A fairly recent graduate from the acclaimed Design Academy Eindhoven, Merle Bergers has established herself in a short time to be a uniquely innovative designer. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a summer edition of the Gatherists in Amsterdam, an offline, in-person meeting of designers, artists, writers, and other creative people. We met again in September in Merle’s studio close to Utrecht, housed in a former gemeentehuis (city hall) that has been transformed by family and friends into a stunning communal live/work space.
Through creating arresting, beautifully conceived objects, Merle reminds us of our connection to the natural world and to each other, with the personal and the human. In a way, her body of work is reminiscent of an alchemist’s as it makes the fleeting and the ephemeral tangible. There is something magical and poetic about her creations, while being deeply rooted in research and science.
Here we discuss the genesis of two distinct projects of hers: Lingua Planta, a fragrance range that is based on the molecular communication of plants, and What’s in a Tear, bespoke rings featuring a pearl-like stone created from human tears.
What inspired you to study design? Did you have a design practice before you went to school?
Before I went to design school I used to be a full time model, which I did after finishing high school. During high school I went to evening art classes and checked out the local art academy. I went to different cities to figure out where I should go with my creativity. I couldn’t find the right fit for me so I decided to take a gap year and happened to be scouted as a model. It seemed like a great opportunity to travel around and get to know myself a bit better. So I did that and one year became three and a half years.
I was living in Paris and feeling miserable, so I decided to take control of my own life again. I moved back to the Netherlands and rented a little room with a studio space. Actually it was just one room with my bed and next to that a little table with a lot of plaster objects. I obsessively worked on a portfolio for a school I didn’t know yet. Then my uncle told me about Design Academy Eindhoven and it just seemed perfect—also, it was perfect timing. I didn’t think I would be able to get in because they are massively strict. And though I have been creative all my life, I had never tried to build a portfolio before. But I wanted to go for it.
Did you have an idea of how you wanted to develop yourself then?
When I was accepted into Design Academy Eindhoven the department I finally chose wasn’t there yet. So I studied in the department of man and food which for me was really about how to live as a human, how to live together with other species—the circle of life, basically.
What wasn’t there for me in art academy but was in design academy was the functionality of design and designing for others. I didn’t want to make things just for myself, I also wanted to be conscious of the connections things have with others. And in design academy, you have to have a specific reason for where you get your materials, why you use them, and why you would make something at all so that made it a really good fit.
Would you say those were things you always considered in the way you live?
Definitely. Towards the end of my Design Academy career I worked with themes that were also important to me when I was a child. I grew up in a forest and I used to play with the materials I found there. I also thought about the plants and trees around me, and how they had a soul. We lose a lot of this playfulness and feeling of interconnectedness when we get older. But at some point it came back to me and I decided to dive inwards in my research, and that worked.
Now I see that a lot of the themes I deal with have always been there. They’ve always been important but in the last years of design academy, I gave them space. That made my work a lot stronger and also gave me a lot of relief. Finally I could make what was important to me.
It sounds like you came out of your program knowing your identity as a designer and an artist.
I think so. There was a lot of soul-searching. There were times I couldn’t find my soul and there were struggles because of that. But you have to struggle at least a little bit to get to know yourself.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a little forest surrounded by meadows, about a half-hour cycle ride from a city called Enschede, in the east of the Netherlands. It is a very natural area. There was a lot of climbing of trees, jumping over water and falling in.
Where did the modeling work take you?
I lived in Paris one and a half years, London a couple of months, Tokyo two months, and Milan for some time—and I went to many other places for work.
I tried to ground in Paris but it was difficult for me to build my home there. I was drawn back home, back to my own country. I missed the forest. There are a lot of lovely things to say about Paris but I was starting to miss being grounded. You cannot sit on the grass in the parks in Paris. What’s a girl to do?
My agency in Paris wanted me to go back but I just couldn’t. When they would call to ask me when I was coming back, I would start to cry every time. It was stronger than me deciding not to go. It was my body that decided for me.
Did you consider other schools?
I considered other schools but it just seemed like the right one. When I applied to design and art schools, I didn’t know much about design at all. It was appealing that Design Academy gives you a lot of freedom and you don’t have to know what you will become. It appealed to me because I also didn’t know [what I wanted to do].
Do you think there are certain methodologies in Design Academy Eindhoven and perhaps in your own practice that are Dutch in nature?
I think so. There’s not a lot of hierarchy in the teacher/student situation. The design academy system was based on Bauhaus but the teaching style you could say is quite Dutch, it’s a level way of teaching. A lot of the teachers are Dutch and most of them are also designers or work in the field of design.
Your practice includes a lot of collaboration with people from different fields, namely scientists- how did that come about?
When I was still studying, I listened to podcasts like Radiolab to find topics for my work. They invite a lot of scientists. I also found a lot of connections through Mediamatic in Amsterdam. They always invite interesting people from different fields to give lectures. Also, I found out that when you ask people, they are often very willing to help.
