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The SCIN Gallery in Clerkenwell is an essential destination for architects and designers searching for innovative new materials, whether it’s bioplastic made from dead beetles or floor tiles assembled from snail poo.

Image: Annabelle Filer in the materials library at the SCIN Gallery in Old Street

The SCIN Gallery in Clerkenwell is an essential destination for architects and designers searching for innovative new materials, whether it’s bioplastic made from dead beetles or floor tiles assembled from snail poo. Andre Paine gets under the SCIN with founder Annabelle Filer…

A visit to the SCIN Gallery at the Clerkenwell end of Old Street feels like a glimpse of the future for architecture and interiors. In this exhibition space on four floors, the possibilities seem endless – and sometimes laugh-out-loud bizarre.

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Image: Dead beetle bioplastic

When I call at the gallery, the temporary exhibition by unorthodox design and architecture firm Ordinary Ltd features bacterial sandstone shells, pavilions made from crystals and self-healing concrete. Their focus on material science also features the snail tile, a biodegradable product that is 100 per cent snail poo of a particularly vibrant hue thanks to the coloured paper a Dutch designer fed to his molluscs.

SCIN originally stood for Surfaces Covering Interiors, but now the gallery’s acronym (pronounced ‘skin’) has become synonymous with its exhaustive collection of materials and exploration of innovative, sustainable concepts. The specialist gallery launched in 2011, though SCIN started out with a different mission for unusual materials.

“It was originally conceived as a resource to bring new materials or surfaces to the consumer,” says gallery founder and creative director Annabelle Filer (she’s on Twitter as @materialsgirl). But while she admits her idea of toolkits to introduce smart, sustainable and edgy materials to the general public didn’t quite catch on, designers and architects loved her approach.

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Image: a rendering of the crystal pavilion by Ordinary Ltd

“We evolved into a resource for the architectural and design community,” says Filer. “We also have quite a few students who spend hours digging and rummaging, and then there are the procurement and development teams, hoteliers, retail buyers, innovation teams, lecturers, sculptors, artists, trend forecasters and even a vicar!”

When you’ve checked out the architecture and interiors galleries, which include wearable wood, bioplastic made from dead beetles and a fibreglass substitute partly made of wool, it’s time to consult the materials library. Visitors are encouraged to “fondle and squeeze” the hundreds of samples stored in bright orange trays.

As well as architects, the library attracts designers from sectors including interiors, product, industrial, fashion and footwear, as well as packaging specialists. “We still get consumers coming into the library and we are delighted to see them – they are the curious, design-savvy ones who love to banter about what they have seen and used,” adds Filer. “We enjoy that – we like passion.”

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Image: Fibreglass substitute Solidwool

She admits that some materials are “very experimental”, such as stretchy concrete and fungal bricks, but the gallery is always open to fresh ideas. Filer’s also keen to work with different materials in her architecture practice with her husband, Graham Cox.

“He has a habit of ‘borrowing’ samples – last week I found a sheet of crystal titanium in his case,” she says. “We have tried many materials in the past but we can only be as bold as our clients allow us to be.” Their own home has had gold nylon carpets, lava stone glazed worktops and horsehair fabrics.

The latest development in the gallery is the Green Room, a new library and resource on the ground floor devoted to sustainability and clean technology materials. Its launch exhibition, Being Human, will be staged during Clerkenwell Design Week along with the Materials Blast event (7pm, 20 May) – where you might discover something even weirder than snail poo.

SCIN Gallery, 27 Old Street, EC1V 9HL


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