulation, recycled bricks etc), then to your choice of your fixtures and furniture.  There are now loads of resources on the internet to educate and inspire if you have the time. 

NTS: What does sustainable, small-footprint living mean to you? 

AF: It’s about thinking about all aspects of your current living arrangements, taking small steps to diminish any negative impacts on your environment and doing what you can to improve the world around you.

Smile Plastics splash back and bench top as featured in Herne Hill Road. Design: Indie & Co. Photo: Daniel Morgan.

NTS: Are there other innovative and sustainable brands that excite you?

AF: The companies that are most exciting to me at the moment are those that are taking ‘used’ furniture and computers and then refurbishing them ‘like new’ for a second life. It’s a fundamental part of the circular economy that is often overlooked and needs to be explored more.  

NTS: Our audience is spread across the world. How can NTS readers get their hands on your products?

AF: We are exporting globally at the moment so do drop us an email if you’re interested in any of our products. Over the next few months, we will start looking to take on some distributors, and soon after that explore building a micro-production facility closer to you.