Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is needed to spot an opportunity. In the years before founding the ethical Danish design brand Mater back in 2006, Henrik Marstrand’s career had been predominantly in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, working for companies such as Diageo and Kraft Foods. "I didn’t know anything about design; I didn’t know anything about production," he admits.
Yet it was precisely this unrelated experience that gave Henrik a clear view of what was missing from the design and furniture industries. "I knew that we as parents, as citizens, would fully embrace sustainability and eco-friendliness," he recalls. "I felt that this deeply rooted philosophy was completely lacking in the industry. There were no companies in the furniture and lighting business that had sustainability embedded from the start."
Instead, what he saw was an industry obsessed with getting the next product out, releasing the next headline-grabbing collection, regardless of broader considerations around purpose. The discussion was domi-nated by ’design for the purpose of itself,’ he notes. Immediately he wanted to flip the industry’s thinking on its head: "The question we need to ask is: why do we need to make another piece of furniture?" For him, it all came down to that "why", the fundamental purpose behind creating more products. This is not to say he is opposed to consumerism – far from it. In fact, Henrik’s argument was, and still is, based on building purpose into design and manufacturing processes. Over the past 14 years, Mater has created and manu-factured dozens of original furniture and lighting designs, but the big difference is that when Mater’s products become commercially successful, they start to support a new eco-friendly or recycled material or to prop up a traditional craft process. For Henrik, "change and consumerism must go hand in hand."
A huge part of this philosophy comes down to what Henrik calls "circular thinking" – in other words, going beyond the initial production and looking at "how you disassemble a product, how you get rid of materi-als, how you then recycle those, collecting materials and processing them to make new furniture once a piece ends its first life cycle." Circular thinking, in its most basic sense, tries to prevent materials from ending up in landfill – or worse, in the ocean or natural environments.
Arguably the best example of this philosophy in action is the Ocean Collection, a table-and-chair garden furniture set originally designed in the 1950s by the Danish designers Joergen and Nanna Ditzel and reissued by Mater in 2018. It uses ocean waste plastic as a key raw material. To manufacture the chairs, Mater partnered with Plastix, a Danish cleantech recycling company based in Lemvig that specialises in converting used fishnets, trawls and ropes into high-grade plastic. One Ocean chair uses 960g of plastic waste. It’s the perfect example of how a product can actually have a positive impact, whereas most putative sustainable products aspire only to mitigate the negative impact they have on the environment. The Ocean Collection goes one step further – by buying one of these products, consumers "help to clean up thousands of tonnes of problematic waste," says Henrik.
The Ocean Collection is also testament to another of Mater’s central philosophies: a commitment to aesthetics. The brand’s pieces are not simply pale imitations of famous furniture designs that have to rely heavily on their ethical credentials to attract buyers. Rather, Henrik brings onboard some of the best contemporary industrial designers in the world – including the likes of Space Copenhagen, Michael W. Dreeben and Maija Puoskari – to work on Mater collections. There is also a clear understanding of Danish design heritage running through everything the brand releases (including, of course, the Ditzel reissue), which means that those ethical credentials do not come at the expense of elegance, beauty or function.
Although at the start, the company was entirely self-funded, Henrik has taken on a few rounds of investment since 2006 to support Mater’s ambition. First, in 2010, an angel investor came onboard to accelerate early growth; then six years ago, a silent partner from within the clothing industry joined the business and, in Henrik’s words, "took us to the next level"; and finally, two years ago, North-East Venture, a Copenhagen-based venture-capital fund, invested in Mater. "They took a significant share without getting majority," Henrik explains. This means investing in both operational scale and R&D: "More salespeople and showrooms, but also more funding for development." This represents a key step forward for the brand. Whereas in the past, as with Plastix and the Ocean Collection, Mater had to source partners who were already producing sustainable materials, now it is starting to develop its own materials, in collaboration with the Technological Institute in Taastrup. "This is something you would not see a normal furniture manufacturer venturing into," says Henrik, "but it tells you a lot about where we see the opportunities – understanding material without any compromises in aesthetics." This new way of thinking can also be seen elsewhere in the broader design industry (particularly in fashion), and it’s something that Henrik feels could change conversations in the furniture sector. "Maybe soon it’s not just about the next collection from X," he muses. "Maybe it’s about the next material to come out of company X."
So is Henrik optimistic about the future of his industry? Overall, the answer is yes, because he fundamentally believes that people have a choice. When it comes to huge forces such as the climate crisis, for instance, he says: "Either you can choose to fear it and be pessimistic, or you hope everything goes away, or you can try to do something about it. Mater is my way of trying to leave my legacy, my little imprint," he concludes.