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Bolt Creative Residency x Jen Keane: Deep Science Through a Designer’s Eye

Before COVID-19 prompted shelter-in-place orders at the Bolt Threads office, we had the privilege of debuting our creative residency program to bring in new ideas for designing a better future. Enter Jen Keane, our first-ever creative in residence and no stranger to the potential of biomaterials.

Before returning to her west coast roots in our Bay Area labs, the San Diego native spent 5 years working for adidas Group in Germany in material design, development, and innovation before moving to London for her Material Futures MA at Central Saint Martins, aka Stella McCartney’s alma mater among many other notable designers.

For her master’s project, This is Grown, Jen merged deep science and high design to create a one-of-a-kind shoe upper. The warp was created using one continuous piece of biodegradable yarn. The weft was grown by employing the natural weaving ability of a bacteria commonly found in kombucha.

Photo by Adam Toth

At Bolt, Jen brought scientists and designers together to conceptualize what our future could look like when these disciplines work in concert. She hosted a microbial weaving workshop with our team, giving insight into her process and the opportunity to grow our own shoe upper patterns. Jen quickly infused herself into the daily operations and experiments at Bolt, providing a designer’s eye and her unique skill set to further our vision. In turn, we were able to equip Jen with the tools and scientific knowledge she needed to continue developing her own projects. Before coming to Bolt, one of Jen’s biggest bottlenecks in her material design was the warping process. Her original shoe design was warped by hand – a slow process that would have been impossible to scale. By leveraging our team’s knowledge of industrial automation tools like CNC and 3D printing, they were able to build a robotic system for warping called the WarpBot.

“To really push the potential of the material, we needed to first improve my working process and tools,” Jen said. “Sharing knowledge through the workshop with the team was hugely valuable, and [The WarpBot] opens up whole new possibilities for how I, and hopefully other designers in the future, can design with these kinds of materials.”

Together, Jen and the Bolt Threads team were full steam ahead on a few aspirational projects when we had to unexpectedly halt progress and close our lab doors due to the pandemic. While these projects are indefinitely on hold, Jen’s short-but-invaluable time at Bolt will have a lasting positive effect on our team. What the team accomplished in their abbreviated time is a testament to the power of uninhibited collaboration met with the right tools and resources.

“This creative residency is an incredible opportunity to build stronger connections not only between people within our fledgling industry, but to find new ways to connect with future generations,” Jen said.

Before moving onto her next big thing, Jen gave us the chance to glean a little more wisdom by asking about her approach to design:

What’s the motivation behind your work? What led you to work with biomaterials?

I have always loved making and learning about how things are made. And my experience in the sportswear industry opened my eyes to the monumental systems involved in getting a t-shirt from the field or refinery to your closet. Also, I was lucky at adidas to be part of an organization that pushed sustainability internally, where possible, even before it became trendy to talk about it. But the fashion industry as a whole had (and still has) a long way to go, and materials seemed to always be the crux of the discussion. At Central Saint Martins I was introduced to a growing cohort of designers and scientists who were looking to biology for a solution, which made a lot of sense to me. Nature is probably the best example of a circular economy and makes some incredibly robust material systems.

As a designer, despite the frankly depressing data, I still believe in fashion and the innate human impulse to self-express and create beauty. I want to believe there is a better way for us to do this, and I think a closer look at nature and biology could offer us some clues.

What is your design process?

I like to think my role as a designer is to connect the dots. This could mean puzzling together design features and material properties to solve a performance problem, or building a narrative to make a complex technology more digestible. For me, that always starts with research because I think it’s important to make sure to contextualize a problem and understand my constraints. It’s really hard to break boundaries without understanding them, so I find reading deeper into a topic and talking to experts and stakeholders critical to framing a design problem more effectively. I would also say I do my best work when I take a craft-based approach. Sketching can be great for ideation or representation, but I think the real magic is in the making. Especially when working with new and unfamiliar materials and processes, that tacit knowledge that comes from making with your hands (or testing the limits of a machine or organism) is absolutely critical to good design, in my opinion.

What do you think is the importance of design, especially in terms of biomaterials?

There is no quick fix or perfect material solution. And there are loads of scientists and material engineers better equipped to invent new materials. Where designers are important is in connecting that science to the world we live in. And for me, that means not just finding places for biomaterials within our existing infrastructure and systems, but looking to better align our whole approach to nature’s own.

What do you hope or expect the future of design to look like?

Materials aren’t the problem; people are the problem. I think a lot more will be expected of designers in the future in their ability to work across disciplines and as acting ambassadors for an increasingly complex technological playground. Future designers will need to think more critically and systematically to design materials, products, and services that don’t simply feed the machine but could influence behaviors and values for the better.

What are your post-residency plans?

I am hoping to open up a lab in London, bringing science and design together to figure out how we turn the ideas of biodesigners into reality and how we can employ biodesign to bring about wider positive change. I believe we can only bring about a better future for everyone by working collaboratively and across disciplines, so my challenge will be to build a business framework that enables this.

Read more about Jen and her creative residency at Bolt on her website.



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