Creative Lives — Finding out what you’re made of: Seetal Solanki, founder and creative director at Ma-tt-er

Posted 19 October 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Growing up working in her family’s corner shop in Leicester, Seetal Solanki fast learned the importance of multitasking. Even the quickest glance at her broad, multidisciplinary portfolio is enough to see that this skill has come in handy. A background in textiles has informed a body of work bursting with research-driven client commissions for brands such as Nike, Nissan and Alexander McQueen. Approaching everything from an inquisitive, investigative angle is something she’s carried through to her role as creative director of Ma-tt-er – the design research studio she founded in 2015. Together with an eclectic and revolving repertoire of experts (from historians and anthropologists to plastic restorers), Ma-tt-er sets out to explore the world through its materials. Operating in such a niche field means that Seetal cites her biggest achievement as “Having my parents understand what I do for a living.” Despite being something of an unconventional creative, she was selected as one of It’s Nice That’s Ones to Watch earlier this year, and Ma-tt-er is now in the process of publishing a book. We get to know the material conservationist, as she reveals how she found her place in the industry.

Seetal Solanki

Job Title

Tutor, Interior Design; Experience Design, Royal College of Art (2017)
Designer, Founder and Creative Director, Ma-tt-er (2015–present)

Based

London

Education

MA Design for Textile Futures, Central Saint Martins (2005–2007)
BA Jewellery and Silversmithing (1999–2001)
BA Multimedia Textiles, Loughborough University (2000–2004)

Previous Employment

Creative/Art Director, Seetal Ltd (2005–2015)
Men’s Fashion and Art Editor, ALVAR Magazine (2013–2014)
Head of Textiles, Colour and Print, McQ Alexander McQueen (2012) 

Clients

British Council, Riposte Magazine, Blackhorse Workshop, FRAME Magazine, The Future Laboratory, SPACE10, Red Deer, Selfridges, DAZED, Iceland Academy of the Arts, Design Museum, Venice Glass Week and G . F Smith. 

Website
Social Media

Seetal Solanki

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I’m the founder and creative director of Ma-tt-er. Using our own resources, we research, design and apply materials in a more responsible way. We work with clients like the Design Museum on events and workshops, so a lot of our work stems from something quite educational in order to bring more awareness to what material is. We’re publishing a book very soon, which talks more about why materials matter, which is quite exciting. We're also working on an exhibition, workshop and panel discussion for London Design Festival this September, on the future of the home in 2030.

What does a typical working day look like?
It can change very rapidly depending on the brief. I try to use my Sunday evenings to plan the upcoming week so that we have a loose plan of what it should look like. Monday will be team gathering, meeting, catching up. Tuesdays are probably meetings; Wednesdays and Thursdays are client work and Friday is for our own Ma-tt-er-related projects. 

Where does the majority of your work take place? 
I would say half in the studio and half out. We have a studio in Wick Lane. It’s a messy working space for making, and a clean working area for desk work. A lot of the time is quite research based, so we’ll be out actively researching, whether it’s going to archive visits or that kind of thing, to libraries, museums, galleries.

Ma-tt-er Obonjan workshop

How does your project-based work usually come about?
Sometimes we will pitch, but we also get a lot of inquiries on a daily basis from people who might have seen something we've done on social media, which we then pick from. A lot of it has come from events that we’ve put on, where we have purposely gone out to demonstrate what we do, and how it can affect the world that we live in. People are affected by that too, so there's a real social, economical and political element to everything that we do. It’s very human. Doing events and workshops allows people to engage on a practical level, familiarise themselves with what material potentials are, as well as speaking to us directly and getting to have a face-to-face conversation. 

How collaborative is your work? 
It’s all collaborative, and it has to be because we’re not experts in everything. We’re all essentially designers in the studio, but we’ve also got historians and different experts we can call in depending on the project; a plastic restorer, anthropologist or a scientist. Experts come in at different points of the project rather than for the entire project. We’ll never claim to know everything about materials because it’s always a collective effort rather than an individual one. That’s how we can create a positive social impact that is reflective of society.

“We have so much available to us that we forget to ask what we really need to solve. Is it necessary, what’s the point, what is the difference, and why?”

