Growing up in the African country of Togo, Mansour Ourasanah knew what it was like to be hungry. But he assumed that limited food was a universal misfortune, like a head cold or a broken heart. Eventually he discovered that plenty of food was available for people with money; it was just that his family was poor.
Now 28 and an industrial designer in Chicago, Ourasanah has tried to startle others into new ways of thinking about food. Last month he won a $35,000 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise for Lepsis, his handsome prototype for a system that breeds grasshoppers to eat.
Ourasanah understands that many Americans are disturbed by the thought of munching on insects, but points out an advantage. “You can farm them at home, which you can’t do with cattle,” he said, adding that with the world’s population at 7 billion and expected to grow to more than 9 billion by 2050, we may not have much choice.
Today, designers are playing with food in growing numbers. Equipped with new technologies, motivated to solve problems of scarcity, obesity and waste, and encouraged by rocketing culinary enthusiasms, they are recalibrating our ideas of taste while preparing science-fiction scenarios for our kitchens.
Once you have reared your grasshoppers, for instance, Susana Soares, a designer and researcher in London, has a plan for what you can do with them. Her Insects Au Gratin project involves grinding bugs into a powder that is mixed with cream cheese or butter and flavorings. “They are a very efficient way of getting protein, if you look at them in a rational way,” she said of her material. But because people are more likely to regard bugs with disgust, Soares uses a 3-D printer to turn the paste into decorative squiggles or attractive filigreed blobs. “They look like jewelry on purpose,” she said.
And when you’re ready to clean the mixing bowl ... don’t bother. Tomorrow Machine, a design studio in Stockholm and Paris, has partnered with a Swedish materials company called Innventia to sketch out futuristic ideas like dishes that are based on the self-cleaning properties of lotus leaves.
The practice of shaping the tools and rituals associated with eating dates from the first use of a twig to tease grubs from a hole, or the first folded leaf used to scoop water from a stream. But only in the last 15 years or so has a discipline known as “food design,” or sometimes “eating design,” emerged.
If anyone began this latest wave, it was Martí Guixé, a Catalonian who in the late ‘90s began circulating ideas for tapas that could be eaten in what he called “extreme conditions” - underwater, for example - and cakes iced with pie charts that divulged the relative proportions of their ingredients.
Soon, other designers were taking up food as a medium. In 1999, Marije Vogelzang of the Netherlands organized a mock funeral at which only white foods were served on white tableware. In 2001, Francesca Sarti founded the Milan-based food-design collective Arabeschi di Latte after staging performances that satirized the kitchen as a place for women.
And seeking to fill a void in research on the material culture of food, Sonja Stummerer and Martin Hablesreiter, a Viennese architect couple, began in 2005 to produce books about global eating habits and instruments. Their latest, “Eat Design,” came out in November with a colorful analysis of the evolution of tableware. We learn, for instance, that there are 90 types of beer glasses “in the German-speaking world alone.”
Food design has blossomed into a famed workshop in culinary design led by Marc Bretillot at the ESAD art and design academy in Reims, France. The subject has also inspired a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum exhibition in the works for 2016. It has taken strong purchase in the progressive design culture of the Netherlands, where young designers like Jihyun Ryou and David Artuffo are working out elegant ways to extend the life of refrigerated food and to raise consciousness about vanishing produce.
And it is the theme of a new class run by Emilie Baltz at Pratt Institute in New York. There, students are first immersed in the sensory experience of food (one assignment is to redesign the appearance of a cookie); later in the term, they will study the fraught systems of food production and distribution, Baltz said.
For Baltz, who grew up in the clashing culinary environments of Joliet, Ill., and Paris, a professional interest in food began in 2004, while she was a master’s student in industrial design at Pratt (she wrote her thesis on why Americans eat what they do). She later published a cookbook for which she recreated 51 elaborate recipes using junk food. In food, she said, she finds a key to the “emotional and sensory space that really starts to define us from animals on a primitive level.”
But though she embraces the primal sensations evoked by food, she is not opposed to using technology to hit those sweet spots. Two weeks ago, in New York, she staged “Lickestra,” a musical improvisation performed by four people who licked ice cream cones with embedded sensors, producing a composition of ringing and buzzing sounds.
