Here's another reason to love sugar: The high-calorie substance is the raw material for some pretty sweet products — that aren't food.
These days, there are lamps, golf tees, and even necklaces made of sugar. The products have aesthetic appeal and kitsch value, for sure. But these appetizing items can also be better for the environment — after all, while plastic can take centuries to degrade, sugar dissolves in seconds.
Designer Emiliano Godoy first noticed sugar's potential back in 2003, when he was a master's student at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. Godoy, who grew up in the Mexico City neighborhood Las Aguilas, found inspiration in his roots — specifically, a traditional Mexican confection called calaverita de azucar — to conjure up his thesis project, Sweet Disposable.
The calaverita, a skull made entirely of sugar, is a familiar sight every Nov. 2, when Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead. Sugar, cream of tartar, and just enough water to achieve the consistency of wet sand are molded into skull shapes, which are then left out as offerings to the deceased and nibbled at the celebration's close. The object and its ritual signify Mexicans' belief that death isn't an end, but rather another stage of existence.
Godoy, linked this pre-Columbian rite to an idea of more recent vintage: the cradle-to-cradle thinking of green gurus William McDonough and Michael Braungart. The products Godoy made for his thesis — a golf tee, a votive holder, and a lamp, among others — are made almost entirely of sugar so that when disposed, the sugar simply returns to the planet as what McDonough or Braungart would call a "biological nutrient." This also makes waste storage systems unnecessary, which, considering the resources required for recycling bins and processing plants, can be pretty wasteful themselves.
"A plastic cup takes about six months to produce; it will be used for about 10 minutes; and it will remain in a landfill for a couple of hundred years," says Godoy, who now works in Mexico City's Roma Norte district.
Fashion gets trashed even more regularly than home accessories. Since October of last year, the London-based Dutch designer Greetje van Helmond has made wearable art pieces that last just long enough to stay in style. As van Helmond, who just graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, puts it, "People appear to be a lot less critical of the actual beauty of jewelry made of silver, gold, etcetera, because of the overwhelming richness of the materials. And the use of these durable materials is rather strange when you think of the fact that a lot of these products are made for a fashion season."
Like old-fashioned rock candy, van Helmond's sugar crystals are made by dipping thread into a saturated solution. The longer the frame soaks, the bigger the crystal, and each result is unique — and beautiful.
Munich-based designer Oliver Kessler has found yet another use for sugar: lamp shades that look like overgrown sugar cubes. After a year and a half of research, Kessler has started selling the SugarCubeLight. His approach is slightly different from van Helmond's. For extra support, 10 percent of Kessler's hand-molded sugar product is clear resin. The additive is biodegradable and perfectly safe, but not terribly tasty — Kessler doesn't recommend scraping a sconce to flavor your coffee.
Kessler knows about the environmental benefits of sugar, but he's more concerned with the substance's aesthetic merits.
"It's a perfect filter for those compact fluorescents that drive me crazy every time I see them uncovered. They are good for the environment, but too bright white." Through the veil of the sugar substrate, a corkscrew CFL produces an attractive candle-like glow.
To be sure, harvesting sugar has its flaws when it comes to the environment. But as a new material for hard goods, especially in an economy like Kessler's Germany, where overproduction has created a glut of sugar on the market, "perfect" seems to be an apt choice of words. Or, as van Helmond sums up the good looks and easy disposability, "sugar is a guilt-free treat for designers." Sweet.
Story by David Sokol. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.