Picture of Marjan van Aubel behind her multicoloured solar glass

Designing solar panels with style

Nov 24, 2017 - 4min read



Solar power is undeniably beautiful in concept, but solar panels aren’t always the most aesthetically pleasing objects. Now, a self-styled ‘solar designer’ from the Netherlands is combining sustainable technology with artistic discipline, to stunning effect.

Marjan van Aubel’s work is focused on the interplay between technology and the natural world – finding ways to incorporate useful tech into our daily lives in a way that actually makes living spaces more attractive and interesting.

“I actually can’t remember when I first became interested in solar,” says Marjan. “I think I’d already done my BA in design at Amsterdam’s Rietveld Academy. But I did do a project to feed solar power into birdhouses to create a new way of looking at birds.”

Marjan van Aubel branch

“I made a portable, hi-tech branch that you couldn’t see, and it was covered in solar panels that would power a camera pointed at the birdhouse, so you could observe the wildlife.”

Later, after an MA at the Royal College of Art, Marjan began experimenting with materials as a means of creating sustainable furniture that would cut down the 50-80% of timber wasted during traditional manufacture. Collaborating with James Shaw, Marjan discovered that mixing timber waste with bio-resin causes it to expand to twice its size and create a durable, foam-like material. By mixing it with coloured dyes and moulding it, they made their own highly distinctive chairs and tables almost entirely from discarded wood shavings. 

“Now, though, I’ve decided to only focus on solar design,” says Marjan, “integrating solar power into objects and spaces without screaming ‘Hey! I’m a solar panel!’ There’s a real need to make it more accessible, and easier to build into our everyday life.’”

Marjan started a company with Peter Kriges (another RCA alumnus) and called it Caventou – after the French pharmacist instrumental in identifying chlorophyll. Together, Marjan and Peter designed the Current Window and Current Table – solar power generating products for the home that use biomimicry to maximise their efficiency.

 

Window

“The transparent elements of the Current Window and Current Table are dye-sensitised solar cells,” says Marjan. “The technology was invented by Michael Grätzel and uses the properties of different colours to generate electricity – essentially based on photosynthesis in plants.

“The Current Table and Current Window have a lot of orange in them, because it’s a very stable colour, and extremely well-suited to absorbing ambient light indoors. Even in the shadows, it keeps on generating electricity.

“Regular solar panels usually need direct sunlight to work but store up energy more quickly, while the Current Window and Table store up energy slowly but consistently. It’s kind of like the story of the tortoise and the hare.”

Both products have integrated batteries to store up solar energy, and USB outlets to allow you to charge your devices. Essentially they are small, always-on power stations for the home – a striking marriage of form and function.

Current table

The Current Window won the Wired Product Innovation Award 2016, and in 2017 Marjan was named one of the Swarovski Designers of the Future 2017. The designers were invited to create a prototype or design inspired by crystal; Marjan’s was the Cyanometer.

In collaboration with Swarovski’s in-house solar power experts and the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, Marjan designed a crystal solar panel that would maximise the amount of light hitting the solar cell.

“I wanted to use crystal to make solar cells more efficient,” says Marjan. “By cutting the crystal, you can angle the facets in a particular way that will refract light directly onto the solar cell, effectively drawing in more light that can be converted into solar energy.”

The initial inspiration for the design was to make a desirable, portable object that could be carried during the day, storing solar power, and used at night for energy.

Cyanometer

“In terms of inspiration,” says Marjan, “James Turrell is really incredible in his use of light as a medium with which to make art. But when it comes to technology, I think Eindhoven’s Lightyear Onesolar car is super nice, and I love Elon Musk’s solar tiles because of how seamlessly they integrate into the home.”

The most desirable thing in Marjan’s eyes is technology that is as practical as it is sleekly designed. But, crucially, it should be available for everyone in order to make the biggest impact possible.

“I wish I could have solar panels,” says Marjan. “But I live in the centre of Amsterdam and I rent my flat, so it’s not really possible to get solar cells on my roof because I don’t own it.

“That’s why I really feel the need to create a movement of solar democracy, where if you don’t own a house you can still have solar cells of some kind, even if it is on a smaller scale.”

 

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