laura daza

Laura Daza is a Colombian designer, artist and colour hunter. Her curiosity about colour as a raw material from nature has led her on a journey to uncover historical significance of colours and the narratives behind it. Her design practice merges craft with tradition, science with alchemy, and archaeology with sustainability to critically question our relationship with the environment. She graduated from MA in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins in London and is based in Italy.

WORDS Nina Thorstensen
PHOTO Laura Daza

Could you say something about your background – how and when did your interest in design begin and what does word designer mean to you?

In Colombia I studied a full- time Bachelors in Industrial Design with a minor in Textile Design, where I started to look into sustainability and the use of natural materials in design. I’ve always been passionate about colour, natural colorants and sustainable fabrics. Coming from an artistic family, I always knew I wanted to be a designer since I was really young. As far as I can remember I have always been obsessed with design magazines, visual books, and colourful artworks. The influence of dance and colours has always been part of my cognitive development, allowing me to explore new sensorial and emotional states. A designer has the power to impact, transform and inspire societies, and the responsibility of influencing positively on working for a better tomorrow.

Main focus of your design studio is colour; researching, sourcing and developing colours from natural sources, uncovering stories about them. When did your interest in colour originate and what triggered it?

There have been many experiences that have brought me into deep involvement with colour. It first started in Colombia, where I was born and raised in a colourful and joyful coastal city. This definitely influenced my taste in juxtaposition of colours. I have always been interested and curious about colouring matter, what gives nature its colour and how vegetables and fruits can be used for dyeing. I developed a project called Arawete+Textiles vegetales, which looks into reviving ancient South American techniques for dyeing and also using Urucum (plant) as a natural dye. I believe this led to a fascination with colour and the narrative behind it. Then I became curious about pigments and the science behind it.

In the ‘Colour Provenance’ project you worked as an alchemist, transforming raw materials into colours. You chose eight ancient pigments, investigating how they were made and where they came from. Can you say something about different stages of the project?

The ‘Colour Provenance’ palette represents the purity of colour; it is made up of eight ancient colours from mineral, animal and vegetable world. Each colour has a fascinating story and manufacturing process. These colours are the first colours ever used and invented by humans, which played an important role in history. It is considered that the first colour palette was invented by Egyptians and later on used by most of the Medieval and Renaissance artists.

For this selection, I was intrigued by the Egyptian alchemy, attracted by the shades and hues, but also the materials used to manufacture these colours. Colour can be categorised geographically and chronologically. Tracing of colours is a way of understanding colour provenance and the stories behind each one.At the initial research phase I designed a colour timeline to trace colours from prehistory to modern times, in order to understand which ones are still in use and which have been lost and why. So I focused on the colours before the Industrial Revolution, where a transition from hand to machine production is evident. I started experimenting with most of the colours from the timeline, except the toxic ones such as Vermillion, Orpiment, Realgar, Lead white, Naples Yellow, ‘Chrome Orange’ and Emerald green. I experimented with the extraction processes for the other colours but they did not work for me. A lot of trial and error was part of my process. I decided to experiment with colours that had successful outcomes.

For the AH commission you used three ancient pigments Verdigris, Ochre and Lamp Black, which you recreated. How was the manufacturing process for each pigment?

The methods of extracting colour were slow and complicated processes including pulverization and purification that were required to transform the mineral into a pigment. Lamp Black is a type of carbon black obtained by collecting the soot made by heating wood or other plant material, with a very restricted air supply. Experimenting with this pigment was quite exciting, making it from scratch by using the basic ingredients and utensils, and understanding the chemical process behind it. I was inspired by a traditional medieval recipe where they used beeswax candles to make Lamp Black, especially for ink use.

The earth’s crust is rich in iron oxides, ochres and minerals, which can be used as pigments and are found in a variety of shades and tones. There are many different colours of Ochres – from red, yellow and purple, to green earths (terre verte), whites and blacks. Hematite and limonite are the most important oxides found in Ochres, which give it its colour. It can be said that Ochre has been the first coloured pigment used by prehistoric people found in the oldest of civilisations.

