Areca Alchemy

Tjeerd Veenhoven finds a sustainable way to transform palm leaves into a sort-of leather.

Tjeerd Veenhoven

For centuries, people in southern India have wet the fibrous leaves of the areca palm, molded them, and dried them into stiff, biodegradable containers. In 2010, one of these landed in the studio of the Dutch designer Tjeerd Veenhoven. “Being a nerd, I was immediately interested in the structure of the fibers,” he says.

After six months of research, Veenhoven found a way to treat the leaves and keep them supple forever, and Palmleather was born. It has advantages over both the original raw material and leather. Areca leaf containers are fragile and very cheap. Veenhoven’s all-natural treatment—“I didn’t want any nasty chemicals,” he says—adds value and consumes a fraction of the water needed to process leather.

Over the next year, the designer made a series of trips to India to develop Palmleather products. “In the beginning, I went to experienced craftspeople and asked them to just follow my drawings. It was so embarrassing,” he says. “But slowly, we started having fun with the material. It’s been a journey for me, from design to social entrepreneurship.”

Winning the 2011 DOEN Materiaalprijs and the 2012 Green Design Competition provided some much-needed funds. With local partners, Veenhoven has brought together a group of artisans to process about 20,000 leaves a month, with hopes for future expansion. “We’re setting up a whole new value chain here,” he says.

The dried areca leaves, sourced from palm plantations, are treated with a mixture of natural substances derived from vegetable oils.

The leaves are strong due to their closely aligned fibers, and the treatment helps them remain soft and pliable. Palmleather is entirely biodegradable.

Palmleather is currently used for footwear and bags, but Veenhoven is experimenting with cross-lamination, which can expand its potential uses.

Images courtesy Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven

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