Graduate 2017: Fish Skin Helps the Environmental Bottom Line

Education and students

Fish skin has been used for shoes and various types of clothing, but is now mainly a waste product that ends up as cheap animal fodder. But what if instead we regarded fish skin as an unused resource with exciting applications? Meet the architect, Helene Christine Pedersen. In her final project she decided to take a look at this humble material as an untapped resource, which can be put to new and fascinating use in the furniture industry, with gains for both aesthetics and the environment.

What is your final project about?

My project was titled ‘Fish Skin – From Waste Product to Furnishing Fabric’. Fish skin is mainly thrown away or sent to a fishmeal manufacturer to be turned into animal fodder. I worked on up-cycling fish skin: to tan it and use it in a context, in which it acquires greater value – the furniture industry.

What was your motivation for this project in particular?

In one of my previous projects I experimented with using fungal mycelium [the underground part of a fungus, ed.] to grow an object. My objective was to make use of an organic waste product and convert it into something valuable. The result was not particularly successful, but it inspired me to do more work on the same issues. My goal was to develop a potential resource in a new context.

In what way does your project contribute something new to the area/subject you have been working on?

Fish leather has previously been used for outdoor clothing, boots and gloves and, to a limited extent, belts, purses and bags. As a furnishing fabric it is relatively unexplored: it has only been used in a few art objects. But fish skin has great potential and can compete with other types of leather that are used for furniture: Its strength lies in its natural colour and texture, which traditionally used types of leather do not possess. 


What methods did you use when working on your project?

My work was divided into three phases: research, manufacture and application/experiment. In the research phase I examined how fish skin has been used in the past, and what methods were used for tanning it. In the manufacturing phase I tanned fish skin with natural agents: egg yolk and rapeseed oil. I got my skins from Jacob Kongsbak Lassen, whom I regularly visited to relieve them of their salmon skins. In the experimental phase I examined how the properties of the fish skin were affected by the tanning, and experimented with the material to find out how to make conscious use of both its advantages and disadvantages. Finally I applied the fish skins to a variety of furniture products: for example, a stool and a wall mount.

Wallhanger i lakseskind
Taburet beklædt med lakseskind

Where do you imagine your degree project will make a difference?

Right now there is only one single fish tannery in Europe and that is located in Iceland. If one established more tanneries near major fishing towns, the products of the local fishermen would be worth more and it would also reduce the amount of waste. Fish leather would also be an economically and environmentally superior alternative to leather from the likes of calves and cows.

To which UN goals does your project relate?

I address the UN’s 12th global goal, which outlines responsible consumption and production: for example, by effectively utilising natural resources and reducing the amount of waste. Fish skin is an environmentally sound alternative to the conventional types of leather that are used in the furniture industry: calf skin, for instance. Cows and calves emit far more carbon dioxide in their lifetime and consume more water and fodder than fish. It also takes much more time to tan the thicker skins than fish skins. That means it is more expensive, both for the manufacturer and the environment.

What are the most enjoyable and the most difficult aspects of the way you work on architecture?

The most difficult aspect was the reception of the project: working with a product, about which many people have preconceived negative perceptions and transforming it into something positive. The most fun aspect was being involved in the entire process: from slaughter to tanning and application.

What do you think is your greatest strength as a KADK architecture graduate?

The Architecture course at KADK has provided me with tools that make me dare to delve into experimental and less explored areas.

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