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The amount of emails I get is just mad. I could easily email all day, but I try to control it in a way that allows me to actually work, answering them at different points of the day, not as soon as they arrive. The most enjoyable part has to be the people. The amount of incredible people out there that we’ve been able to meet is just really humbling and enriching. It makes everything we do so worthwhile, because people respond and engage with – even if it’s not always positive. Receiving criticism is actually really good feedback, because it allows us to see things from a different perspective. For me it’s people, always.

Inside the Ma-tt-er studio; photography by Tristan Bewan

Inside the Ma-tt-er studio; photography by Tristan Bewan

Inside the Ma-tt-er studio; photography by Tristan Bewan

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What has been the most exciting project over the last twelve months?
The ones that have involved travel, because they allowed me to gain a completely different cultural perspective on design – how things are made and how people work, what is necessary and unnecessary. Visiting Beirut with the British Council was a really great opportunity. I opened design week there and did a talk and workshop on cooking your own materials. They were going through a huge crisis because all the landfills had been abolished and are facing some serious issues that design can help with. A lot of people responded to that crisis by creating products or materials from trash. It was amazing to see that it actually has a real application – that it’s not purely for aesthetics, it's actually solving a real problem. Sometimes we forget that here, because we have so much available to us. We forget to ask what we really need to solve. We ask these types of questions all the time in our studio: is it necessary, what’s the point, what is the difference, and why? ‘Why?’ comes up all the time in our practise. That's partly the reason why we postponed designing our own products – because we first needed to understand why there’s so much out there. 

What skills are essential to your job?
Open mindedness; not being limited by what you already know and being willing to explore how a different industry (say, geology) might apply to design. Having a different approach to research, and wanting to investigate things from different points of view is also key. The things is, anybody could work for Ma-tt-er, or for me. I get so many intern requests and job applications on a daily basis and they always come from completely different backgrounds. In the past we’ve had a data scientist, a fashion designer, a strategist. They’re all applicable, and we could easily have a much bigger team. It’s just timing and we don’t always have vacancies. 

Ma-tt-er X SPACE workshop; photography by Chris Lensz

Ma-tt-er X SPACE workshop; photography by Chris Lensz

Ma-tt-er X SPACE workshop; photography by Chris Lensz

Ma-tt-er X SPACE workshop; photography by Chris Lensz

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Are you currently working on any side projects?
We have to, because we also need to demonstrate our voice in our own practise, and what that means. It’s not always about client work, although that does also inform what we do. Side projects allow you to have a voice, but also let clients see how you could be applicable for them. Maybe there are two worlds that can meet.

At the moment, what we’re doing is seeing how one material (in this case, seaweed) behaves throughout twelve months; we’re looking a material through the seasons. Spring could be about growth, summer could be about abundance, autumn about harvesting and winter about preservation. We’re asking questions like what would happen if we use fermentation in preservation? Could we prolong the life of something so it'll be ready to eat in spring, and then dry it out and harvest it so that it becomes a solid material? Seaweed can be so many things; it’s like how a chef can create one dish many ways, or use one ingredient in three ways. It’s the same principle with a material. You can make fuel and textiles; furniture and dye, and you can eat it. It’s about exposing the versatility of this one material and looking at all the industries it can affect. 

What tools do you use most for your work? 
My iMac; InDesign; Illustrator. I’m doing video editing now so there's also Adobe Premier. We have kitchen equipment in our studio: food processors, blenders and I'm going to buy a dehydrator soon. You normally associate dehydrators with vegetable crisps, but with material making you really need to eliminate water from the material so it’s an essential piece of equipment. It's very domestic, but also very technical. We might do something in VR and AR soon, so Arduinos and soldering will become part of that too.

Solid to Waif; photography by Benjamin Swanson

Solid to Waif; photography by Benjamin Swanson

Solid to Waif; photography by Benjamin Swanson

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A teacher. I love helping people and I’ve always been quite good at that. There’s a really strong educational side to what we do. When we take on interns, I always spend at least one hour of the day mentoring them, so they’re also gaining something if I can’t pay them fully.

What influence has your upbringing had on your work, and what were your first jobs? 
My first job was working in my family’s corner shop in Leicester. I grew up ingrained within working life, learning to multitask to the max and interacting with so many different types of people. Leicester has a multicultural society we had to speak maybe four or five different languages. There was a factory across the road that I wanted to work in. It turned out to be a sweatshop, so I later understood why I wasn’t allowed to, but I just wanted to see how things were made, especially clothing. But working with my family taught me that you should enjoy what you do – it’s not a job, and I think I’ve carried that with me. My parents also had the opportunity to take us to great places on holiday. I’ve travelled quite a lot, which has informed how I think about the world, how different cultures live and the social side of design. There’s an empathy that comes with that. 