What I like about science is that much of the information is brought to you. A lot of scientific information is written. I love science. I like how podcasts bring you knowledge directly from science, and I found a role for myself there as well: to translate certain topics that are super interesting but quite flat; topics you cannot feel or smell when they’re written.
That’s why I decided to work with the University of Amsterdam. Working with people from other fields, like scientists, was encouraged. I also worked with students from Wageningen [University and Research]. Wageningen is more about agricultural sciences but [includes] the study of nature and sustainability. Because my design course department [concerns] food and water and different ways to think about agriculture, this connection was laid out quite early. Also, I find it very important that what I say is right so I wanted to fact-check.
I saw Peter Roessingh give a lecture at Mediamatic about communicating through smell. I had already read about it in other books. With him, I felt I could make it work: doing this research and fact-checking everything. Also talking about it, diving into the subject, and making it come alive as a designer.
So that was the birth of Lingua Planta. Did you develop it in collaboration with Peter, or in consultation?
He was more like a consultant; his colleague lent me the microscope to make a video of the plant surface, and we talked a lot about the communication between tomato plants. This was really the root of Lingua Planta. We’d talk about molecules, what they can and can’t do, and their functionality.
Can you tell me about Lingua Planta?
Attract, Repel, and Defend—they are the three communicative signals that plants send out. Attract is based on how flowers attract bees and butterflies and other pollinators so it contains more sweetness, it’s more honey-like. People would say it’s feminine although I don’t agree with gender specifications in scent. I do get where they come from because it is flowery. Repel is based on the repellent activity in plants. A lot of those molecules exist in citrus fruits like grapefruit and lemon and some plants like vetiver and galbanum.
Do they align in any way with the scent families that are used in traditional perfume-making?
Yes, definitely. In the beginning I was mostly fascinated by the molecules and not necessarily by their source but gradually I became more interested in the natural materials. I’ve always played with natural materials when I was younger and I’ve been fascinated by scent all my life. It felt natural for me to step away from the molecules alone and move toward natural materials to also find the molecules plants use in those materials. For example, a lot of citrus fruits have limonene, citronellol, and linalool and those substances happen to repel insects. You can extract them but you can also leave them inside of the natural material.
The three perfumes are mostly natural but still contain all the molecules that have the [specific] function in plants. So Repel still repels insects, although it’s not the main function of the perfume. I wanted it to smell appealing and then secretly tell the message.
The perfumes have layers of consciousness. First, there is the perfume: ‘I like perfume.’ Then people think about the smells but when they look deeper, there is a lot of knowledge and interesting stuff [happening] between the different ingredients. The whole message of Lingua Planta is that plants communicate and that we could—or should—regard them differently because they are co-inhabitants of Earth.
It’s interesting to think about how we can use their way of communicating to communicate our own desires or moods. I see it as a kind of leveling or way of drawing parallels between plants and us.
Definitely. For example, Defend is a resinous, regenerative scent. It contains substances that are healing for the plant or tree. Research has found that they are also healing for people. Defend has very grounding ingredients, like cedarwood and other different resins. I found out later that they actually have a sedative, calming effect. I would like to research further what the double functions are: the function something used to have in the plant and the function it can take in the life of the user.
I read an article about how frankincense has some special properties such as being antidepressive and anti-inflammatory.
Yes. These molecules also have an influence on us, and on our brain. The aroma components from natural products have been used for mental, spiritual, and physical healing since the beginning of recorded history. Research shows they have a very profound, quantifiable effect.
What were your guiding principles when you developed these scents? Was it most important that they work as perfumes or did you prioritize other things?
In the beginning how they smelled was not important at all. It just started as a research project. I was curious about the smells of molecules. But after I made the composition with natural materials, it was hugely important to me that it smelled good—but not in a way that would make it too easy. I still wanted the perfumes to have a bit of an edge, and to restrict myself and use materials that are not too harmful to tell the story. It was a bit of a puzzle to make it work because I don’t have a formal background in perfumery but I do have a huge obsession with learning. So I worked on the perfumes for a long time, around a year to take them from molecular compositions to actual perfumes.
How do you source your materials?
Although I try to get most of my ingredients from natural origins, I don’t think we have to be afraid of chemicals. We have natural isolates that you can get from a plant but you can also make them in a laboratory. I do have a love for natural ingredients so I tend to move away from the synthetics. The [ingredients] all have their natural origins.
There are so many perfumers using ingredients that they really shouldn’t, because they are endangered. A lot of the big players still use them. I ask them on Instagram, ‘Do you know where these ingredients coming from; do you know the situation?’ and the answer is always quite vague.
We need more consciousness in every business, big or small, about where materials come from and how things are produced. I don’t know if being 100% sustainable is possible because we still use plant material. But we should always aim to be the best in what we can and to make choices that fit a sustainable mindset and consciousness with what we’re doing and what kind of effects it has on others in this world. The others may as well be trees, plants, and forests.
How would you describe Defend?
