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Soil Matters exhibition explores the effects of design and manufacturing industries on soil

4 September–10 January 2021

Soil Matters exhibition at the Design Museum’s Gallery explores the materiality of soil and how it is interwoven with human activity. The design industry steers consumer habits, thus contributing to the contamination and transformation of the land.

The exhibition highlights how, among other factors, the glass and porcelain industries and new technologies have left their mark in the soil. In the exhibition, designers, artisans and artists explore the relationship between human and soil through experimental design projects. Soil Matters will open in September for Helsinki Design Week. It will mark the end of the three-year Design Club Open Call series, in which impressive new curatorial content has been sought for Design Museum’s Gallery.

Artists and groups at the exhibition: Tzuyu Chen (TW), Annelie Grimwade Olofsson (SE/DK), Özgü Gündeşlioğlu (TR), Catharina Kajander (FI), Riikka Latva-Somppi (FI), Maarit Mäkelä (FI), Pauliina Purhonen (FI), Erna Skúladóttir (IS), Unknown Fields Division (Liam Young & Kate Davies) (UK), Un/Making Studio (Åsa Ståhl & Kristina Lindström) (SE)


Soil Matters takes visitors from Somero to Mongolia and from Venice to Nuutajärvi


Soil Matters features nine projects, each with their own approach to the soil. The exhibition showcases a multidisciplinary group of professionals who work with soil, from ceramic artists to activists and different types of research groups. In one of the projects, the audience can observe, how seeds germinate in Nuutajärvi soil, and in the Soil Laboratory, and in another they can smell Somero’s red clay as ceramic artist Catharina Kajander processes her ceramic works on site. In addition to Finnish themes, the exhibition approaches soil from a global perspective: viewers will be able to visit the shores of a polluted lake of sludge in Mongolia in the work of the London-based design studio Unknown Fields Division, and the Traces from the Anthropocene project takes museum guests to islands built from waste in the Venetian Lagoon area.


Traces from the Anthropocene: Working with Soil (2019)

Maarit Mäkelä (FI), Riikka Latva-Somppi (FI), Catharina Kajander (FI),
Özgü Gündeşlioğlu (TR),
Tzuyu Chen (TW), Pauliina Purhonen (FI)

Traces from the Anthropocene: Working with Soil is a project that brought together a group of ceramic artists to explore and process the soil in the Venetian Lagoon area. First, soil and sediment samples were gathered and carefully analysed for heavy metals. Large vessels from local brick clay were made and then painted with the sludge made from the soil. The work explores the constant changes occurring in soil and poses questions about the effects of human activity on soil and its ecosystem. Soil Matters exhibition will feature the pots created as part of the research project, together with ceramic specimens, soil samples, and photographs.

This artistic research project was carried out at the Department of Design at the Aalto University in cooperation with soil contamination experts from the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE). The original project was conducted during the Research Pavilion event in the context of the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Artificial Islands (2019–2020)

Riikka Latva-Somppi (FI)

The photograph series Artificial Islands by Riikka Latva-Somppi was inspired by the artist’s trip to the island of Sacca San Mattia in Murano, Italy. The Murano islands are renowned for their 700-year-old glass-making tradition. Sacca San Mattia, like many islands in the lagoon in Venice, was built of debris. The artificial island was created by dumping waste from the glass industry, household waste and building rubble into the sea, and the repeated dredging of the lagoon bed. The traditional Venetian way of building artificial islands is an extreme example of human impact on nature. Latva-Somppi’s photographs ask whether we can any longer distinguish between a natural landscape and an artificial structure generated by the needs of the consumer society. 

Earth Dialogue (2015)

 Maarit Mäkelä (FI)

The colours and materials of the ceramic Earth Dialogue paintings come from the soil of New Zealand. Ceramic artist Maarit Mäkelä collected rocks, clay and sand from the island of Waiheke which she later moulded into the materials for her works: Both the clay slabs that function as the base of the works and the clay sludge used as paint were made with these earth-derived materials. The piece featured in the exhibition was created by drawing and painting on wet slabs of clay which were engraved with a stick; several fine layers of different types of sludge were extended over the slabs. In addition to the completed clay painting, the exhibition features material specimens from New Zealand.

