Design Parade pick: This Colombian designer highlights the other side of gold

To Medellín-born Simón Ballen Botero, the final form of the objects he designs is determined by deep research, immersive and extended interactions and community collaboration. It’s a respectfully self-effacing yet touchingly personal method that translates into poignant, multilayered objects. That’s part of the reason why this  product designer became the winner of our Eyes on Talents x Frame special mention at this year’s Design Parade Hyères.

Hyères – The gold mine of Marmato, located some three hours south of Medellín, filled Spanish coffers during the colonial era, financed Colombia’s ensuing independence war and is now one of the few publicly owned mining operations in the country, a benevolent system constantly threatened by the close watch of multinational interests.

To say that Marmato’s existence has been mired in conflict would be an understatement. How can one bottle the post-colonial anger, the human costs of extraction and the glimmers of hope that emerge from the underground? To product designer Simón Ballen Botero, those are the main ingredients of Suelo Orfebre, a series of glass vases made from the viscous ore leftover whose last bits of precious metal are extracted via cyanide leaching. These objects represent an investment for the miners: they refrain from selling the would-be gold that comes from processing the compound, but in turn local teenagers can learn the skill of glassblowing – something that could come in handy given the possibility of a North American takeover of the mine. The richly layered project, presented during this year’s Design Parade Hyères, is the winner of our Eyes on Talents x Frame special mention.

The Design Academy Eindhoven alumnus has based his fledgling practice on quietly and modestly embedding himself in the lives of remote minority populations – from the Sami in Finland’s Lapland to aboriginal communities in Greenland – and turning those experiences into collectively designed items that speak of his hosts’ daily lives – those extended interactions produced, among other things, a reduced fire pit and a reindeer-pelted vase that stands in for the many interpretations of warmth. But, he wondered, what would happen if he applied his same methods of embedded observational research to his own country?

Why gold, though? ‘Gold is inseparable from Colombia’s history… it’s in our DNA now,’ said Medellín-born Ballen. That lead him to Marmato where, with no end product in mind, he paid attention to the comings and goings of the miners. The jagua – the local name for the viscous leftover – used to be sold to a nearby bottle maker, who changed sourcing after a shift in administration. That meant that most of the cyanide-laced waste from the mine’s jagua was now being poured down the Cauca river, eventually affecting the food supply and health of nearby communities.

Word of mouth lead Ballen to Peter Van Dyck, a Belgian artisan who is one of the few trained glassmakers in the region. Along with Van Dyck, a group of miners and a local schoolteacher named James Lemus, the designer set up a scheme: diverting waste from the river to the furnace, blowing and moulding glass pieces solely with the materials at hand – mostly bricks – while providing skills that could prevent a new generation from being dependent on a volatile source of income. ‘The mineral composition [of the jagua] may be unique, as it contains pyrite, traces of gold and silver and other minerals of the mines of Marmato, and can be used to colour glass in a range from green to amber,’ explained Van Dyck. ‘What we found is that very little of the material is needed to colour the glass. The true value of the pieces is not so much in the mineral composition, but rather in the rethinking what to do with material that is dumped as waste. And maybe even more in the fact that we’re working with the youngsters of the village, looking for alternatives for the waste of traditional mining and a future outside the mines.’

A younger generation of designers is, understandably and commendably, more concerned with creating more conscientious processes of production than products by themselves. This is one of the many methods that do work.

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