There is a natural product that we grow ourselves that can be used to make clothes, ropes and even building materials — and much of it is thrown away every day. But maybe not for long. A new wave of designers is harnessing the power of human hair to address issues of the circular economy, identity and beauty through provocative objects and installations.
“It is very light, flexible, oil absorbent, with high tensile strength – and requires no additional energy, land or water to grow,” Dutch designer San Visser said via video call. Having recently completed a residency at the Design Museum in London to explore the recycling of human hair, Visser is presenting a new installation for this month’s London Design Festival (LDF). Entitled ‘Extended’, it consists of eight mirrors suspended from ropes made from hair collected from salons and barbershops in West London.
Visser adopts rope production as a technique in his projects with hair, both to emphasize its strength and to use it as sustainably as possible, without the need for other materials. Sorting the collected waste hair by color and length, she sterilizes and washes it, then sends it to a machine that turns the strands into thread and yarn using a traditional spinning wheel. Visser then fed the yarn into his own rope machine to make various types of rope that were used to create dog leashes, mesh bags, shoulder straps and swings.
Using rope making and the traditional spinning wheel, Visser creates everyday objects such as bottle holders from human hair. credit: Sane Visser
When Visser started working with human hair six years ago, the hairdressers he approached to request scraps were skeptical. Many said no. As the work piles up, however – and as new initiatives promoting the reuse of waste hair grow – it gets easier. One such initiative is the Green Salon Collective (GSC), which works with hairdressers in the UK and Ireland to recycle hair. GSC collaborates with manufacturers or designers (including Visser) to turn hair into new objects and products, from hair darts (cotton or nylon tubes filled with hair used to stop oil from spreading into seas and beaches) to building materials.
The latter sees GSC working with architecture and design studio Pareid on an installation also at this year’s LDF, consisting of two interlocking, hair-covered columns in a West London salon. The hair used for the project titled “Chiaroscuro 1” is felted and applied as a surface coating.
Titled “Chiaroscuro I,” by design studio Pareid, it brings together two columns of intertwined human hair. credit: Andy Keith
Pareid sought to make a fully immersive space using human hair and experimented with using it as a binder for mud bricks. Early prototypes don’t exactly look pretty, though: “We’re drawn to things that might initially be considered ugly or unattractive,” Pareid co-founder Hadin Charbel said in a video call. “Waste like human hair has an unpleasant quality to it – it has that confrontational element to it.”
Confrontation and challenging perceptions are also key to the work of Alix Bizet, a French designer working with hair to address issues of racial identity, community experience and marginalized beauty. “I discovered that as a black person in society there is good hair and bad hair – that’s where the project started. By looking at this discarded material, we can learn so much about society,” she said during a video call.
In a 2020 project called The Future of Afro Hair, Bizet created crown-like headpieces from Afro hair, featured alongside podcasts featuring interviews with people talking about their personal and professional experiences with Afro hair. For earlier projects such as “Exchange” (2016), “Hair Matter(s)” (2016) and “Hair by Hood” (2017), Bizet made clothing, including hoods, from matted human hair; in workshops with London students for ‘Hair by Hood’, the designer sparked discussions about how culture and identity are linked to hair and the role hairdressing salons play in communities. Other projects explore the displacing effects of gentrification on Afro hairdressers in Peckham, South London, and how to decolonise museum collections by collecting more diverse hair stories. “My goal is to design for diversity and with diversity, giving visibility and empowerment to all hair narratives, including Afro hair,” said Bizet.
Back at LDF, Anouska Samms – who uses human hair to explore identity at a familial level, as well as interrogating mythology and symbolism – will be exhibiting some of her stunning hair-inspired ceramic pieces as part of the Unfamiliar Forms group show. They come from her ongoing “Hair Series” (2019-2022), which uses human hair—collected mostly through Instagram captions—to create sculptural pottery and tapestry as a way to reflect on maternal relationships. “I was always teased about my hair,” Sams recalled in a video call. “It was just huge and curly and red-haired. My mother and grandmother are ginger, and I come from a long line of red-haired women.’
In Bizet’s project The Future of Afro Hair, she shows crowns made from Afro hair. credit: Boudevin Bolman
Samms’ large hanging tapestry, “The Great Mother” (2022), weaves strands of red human hair (some artificially dyed) with cotton and yarn. Through it, Samms hopes to refer to a long tradition of weaving that is associated with both women and the idea of birth and creation. Her pottery, meanwhile, touches on the ancient connection between pottery and women: in prehistoric societies, women were the primary potters.
Using waste hair is not the same as using other waste materials such as plastic bottles. Hair is both an intimate human material and a sustainable resource that can be used in practical and creative ways. While initiatives like the GSC offer the potential to expand its use, some designers are quick to point out the importance of preserving personal narratives and connections.
“Hair is a living thread,” said Bizet. “Just because we collect it as discarded material, it does not mean that we are free to use it without thinking about the ethical aspects. This fast capitalist world of using hair as a new fiber removes its identity. By disinfecting, the hair will lose its human aspect and narrative.”
Like Bizet, Visser sought to connect works that used human hair with the people who donated it. She hopes her “augmented” mirrors will eventually find a home in each of the eight salons and barbershops she’s collected hair from. There, regular local customers will be able to see the mirrors hanging on the wall and know that their hair most likely did this.
Top image: Clay sculpture decorated with ginger hair as part of Samm’s ‘Hair Series’.