Rare Earthenware: Radioactive Ceramics (2014)

Unknown Fields Division (Liam Young and Kate Davies) (UK)

The nomadic design studio Unknown Fields Division analyses, traces and reveals problems and malpractice in the production of consumer goods. Design studio’s projects take their audience on expeditions to remote places where, for example, raw materials are produced and excavated for the needs of the electronic industry. The group has previously researched the Texaco company’s oil fields on the Ecuadorian Amazon, sapphire production in Madagascar, and gold mining in West Australia. The Soil Matters exhibition will feature a film from the Rare Earthenware project, in which the group traced the origins of the rare metals used in technology products such as smart devices and laptops. The expedition took the designers to a lake of radioactive sludge in Mongolia. The lake is badly polluted because the Bayan Obo rare earth mine —the world’s largest resource for mining the rare earth elements used in smart devices— empties its wastewater into it.

Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio based at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London.

Wasteland (2019–)

Annelie Grimwade-Olofsson (SE/DK)

With the growth in consumption, waste incineration plants produce increasing volumes of solid combustion residue that includes environmental toxins, among other things. Designer and artist Annelie Grimwade Olofsson uses combustion residue as the material for a series of ceramic works in the Wasteland project, a project which focuses on the by-products of industrial production and, in so doing, demonstrates the threats and opportunities associated with these materials. In Wasteland, Grimwade Olofsson finds a balance between works of art and innovation of materials, and seeks to highlight how it is possible to “excavate” raw materials from combustion residue instead of using metals extracted from soil or recycled.

Horizons (Dirt is matter out of place) (2020)

Erna Skúladóttir (IS)

Icelander Erna Skúladóttir addresses the status of soil in her work. The material she uses in the piece exhibited in Soil Matters is clay from the hot springs of Krýsuvík, a fragile ecosystem which enjoys legal protection. Skuladottir was able to collect the protected clay because, once the soil has drained from the hot springs into a ditch, it has turned into “dirt” and is no longer protected by law. Horizons, the work shown in the exhibition, features water and soil collected from the ditch and presented in transparent perspex tubes. Over time, the particles of the mixture of materials gradually separate to form a landscape that resembles the geological deposits of the earth.

Soil Care: Symphony Rehearsal (2019–2020)

Tzuyu Chen (TW)

In this design research project, designer Tzuyu Chen, raised in Taiwan, seeks to establish conversation about the interaction that exists between soil and the people who care for it. Chen first collected soil from various environments in Finland and processed them into ceramic materials. She then asked people who work with soil in various roles to attend a one-on-one workshop in which the participants processed both the material and their own relationship with soil. In the exhibition, you can hear an archaeologist, a biodynamic farmer and a construction engineer discuss their relationship with soil. In addition to the interviews, the exhibition features soil specimens collected during the process and objects created in the workshops

Un/making Soil Communities

Un/Making Studio: Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström (SE)

In their work, the Swedish Un/Making Studio explores the impact of industry on soil communities that sustain plants, worms, bacteria and human beings. Since 2018, as part of their project Un/Making Soil Communities, Ståhl and Lindström have studied the possibilities of cleaning soil using phytoremediation technologies, which use plants to clean up polluted soil, air or water. Some plants are able to absorb and store pollutants found in the ground. In this project, the designers use carefully selected plants to correct the heavy metal content of soil. During the Soil Matters exhibition, the research project is being extended to the area of the former glass factory in Nuutajärvi.

Soil Laboratory

The purpose of the Soil Laboratory is to reflect on the relationship between human activity and the earth and soil through research, art and personal stories. The ceramic artists working in the laboratory during the exhibition contribute an integral approach as well as a unique understanding of soil and its materials. Research takes place collectively and understanding is broadened through this process. Visitors of the exhibition are encouraged to follow the progress of the work of the Soil Laboratory and discuss the projects with the artist-researchers at the exhibition. 

Send your own soil sample to the Laboratory, instructions here.
See the results of analyzed samples here

The Soil Laboratory is part of the Empirica research group at the Aalto University Department of Design.



Together with:

Aalto University, AJ Tuotteet, Association for Rural Culture and Education, The Design Club – Design Museum’s business network, Embassy of the Republic of Iceland Helsinki, Finnish Environment Institute, Geological Survey of Finland, Kultelan Tiiliputki, Saastamoinen Foundation, Wienerberger.



In cooperation with