I’d love to go on a treasure hunt with Dutch designer Merel Karhof through the backstreets and cul-de-sacs of London or Amsterdam.
Karhof, who splits her time between the two cities, has spent more than a decade perfecting what she calls “revealing the unnoticed” in public spaces. Trained at the Design Academy (Eindhoven) and the Royal College of Art (London), Karhof delights in combining playful curiosity with technical research and design. The result is an impressive body of work that draws our attention to the many gifts provided by nature – wind, light and water – in urban environments.
“These natural elements are my tools, part of my toolbox,” explained Karhof in a trans-Atlantic phone interview. “What is important to me is to explain [technical] things to people through my work.”
Wind energy is one of Karhof’s favorite tools. As a designer, she wondered what would be the best way to demonstrate how the wind’s free energy can be harnessed to create useful products. In 2009, after several months of research, she designed what is quite possibly the world’s first wind-powered knitting machine.
The genius of Karhof’s Wind Knitting Factory is that it is accessible. Unlike the industrial wind turbines that I photograph (most of which are located far from urban centers), Karhof’s portable windmill can be installed almost anywhere in an urban setting, perched atop a variety of surfaces: windowsills, balconies, gates, porches, fences, and even on a simple tripod.
“I bring my windmill with me when I travel,” Karhof says. “Wherever I set it up, it draws people in. At first they are surprised and then they smile when they realize what I am doing.”
What she is doing, in my opinion, is extremely important. Whether intentionally or not, Karhof has added her voice to those of other artists who are “changing the narrative” about climate change and the inevitable clean energy transition. She does this by creating a sense of awe and wonder about a humble technical object – a windmill – that many people have never seen up close, much less in their own neighbourhoods.
Karhof’s wind knitting machine acts like a magnet: it immediately draws people in, seducing them to take a few minutes out of their busy schedules to meditate on the delightful fact that the wind is knitting a woolen scarf – right in front of their eyes. Imagine the potential conversations about clean energy that designers such as Karhof could have with a captive audience like this!
Now imagine these same conversations continuing over the following days and weeks, as Karhof’s wind-knitted scarves are purchased and given as gifts to friends and family. This is how artists and designers contribute to “changing the narrative” – by lighting a spark that continues to burn on its own, without further intervention by those who initiated it. The same could be said of Lennon/Ono’s iconic anthem Imagine, which continues to inspire almost 50 years after it was written.
Karhof’s message is simple: urban environments provide myriad energy resources – wind, solar, water – that are “unnoticed” and, by consequence, unused. The majority of the free wind energy that whips through our cities remains unharnessed. Artists, designers and architects can help open our eyes to “see” these gifts and, more importantly, to find creative and sustainable ways to turn them into useful products or to power our lives.
If you would like to purchase one of Karhof’s wind-knitted scarves, visit her online store. She also sells other wind-knitted textiles including bracelets, cushions and upholstered furniture at art installations, galleries, art shows and online.
Wind is not the only tool in Karhof’s artist toolbox. She frequently collaborates with other designers and scientists on a wide variety of projects that explore color, light, water, natural dyes, recycled tiles and, most recently, reviving the old Dutch craft of leather tanning using discarded fish skins. I will save these treasures for a future post about Merel Karhof, preferably after accompanying her through the backstreets and cul-de-sacs of London or Amsterdam as she hunts for her next inspiration to “reveal the unnoticed” of our daily urban lives. If I am lucky, in London and Amsterdam.
(Top image: Photo by Merel Karhof.)
This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.
Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to help others visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. Joan is currently working on a photo book about Canada’s energy transition. She also collaborates with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on Ello, Twitter and Instagram.