Dezeen Magazine

Two PEEL chairs by Prowl Studio at Alcova

Prowl Studio develops "first injection-moulded chair that can be composted"

Design firm Prowl Studio has proven that bioplastic can be load-bearing with the launch of its mono-material Peel Chair, which is made from corn-derived PLA and hemp fibres, at Milan design week.

Designed to reimagine one of the most ubiquitous pieces of fast furniture – the plastic stacking chair – the prototype was unveiled as part of the festival's annual Alcova exhibition.

Prowl Studio's seat was produced with the same injection-moulding process, but without the need for fossil fuels. It was created using a bioplastic composite developed by materials innovation start-up M4 Factory that can be industrially composted at the end of its life.

Prowl Studio and M4 Factory are exhibiting the Peel Chair at Alcova

"Conventional plastics such as the polypropylene commonly used in plastic stacking chairs take an estimated 450 years to break down," said Prowl Studio co-founder Lauryn Menard.

"In contrast, our hemp-based PLA breaks down in just six months when under the right controlled conditions."

This makes Peel "the first injection-moulded chair that can be composted", the studio claims. Even the cushions attached to its seat and backrest are made from a novel hemp-based foam that can be home-composted and will reportedly decompose at the same rate as an orange peel.

PEEL chair by Prowl Studio and M4 Factory on a bed of woodchips
Bioplastic is injection moulded to create the chair

Several furniture brands, from Alki and Andreu World to Dutch manufacturer VepaDrentea, have already explored making chairs from industrially compostable bioplastics.

But these generally still rely on solid wood or steel frames to bear the weight of the user – much like early experiments in creating plastic chairs by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames.

The Peel chair solves this issue by making use of a composite developed by M4 Factory, which mixes a common bioplastic called polylactic acid (PLA) with the coarse hurd fibres that accumulate as a waste byproduct of hemp processing.

Material sample of Hemp-PLA by M4 Factory
M4 Factory's bioplastic composite combines PLA and hemp fibre

Adding these hemp fibres allows the design to use less plastic, making it lighter but at the same time up to 90 per cent stronger, the company claims.

"Hemp is a great bio-fill that doesn't require copious amounts of water or processing to cultivate efficiently and is becoming readily available," said M4 Factory chief design officer Kyle Swen.

"Hemp also adds strength and stiffness to our base material, which is needed to meet our structural requirements for a chair."

Pieces of a chair by Prowl Studio and M4 Factory on a bed of sawdust
At the end of its life, the chair can be industrially composted

Integrating this structural support into the bioplastic – rather than having it form a separate load-bearing frame – allows the Peel Chair to be quickly and easily mass-produced much like its petroleum-based counterparts using conventional injection-moulding machinery.

"This is extremely important in taking the leap toward implementing healthier alternative plastics because it makes use of existing systems and avoids the need for inventing new technology," said Baillie Mishler co-founder at Prowl Studio.

"Once the initial setup of a new design is complete and the tooling is set, you can produce endless amounts of whatever it is you are manufacturing at a very low cost. In this way, it is a very democratic way of making."

Currently, M4 Factory's Hemp-PLA still costs around 10 to 20 per cent more than traditional fossil plastic. But the company believes that this price difference to even as the material becomes more mainstream.

At the Alcova showcase, the Peel Chair was presented as part of an installation that aims to illustrate the product's lifecycle in reverse – showing the seating design in various stages of decomposition before tracing it back to its flat-packed delivery in matching hemp packaging.

Titled Expect Death, the installation was conceived to to encourage designers and brands to design with the end-of-life in mind, as more than 12 million tons of furniture are thrown away every year in the US alone.

PEEL chair packaging
The chair is delivered flat-packed and matching hemp packaging

In the case of the Peel Chair, its foam cushions will break down in soil in around six months without the need for an industrial composter, as they are made of moulded hemp fibres with a leather-like algae-based coating developed by material research studio Veratate.

The chair's frame would break down in a similar amount of time – but only if placed inside an industrial facility where temperature, humidity and microbial activity are carefully controlled.

Such composting facilities are currently few and far between, meaning that bioplastics rarely end up getting composted.

Close-up shot of chair by Prowl studio and m4 factor
The chair also comes with hemp foam cushions

But Menard and Mishler are optimistic that industrial composting will eventually become a widespread service "as normalised as recycling" – although statistically, only around nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled.

"Municipalities are waking up to the benefits of industrial composting and are investing a lot of resources into ensuring that it becomes an integral part of waste management," Menard explained.

"Take New York, for example. NYC has committed to a 20-month timeline to bring composting to all five of its boroughs."

Rear view of PEEL chair by Prowl Studio on a bed of woodchips
The cushions cover the seat and backrest

The project forms part of an ongoing partnership between the studio and M4 Factory, aimed at exploring how designers and material companies can work together to mass-produce furniture more sustainably by taking responsibility over the different stages of a product's lifecycle.

Eventually, the duo also hope to form a partnership with a manufacturer to bring the Peel Chair to market while maintaining oversight over its production process.

"The regenerative future is a team effort and achieving it will require participation through every step of the process, from the material chemistry to production," Mishler said. "Design alone cannot carry this burden."

Bioleather upholstery of Peel chair by Veratate
A leather-like coating by Veratate covers the cushions

This isn't the first time that Prowl Studio has exhibited at Alcova. Last year, the practice showcased 3D-knitted textiles imbued with images of Californian wildfires that were made from recycled polyester clothing.

The Alcova exhibition is taking place from 17 to 23 April as part of Milan design week. See our Milan design week 2023 guide on Dezeen Events Guide for information about the many other exhibitions, installations and talks taking place throughout the week.