Defend opens with a green grass, cut grass note but quickly dries down towards a moody resinous base and heart. Defend is a walk in the forest; you smell the different ingredients as a timeline. Depending on your skin, some notes come out more than others. With me, it becomes more cedarwood heavy, which I like a lot. It has some spicy notes, some deep things. But it can also go mossy and it has a damp forest floor vibe that I really love as it comes from my childhood.
You mentioned that you like to layer this with Repel. How would you describe Repel?
Repel is a green citrus note. It is very fresh and it goes together nicely with the dried wood of Defend. I’ve described it as a vegetable garden in spring in Sicily. It’s really citrusy—juicy but green.
Is Attract more floral?
It’s the most floral one; it’s based mostly on the Bulgarian rose although there are some other flowers in there as well. Patchouli and Helichrysum Immortelle give it the honey note.
What is Immortelle?
It’s a yellow flower that grows in France. It’s a classic perfume note that fixates the smell a bit longer on the skin. It’s like a flower resin, when it comes out of the bottle it’s quite sticky. You have to warm it up a little.
Do you do all the mixing here?
Yes I do, most of the process happens here. Now somebody in Amsterdam sews the little bags but I still do the transfers. I was ironing them this morning.
That’s great that you have your hands on everything.
Yes, although I wish to find some good, ethical producers of the bags for example and find some time to visit some producers of the materials.
Would you like to produce some yourself as well?
Yes. I’m talking to someone who produces essential oils in Portugal. I have to go there, I really want to see how it’s done.
Do you connect with some of the tenets of sustainability, environmentalism, or conscious living for yourself and your practice?
Sustainability has been very important for me my whole life. I quit eating meat when I was 12 and I try not to buy new clothes and all of those things. Also, I try to always think about it in my studio. I try to use only recyclable materials, which is not always easy and does not always work, so sometimes I have to make a choice.
It’s definitely always present but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m a sustainable designer. I design with sustainability in mind. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t make anything! I don’t know any companies that are 100% sustainable. You always use water or certain materials.
How did What’s in a Tear come about?
What’s in a Tear came to be at Design Academy. At the end of the second year, we worked with the theme of water. I decided to research what tears meant in my life. Then the whole tear research came about and I looked into the minerals [in tears]. I started with making microscopic photographs of tears. By then I was already minoring in ceramics, and the way glazes are made and the tear research slid together in a really beautiful way. Tears contain minerals and salts: potassium, magnesium, and calcium. I learned during the ceramic minor that these are all fluxes, which means they all melt at a very high degree [in temperature] so I decided to experiment with that. It took me two six-month periods to find the best way to make my own tears into something lasting.
[I wanted] to see how I could relate to my tears differently and to tell other people that it’s okay to have feelings and show them. I found out for myself that it’s not helpful to not accept your feelings. So it was hugely important to tell this story and then it became the ring and the tear stones.
It actually becomes something you adorn yourself with. Yes. It commemorates something. It becomes physical, something beautiful and special. It can be shared with others and passed on as an heirloom. Did you work with scientists while developing this process of changing tears into something pearl-like?
I did work with TU (Technical University) Eindhoven, where we looked at the different senses of our tears with the spectrometer. I could see the different levels, the different kinds of emotions…
Different emotions meaning different tears?
Yes, it did seem like different tears had different amounts of substances. Sometimes there was more magnesium; sometimes there was more potassium. The research was too small to have any concluding evidence but it was interesting to see how the tears differed and try to draw some parallels.
I spoke with many people about how to make it happen but in the end, it was actually quite simple. I got some help as well from the design academy’s studio teacher in ceramics. It was really a technical thing. I tried out different temperatures and failed many, many times.
Are the rings and settings for the pearls your own making and design?
I worked with a jewelry designer for the graduation show. I didn’t like the design so I decided to learn 3D programs. Now I work together with a company that is able to print wax. They make the mold in which gold or silver is poured. This allows me to make an indent in the 3D program so the tear stone fits perfectly every time. The polishing of the ring still gives it a human touch; it looks a bit different every time.
Are you setting it yourself? Yes. Is the tear stone durable? Yes. Do you shower with it? I do. I’m trying to find out if I will lose the stone if I act really careless but it’s still there.
Where do you see yourself taking your work?
I’ve decided to develop myself further in terms of being a nose. I’m letting go of only doing Lingua Planta when it comes to smell and researching other fields. I am making some bespoke scents at the moment, which is great because it is creativity in such a free way. I am working on some new work for Dutch Design Week, contemplative candles. They will have a smell based on nature’s communications. There are some first tryouts of the stopper of the candle, clay balls with texture. I’m working with ceramic boxes.
My graduation work consisted of an installation of a ceramic box with glass bubbles that maintained fragrance mists of one of the molecular compositions. I really liked the shape. It was based on the microscopic surface of plants, which is like the body. The stomata really look like mouths but [plants] are also able to receive smells with them. They emit smells through the trichomes, a kind of appendage that emits fragrant oil.
I wanted to make [this work] on a small scale. I wanted to make something that people can take home, something much smaller that tells the plant intelligence story in a different way.