For “Lickestra,” Baltz partnered with Carla Diana, who specializes in the development of smart technology. Food design attracts a wide field of participants; not everyone has a taste for sea urchin or brains, but almost everyone has experienced a passion for food and the bond that comes with sharing it. Scratch a food designer and you’ll find an architect, engineer, interaction designer, materials scientist, artist or crafter, or more likely some combination working together.
“Denatured: Honeybees + Murano,” an exhibition about threatened extinction that opened in Venice last year, is a low-tech example. The show resulted from the collaboration between the artist Judi Harvest and members of the shrinking community of Venetian glass blowers. After Harvest created a garden on the grounds of a glass factory on the island of Murano and planted it with trees and flowers to hold the attention of imported bees, she collected and packaged the ensuing honey and displayed it with a series of gorgeous honeycomb-textured Murano glass jars she designed.
The intense experience of food fostered by the molecular-gastronomy movement has also brought designers into the culinary fold. In 2003, Luesma & Vega, a glass studio in Barcelona, began collaborating with Ferran Adrià to design dishware that fit his complicated cuisine at El Bulli. It has gone on to provide the same service to other celebrated chefs.
At the higher end of the technology spectrum is the partnership between David Edwards, an American scientist and inventor who founded Le Laboratoire, what he calls “a cultural lab,” in Paris, and eminent French designers. Several years ago, having introduced a chocolate product called Le Whif, which you enjoy guiltlessly by inhaling, Edwards, along with Bretillot and the industrial designer François Azambourg, rolled out Le Whaf, a carafe that vaporizes liquid, creating a cloud of tiny droplets that is poured into a glass and swallowed.
“I’m interested in this sort of virtualization,” Edwards said recently. “So much of a great culinary experience is sensorial in a way that goes beyond caloric content.”
In another project, Edwards and Azambourg set out to erase not calories, but wasteful packaging. Borrowing from the idea of the grape and similar naturally self-contained foods, he developed WikiPearls, round pieces of ice cream wrapped in edible skins. And last summer, he opened WikiBar, a cafe in Paris where the ice cream is served and where people gather every other week to test new Wiki foods like yogurt, soup and cheese. Designed by Mathieu Lehanneur, who recently secured the commission to renovate the interior of the historic Grand Palais in Paris, WikiBar has an antiseptic white palette and a decorative motif of hexagons that alludes to the molecular structure of the food’s wrapping.
In July, a similar venue, Cafe ArtScience, will open in Cambridge, Mass., in a new Laboratoire complex. For this venture, Edwards is partnering with someone he describes only as “a leading mixologist,” who will run an experimental drinks program there. Glass dishware will be designed by Azambourg to complement the WikiPearl menu. (Edwards was tight-lipped about the details.) And next month, some Whole Foods stores in the Boston area will begin selling WikiPearls of Stonyfield frozen yogurt.
Edwards’ inventions demonstrate that while many food design concepts are whimsical, utopian or evanescent, the introduction of technology and capital is giving others mainstream relevance and commercial potential.
And it always seems to help when 3-D printing enters the picture. Liz and Kyle von Hasseln became enamored of that technology while students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and found particular joy in building structures with sugar. This discovery led to a Los Angeles-based studio, the Sugar Lab, which made experimental confections. In September, 3D Systems, a manufacturer of 3-D printers, acquired the Sugar Lab, and the Von Hasselns are now creative directors of its food products.
At the Consumer Electronics Show last month, they displayed, along with 3D Systems’ new ChefJet food printers, a wedding cake built on a printed armature of sugar and decorated, from base to ribbonlike topper, with a blue-and-white Delft pattern. The ability of the printer to handle a range of materials means that a copy of the topper can be produced in ceramic if a couple wants a souvenir of their wedding, Von Hasseln said. “Cross-culturally, people are inclined to invest in customizing and embellishing a dessert,” she said. “That’s what 3-D printing is good for: customization and embellishment.”
Ourasanah would like his Lepsis grasshopper breeder to have commercial legs, too. But though Whirlpool funded the development of the prototype, he hasn’t found investors. He is working for Whirlpool on blue-sky projects, thinking up ways to teach American children to respect food and nutrition. His new medium is the lunch tray and lunchbox, which he sees as failed design opportunities in their existing forms. “I saw a lunchbox that had SpongeBob SquarePants on it,” he said, adding that he found it really strange. “What does SpongeBob have to do with food?”