While living in London and traveling abroad I have always been interested in the pale green colour seen on the rooftops and domes of various churches and traditional buildings, which contrasts with the concrete structures. Many historic green and blue pigments are copper based, including pigments like verdigris, azurite and malachite. Verdigris is a man-made pigment and has been manufactured using different recipes, whilst azurite and malachite are natural occurring copper ores. Verdigris is obtained through the application of acetic acid (vinegar) and other ingredients to copper plates, which are then scraped off and collected in a sealed container. It can also be obtained by exposing copper, brass or bronze to outside agents such as air, rain and seawater for long periods of time.

You also published a ‘DIY Colour Recipe Book’, which shows key tools, secrets and your experiences recreating these colours. How did you get on with sourcing raw materials that were needed to recreate the ancient pigments?

Sourcing raw materials was part of the project, which built a narrative for each colour. I had the chance to travel to different locations to get genuine ingredients and materials including Spain, Turkey and Italy. I travelled to Istanbul in Turkey and found traditional shops that source and sell rocks worldwide. Also, I had the chance to travel to Montserrat in Spain in search of fine ochre and collected samples with the help of a geologist there. Montserrat is a multi-peaked mountain located near the city of Barcelona, Spain. The mountain is composed of strikingly conglomerates, a form of sedimentary rock. Just to admire the geological formations in this area is worthwhile, as if they were painted with a red colour palette. I spent three days there, studying the ancient pigments and textiles, the history of the area, the geological formations and more importantly collecting Ochre.

I have been in contact with one of the owners of Cornellisen & Son, which is a traditional artistic shop in London since 1855. He guided me and taught me about the history of the company and how they used to source materials and make pigments and paints in the old days. I got a couple of rocks from him, malachite, chrysocolla and lapis lazuli that he sourced from different places in Europe and East Asia. I remember he mentioned interesting historical facts and colour secrets warning me about the tedious and complicated process of extracting colours.

How things are made and where they come from is becoming more important today as consumers are getting more educated and as a counter reaction to our commodity populated world of mass production. Rapid changes in culture, economics and technology need dynamic designers who can realise intelligent, responsible innovations. What tools and skills should designers today possess to be able to create more sustainable design solutions with future in mind?

I believe material innovation will be the key to create more sustainable designs tomorrow. It can be argued that design is in a constant process of reinvention, it reflects about the present and the near future. One could say that design and craft have existed from the moment humankind started to use tools because any use of tools involves the act of skilled doing or making. The relationship of hand, brain and material has led to the development of human intelligence. The sense of human touch has also enabled the exploration, experience and understanding of our surrounding physical world.

It is evident that we are loosing this sense of reality, touch or practice in any skill, which is neglected and replaced by digital technology. I believe that more people are trying to come back to basics and revive what has been lost. Therefore new design concepts are arising, such as practicality and the new idea of simplicity, which is seen when creating beauty from excess or waste. Design will be linked to a new definition of material innovation and craftsmanship, how we resource and create new materials out of excess and transform them into great products by using lowtech processes.

Your projects often are about moving back to the origins to be able to find solutions for the future; going outdoors, exploring the environment and using local resources. How do you balance tradition and innovation?

Research is fundamental within my design and making process. I always research first on how certain materials behave to understand the process of transformation and the knowledge behind it. Many things that we use today were already invented in the past, but unfortunately they have been replaced. I can consider myself a revivalist, understanding the origins and knowledge behind something and how this knowledge could be used and adapted today and perhaps in the near future. In order to adapt a material and develop new materiality it is essential to understand its origin and the science behind it.

I believe that more people are trying to come back to basics and revive what has been lost.

What kind of things is influencing your work right now?

Now that I have moved to South of Italy many beautiful and simple things are influencing my work. I am living in a very small town near the sea. The tranquil environment allows me to be in contact with nature, local people and traditions.