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21st century alchemist

Eleanor Young

Zoe Laughlin doesn’t quite turn base metal into gold but her experiments with materials open a new world of possibilities. And they’re great fun too

Making flames:  Zoe Laughlin introduces strontium chloride in methanol to a blowtorch.
Making flames: Zoe Laughlin introduces strontium chloride in methanol to a blowtorch.

Dr Zoe Laughlin disassembles her Swiss army knife. Beneath the trademark red handle are parts of an Oyster electronic travel card. But not the card itself. She dissolved this in acetone, leaving just the chip and an aerial twist of copper, now part of the knife. 

Laughlin likes to meddle in the world around her. She could be called a materials scientist – she runs the Institute of Making at University College London, she has a PhD and has written scientific papers. ‘I have done work that is science,’ she acknowledges. But she began with performance in Wales, then art (and time-based installations) at Central St Martins. Making things made her want to know materials in as many ways as possible, and science was the way to find out. 

And she wants you to know too. She greets us shoeless on the cold floor, her ­Araldite hole fix not having survived the torrential rain, and immediately launches into the story of bringing a fallen tree, root ball included, from her family’s Kent farm into the institute to be handled, chopped, carved, sawn and broken. There is drama as the tractor almost tips on a steep slope, craziness in the idea of carting it into London and – most important – the tangibility of the tree. 

The institute began with a library of materials which Laughlin started building up when she was at King’s College, taking it over to a new BDP-designed space in UCL’s new engineering building early last year. ‘We wanted to give people the experience of the physical object, beyond data sheets,’ she explains. And what objects: aerogel as used by Nasa, hazelnuts, at least five forms of cork, baby teeth, memory foam, broken glasses and chocolate. The delicate, super precious and radioactive are behind glass (birds nest, diamond and fluorescent uranium). But the UCL student and staff members of the institute and visitors to their frequent open days are welcome to handle the rest. The tiny damages and patina they inflict are understood as a research project in itself as cubes of malleable Blu tack and nibblable chocolate lose their corners (‘it’s all about their mechanical properties’). Some things, like the tree, are for those of all disciplines using the workshops. 

Is it bendy? What does it feel like?  What will look like in 20 years? 100 years? What does it look like 10m away? 100m? Or when you have a hat on? There are lots of ways to ask questions about materials, Laughlin has hundreds. ‘Often only one or two important questions get asked,’ she says. ‘In buildings that might be how does it behave under a load and what does it look like?’ Her PhD alerted her to the ‘Tyranny of the Swatch’. Delving into libraries and archives, including that of Foster and Partners, she realised the tantalising promise of samples on a chain. And when she stared to examine a sample of ‘the shiniest aluminium in the world’ she had a few questions, like how shininess was measured and what an expanse larger than the credit card sample would look like. Ordered at A3, it was wobbly, noisy and prone to distortions. ‘You wouldn’t experience it in such an alarming way when it is small,’ she says.


‘All materials are smart materials if you ask the right questions’

Growing up in Sandwich, Kent the concrete cooling towers of Richborough Power Station were a reference point through her childhood, watched as they embraced the weather (‘there was a bit that always got wettest when the rain was blowing from the sea’), photographed, and drawn. They were blown up in 2012. Out of the country Laughlin watched the live webstream. It had been a huge landmark on arrival but, from across the fields, adopted the scale of a hand thrown pot, rendered domestic by perspective. 

In her Wonderstuff slot on ITV’s This Morning, ‘Dr Zoe’, as she is styled, shows the public magnetic liquid, how to isolate DNA and fabrics made of steel. Her demonstrations, wherever they are, normally include a microscope too. And often some breaking, or at least denting. Last autumn she took the stand at the ­RIBA’s Guerilla Tactics conference and talked about new materials and some new versions of old ones. Sticking Gecko tape (mimicking the sticky feet of these creatures) to the historic timber panelling at 66 Portland Place she explained its relationship with Velcro and reminded the audience ‘all materials are smart materials if you ask the right questions’. Pulling objects out of her apron she talked about bioactive glass scaffolds and how to get bio­logy to work for you with self-healing concrete; ending with a flourish as she brandished a block of transparent concrete. 

She is not impressed with how this exciting mixture of concrete and optical fibres has been turned into a product. ‘The decorative panel misses the point,’ she says. That is perhaps why she wasn’t prepared to pay for a sample and set out to make her own. ‘There are more interesting things to do with it, it needs to be embedded in a building... it could be used as an analogue screen... the light can go round corners... it could be a data pipeline...’ But she admits she could do with a bit of expert help on the concrete technology before she makes blocks that are any bigger.

The future of materials lies not in some computer environment but in a more interesting explanation of their properties. Peeping over someone’s shoulder at a laptop during a train journey she saw how samples had become electronic, just dragged and dropped onto CAD designs. ‘The colours and textures looked like flats at Elephant and Castle, the grey blue of the material language seemed to borrow the clicky rendering it was represented in,’ she says. Though the interrelationship interests her, she dislikes the distancing from the material. Is it an example of our conservatism about materials? Perhaps; Laughlin is not surprised clients don’t want to use unproven materials with big budgets at stake. But there is another question (of course): ‘What do we mean by a new material? How about using a material in a different way?’

When she gets out the Bird’s custard powder for the portrait I start to get her meaning. No yellow gloop here. Blown through a tube over a blow torch it ignites with a cloud of fire. A little copper powder and a rather bigger breath and the ceiling is shot with fire that almost takes out the camera too. Then it’s bright red as methanol and metallic salts are sprayed into the flame. As creative director of the institute she is also its star turn, but bringing in other thought-provoking makers is important too. Sometimes they are home grown – as with the Make-a-thon where participants were asked to make an ecological loo for UCLoo Festival (on sanitation in case you hadn’t guessed). At the institute there has been perfumier one month, a session on flint napping, partners like Atkins coming in for a day of challenges and a regular stream of members making everything from heart valves to engagement rings and, in doing so, breaking out of their disciplinary boundaries –  art, architecture, engineering – en route.

It might all sound like a bit of show – and there is a lot of showmanship – but you are soon learning about cell boundaries and the importance of controlled crystallisation of fat in chocolate – and thus the effect of climate on the confection’s smoothness. And I haven’t even touched on her spoons – one of Laughlin’s ‘odd’ experiments that married making spoons of different metals with blind tasting and quantifiable data about the metals. The spoons are elegantly on show (beside tuning forks in pitch-bewildering materials). Her experiments into the taste of metals have led to work with a Michelin-starred chef and now an airline to make the most of their cutlery. 

‘My dream is to design the spooniest spoon of all,’ she says. She hasn’t got there yet, but if anyone can do it, Zoe Laughlin can. 


The next public open day at the Institute of Materials is Saturday 15 March,