Designer, entrepreneur and eco-crusader, Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, devised the concept for her potentially world-altering product, Sugru, whilst at the Royal College of Art in 2003. It took a further six years of experimentation to perfect the formula for this truly super, mouldable glue, so that it could fix or improve almost anything: fabric or ceramic; metal, wood or plastic, whilst sustaining extremes of temperature in its final state – a flexible, silicone rubber that stays stuck (until you want it gone). In 2009, the company’s first run of 1000 packets sold out in a few hours. Earlier this year, Sugru celebrated its 10 million fixes milestone. That’s 10 million things saved from disuse, decrepitude and disposal; 10 million things not poisoning the planet as they decay in landfill. Quite a landmark. And it’s only just the beginning, as Sugru is not just a smartypants sticky paste, it is also an open invitation to all of us to fix and make: to create.
Indeed, this democratisation of the design mentality was a crucial part of Ní Dhulchaointigh’s vision from inception, as was its appealing look and feel, and the air of mischief implied by the brand name (inspired by an Irish word for “play”.) Purchase Sugru and you become part of an inclusive, collaborative community of creatives that constantly posts new uses for the product on social media. The most popular to date: fixing buggered charging cables. And as well as encouraging other consumers, these unique ideas also inspire Ní Dhulchaointigh and her team anew each day as they set about making the hero-glue on their Hackney premises, from where it makes its way to future fixers and makers in 170 countries and counting.
Congratulations on reaching 10 million fixes. That’s huge.
It’s hard to visualise it, but it's pretty amazing to think about as obviously this all began as a little idea. But we see the stories come through so we have a bit of visibility as to what it means: kids lunch boxes, bikes, bits of cars, shoes, fridges and all sorts getting fixed. And we're only just getting started. If you ask most people if they've heard about Sugru, they’ll say, ”What's that?" And we think there's a collective appetite for a more ethical and thoughtful relationship to our stuff. I feel we're part of a hands on movement that goes far beyond fixing and even includes things like Great British Bake Off. There's something in us that is telling us: I want to make something, I want to get my hands dirty and learn – especially if we spend all day at a computer.
How did growing up on a farm, where things were usually repaired as opposed to disposed of, inform your initial idea?
At the time I didn't realise there was anything special about [growing up on a farm], but looking back to when I began design things, I just felt that there was a disconnect. Should I be fuelling a culture that is solely about creating new desires for new things? Because obsolescence occurs via the mind as well. That's where fashion and cycles of consumption set by moneymaking forces come in, and that's not something that I wanted to build upon.
So, as a designer I was thinking: How can I utilise the power of design? Not in the way of designing for people, but how could design be a mindset that anyone could access? Everyone has ideas, for example, if you've got a teapot that doesn't pour properly, most people think, "Well, if the spout was more pointy, it wouldn't do that." Then it became about creating something that's easy and fun enough to use that anyone can have a go at solving problems.
for millennia we've been using our hands to make things just to survive then that's part of who we are.
What’s the most intriguing use for Sugru by a customer that you’ve seen?
Projects that might appear mundane are really inspiring to us, things like, fixing dishwashers. We love those, as that's a big expense that somebody has been spared. And those big items – printers, fridges, gadgets – they’re so resource-hungry, so if we can keep those things living twice as long then you're saving huge amounts of potentially wasted energy.
And we love human impact. We often see stories by people with family members who have a disability, or are quite elderly, and then you see the little adjustments that they've made to help others live more independently. For example, there's a family in Ontario that have a little girl who’s in a wheelchair and her dad used Sugru to enlarge a button on the elevator to allow her to go in and out of the garden on her own. It's such a tiny thing, but it just takes a little bit of Sugru and a little bit of the thoughtfulness, resourcefulness and ingenuity that exists in people anyway, and that can improve someone's life.
Do you think we're getting to a place as a society where most people will try to fix or augment things instead of buying replacements?
Yea. It’s not something that will happen overnight, but if you think about recycling 20 years ago, it was just the eco warriors doing it. Whereas today it's not even something in your mind that makes you to do it: something in your gut sends off alarm bells if you put a coke can in the wrong bin. And I think that is starting to happen with waste. The first step is there, in that people are growing more aware of it, and the next step will be about getting the motivation and confidence up to have a go at fixing. It’s also about encouraging a culture where people naturally think about solving problems rather than living with compromises.
Do you think we might not give our bodies enough credit for the intelligence they have? That people have a natural instinct as to how to fix things via touch?
I do. It makes total sense that if for millennia we've been using our hands to make things just to survive then that's part of who we are. The more passive, sedentary lifestyle of today where tech is doing so much for us is recently imposed, so it's about reawakening those senses which exist underneath.