The Wick - Natsai Audrey Chieza, Faber Futures Founder & CEO, 2023. 
Image Credit: Ollo Weguelin
The Wick - Natsai Audrey Chieza, Faber Futures Founder & CEO, 2023. 
Image Credit: Ollo Weguelin
Monday Muse

Interview Biodesign trailblazer Natsai Audrey Chieza

Interview
Natsai Audrey Chieza
Photography
Ollo Weguelin
08 April 2024
Interview
Natsai Audrey Chieza
Photography
Ollo Weguelin
08 April 2024
Global resources are vanishing – yet consumption remains at an all-time high. How do we reconcile the needs of our population as we hurtle towards a climate emergency? Natsai Audrey Chieza is one of the people who might have some solutions.

As the founder and CEO of Faber Futures, the award-winning biodesign lab founded in 2018 in London, Chieza has spearheaded research into creating products from living matter, merging living systems, such as DNA-scale engineering, with the principles of critical design to find sustainable solutions for some of earth’s most urgent problems.

Chieza was born in Harare and moved to the UK aged 17. She initially trained in architecture, before completing a master’s at Central St Martins in Material Futures. It was during a stint working with Professor John Ward at UCL that Chieza became fascinated in the potential of synthetic biology. She went on to pioneer the use of streptomyces, a type of bacteria, to dye fabric – a chemical-free process that also cuts down on water waste.

Since then, Chieza has been an unstoppable force for change across several industries simultaneously: her work has been exhibited at the V&A, The Design Museum, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation and Harvard Art Museums. She has become an advocate for biophilic society, not least through her widely watched TED talks on the intersecting issues of fashion, design, tech, and nature, which have been watched by millions. Here, Chieza tells us more about why scientists and engineers need to collaborate more outside the box, key pieces in her new biodesign lifestyle brand Normal Phenomena of Life, and why she would love to collaborate with Björk.

THE WICK:   You refer to your work as being at the intersection of nature, design, technology, and society. Why is it so important to bring these areas together?

Natsai Audrey Chieza:   We are in the midst of an ecological and geopolitical crisis, therefore how we design living systems for more sustainable supply chains, for example, is not just a technical question for scientists and engineers in the lab to consider alone: it requires the whole of society to determine this.

TW:   You launched the first ‘grown to order’ biodesign lifestyle brand, Normal Phenomena of Life. Can you tell us about a key piece and how it’s made?

NAC:   The Exploring Jacket, is a technical smock designed by Louise Bennetts, fermented by Biorenewables Development Centre and manufactured by Fabrika. It’s made from ethically sourced made-to-order silk and is dyed beautifully by a pigment-producing, soil-dwelling microbe. This water efficient and toxin-free unique finish is created by fermenting the bacteria on the textile using microbial dye biotechnology developed in-house at Faber Futures. The finished garments smell like rain, owing to the fact that the same bacteria used to dye the silk is also responsible for the petrichor scent we associate with a shower.

TW:   Can you tell us about your recent collaboration with artist Kelvyn Smith?

NAC:   ‘Lessons from the Living World’ is a limited edition of 25 prints created with a black ink made by biotech company Living Ink Technologies. The ink is made from waste algae recovered from industrial algae farming. We commissioned typographer and letterpress artist Kelvyn Smith to respond to this material. His interpretation is a meditative tryptic on humility and gratitude for the life-giving force of this oxygen-producing organism.

TW:   How do you hope your work with Faber Futures and NPOL will influence the wider worlds of fashion and design?

NAC:   I hope that our work demonstrates that it’s not enough to change ingredients and inputs; designing better relations between all stakeholders, our planet included, is critical. We also hope our work prompts others to consider how what they are pursuing enables planetary flourishing for generations to come, to recognise the power we all have as cultural producers. Culture leads technology.

“I hope that our work demonstrates that it’s not enough to change ingredients and inputs; designing better relations between all stakeholders, our planet included, is critical.”

TW:   What do you think the fashion industry will look like in 10 year’s time?

NAC:   I am less optimistic that real systemic change will be led by the big players. I’m interested in how biotechnology itself enables new business models to open.

TW:   Collaboration is a big part of your work. Which artist would be your dream collaborator and why?

NAC:   I’d say my dream collaboration would be with Björk. She’s been a wellspring of inspiration for me since I was a young and impressionable teenager and having grown up in quite a conservative society in Zimbabwe I’ve always found that a little curious. She’s modeled how otherliness can be reclaimed and nurtured on one’s own terms.

TW:   Desert island quarantine: one artwork, book, and album you would take with you?

NAC:   I’d take my most portable stone sculpture by Zimbabwean artist Taylor Nkomo. His work is one of many examples of his generation whose work is rooted in the spiritual traditions of the Shona people. I’d select “Daughters of Africa,” an anthology curated by Margaret Busby, featuring the works of over 200 women of African descent spanning from ancient times to the present. Busby likened the task of compiling the anthology to “trying to catch a flowing river in a calabash”. I would take Nils Frahm’s Music For Animals. I’ve played it almost every day in different scenarios including at the gym during HIIT!

TW:   In the time capsule of life, what would be your lasting piece of advice?

NAC:   Choose to be kind.

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

NAC:   Tony Morrison has helped me really see the world. All of her writing is utterly spellbinding and her essays on technology are no different – her intersectional analysis of technology was way ahead of its time.


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