The biggest achievement is having my parents understand what I do for a living. I think it’s because I make sure I involved them in what I do. My mum is a yoga teacher, but she actually trained as a fashion designer. She was so adamant for me not to go into that industry, and I kind of went against her wishes. She's obviously quite grateful now, but at the time it was a challenge. I recently did three workshops in Croatia all about wellbeing and connectedness, framed around materials of the land, water, and air, and how these materials can provide a service (asking whether fungi can remove radioactive waste). For the air one, I had my Mum create a breathing practise to clear the air within the environment and our own bodies. It was a really great opportunity to have my parents see a different side to what I do. They’re embracing it, which is really nice to see.

Seaweed from the Ma-tt-er materials library

Seaweed from the Ma-tt-er materials library

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How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Oh it’s incredibly useful. My teachers have always been very encouraging. Initially I studied psychology at A-Level which is really applicable to what we do now, as a lot of it is about behavioural change. It would be really hard for me to do what I do without my training in textiles. It has allowed me to be quite technical but also really creative – like having both an analytical and creative. Without that I don’t think I would understand materials. 

What in particular helped you most at the start of your career?
Being featured as one of the It’s Nice That Ones To Watch. I can’t tell you how massive that exposure was for us. So many people from different industries have contacted me since; the opportunity to publish a book came from that. It’s been incredible. It was totally unexpected because I’m not a conventional creative, but a very humbling experience. 

What skills have you learned along the way? 
I’ve learned much more about science. While I’m a designer, people assume I’m a scientist because I say I’m a material conservationist. While you can learn all the technical and practical things, the one thing that is essential to have is people skills – that’s been the biggest learning curve. It’s such a crucial skill to possess as you gain more experience.

“You don’t need to come from a design background to do what I do. The biggest challenge is having the courage to do this in the first place.”

What's been your biggest challenge?
Being patient enough to ride it out for this long. I’ve worked for thirteen years, and Ma-tt-er has been around for two of those. There’s nothing really out there like this, so the biggest challenge has been having the courage to want it and do this in the first place. 

Is your job what you thought it would be? 
Yes, and partly no. It’s been so rewarding on so many levels, and I didn’t expect it to be so quickly well-received. I thought it would take five years to get to this stage. Plus, having people engage with it so positively, and ask questions, has been amazing. It’s what we want. But on the flip side of that, my role is changing within the company itself. I’m still the creative director and I still make and design things, but as we gain more people my role is becoming more management-focussed. That isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a very different skill set. 

Seetal speaking at Nicer Tuesdays

Seetal’s work for Nike

Seetal’s work for Nike

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
For Ma-tt-er, it would be having our own studio practise out there; we’re quite intent on working on that quite quickly. We’d also like to have stations in different parts of the world so that we’re not just London-based. Thinking even further ahead, eventually we want a Ma-tt-er school, but in the form of a restaurant. 

Could you do this job forever?
Yeah. This is my journey and this is it for me. It’s not a job, it’s my life. 

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position? 
I’m teaching at the RCA now, which I guess is part of the progression. It’s been so rewarding, and what's interesting is that I’m not teaching on a textiles or materials course, but on experience design and interior design. It’s so much more interesting because it’s specific, but also open-minded.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do what you do? 
Although it’s helped, you don’t necessarily need to come from a design background to do what I do. Forget about whether a role exists or doesn’t exist. More than anything, try to understand who you are as a designer. It’s not what you’re meant to be, it’s who you are. That’s what I want to bring out in people with the mentoring I do as part of our internships. I want to get to the root of who you are as a designer and what you’re trying to achieve. That takes a long time to develop, and it’s not something that you initially find out after graduating. Your experience will be learning who you are after that. And that’s kind of what I did. 

Once you have some understanding of your role in the world, be prepared for it to evolve. Things change, technology changes and you have to be adaptable. But it’s essential to create your own methodology and toolkit, define what’s important to you and what you’d like to carry forward. With those small foundations, you can apply yourself to anything. That may be doing what we do, or something completely different, but I think it’s about always staying true to who you are. 

Posted 19 October 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Design
Mentions: Seetal Solanki, Ma-tt-er, It's Nice That, Design Museum, Nike
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