INTERVIEW: Egyptian designer Rania Elkalla finds her calling in nutshells

Ghada Abdel-Kader , Thursday 1 Apr 2021

The designer uses biodegradable materials to promote environmental sustainability

Rania Elkalla
Photo courtesy of Rania ElKalla

Rania Elkalla is an Egyptian integrated and graphic designer with an experience in material science and production techniques. She has recently awed her followers with her pioneering work that promotes environmental sustainability.

The 30-year-old designer was born and raised in Cairo and is now sharing her time between Egypt and Germany. Ever since she was a little girl, Elkalla has developed an interest in experimenting with waste materials. “I always needed to touch and feel tangible objects,” she said.

“I love nature and music, and I enjoy the simple things in life. I am the proud daughter of amazing parents, and the middle sister between two strong women,” Elkalla added.

She described her work as "mostly eclectic," derived from different cultures and styles. “I like to merge different disciplines,” she commented.

Pebble hanger out of eggshell bio composite with a secret storage for your valuable items ( all photos courtesy of Rania Elkalla )

Elkalla earned her bachelor’s degree in product design from the German University in Cairo in 2012. She spent the last year of university at Köln International School of Design in Germany, before studying integrated design and conducting her Master’s research project at the Technical University of Berlin.

She took the idea of using nutshells in her works from her father. Elkalla grew up in a family that focused on healthy and organic food, such as nuts.

“My father used to buy nuts encased in their shells, and while he would eat them, the nutshells would scatter everywhere. I used to help him collect cracked shells,” she recalled.

The pebbles hangers collection of different shapes and colors

Elkalla realised how wonderful and strong the material of nutshell is. She noticed their resemblance to wood. Nutshells are durable, heat- and water-resistant. Scientific studies have proven they enhance biopolymer properties.

Later on, she realised nutshells are similar to eggshells. Elkalla explained that more than a trillion eggs are laid every year. Some 95 percent of an eggshell is calcium carbonate, one of nature’s most absorbent materials, and collagen. It can absorb up to 78 percent of carbon dioxide in the air.

“Eggs are one of the main ingredients in the kitchen, but their versatility is often overlooked,” she commented.

Different shapes of ripple light units made of bio eggshells composite sheet materials

In 2010, Elkalla started to work on her investigation into eggshells and nutshells into her bachelor’s thesis. Her main concern and obstacle was finding the right recipe for creating a completely sustainable and biodegradable material that did not rot or break down quickly while in use. She delved into biodegradable binding agents.

“I consulted many scientists and engineers. Eventually, I reached my perfect biodegradable recipe during my master’s research project,” she adds.

Biodegradable hair comb series made out eggshells combined with biodegradable polymer based on natural resources

Elkalla is the founder of Shell Homage, a brand using biomaterials of egg and nut shells.
The project produces a biodegradable composite material out of discarded egg and nut shells. She says the brand is based on values.

“Shell Homage means that we have respect and honour for those discarded shells and pay homage for their entire journey and what they had carried inside,” she explained.

Eggshells and nutshells composites samples

The project is meant to create functional and sustainable products, making use of abundant food waste such as egg and nut shells to create biodegradable materials, being natural replacements for oil-based plastics. The shells decompose if you put them in a hole in a garden. “This is the ultimate solution for getting rid of plastics and other materials instead of storing them for years and they never decay,” she added.

Floral handcrafted vase

The surface of the material varies from rough to smooth, opaque, translucent, and transparent. The material’s properties can be controlled by the production method. The results created range from hard to malleable and elastic sheets.

different size of coffee Tables

Shell Homage is accessible to different industries. It sells customised sheets and different products, such as furniture, home accessories, light units, wall clocks, hair combs jewellery and 3D printing filament. “Each piece produced by Shell Homage is completely handcrafted, unique, and 100 percent compostable,” Elkalla confirmed.

Basket made of extruded nutshells threads

Her first design made from egg and nut shells was pebble hangers with a secret storage. It won the A′ Design award 2016- 2017 from Italy in furniture accessories, hardware and material design category.

A′ Design award and competition is the world’s largest and most prestigious award and influential design accolade.

Elkalla has received multiple awards. She is the only Egyptian winner who got chosen for the WIA 54 (Women in Africa) award 2020 in climate and sustainable development category. She also became the media representative of North Africa.

3Dprinting filament made of eggshells

Shell Homage was the gold winner in the most beautiful solution category of Beyond Plastic awards 2020 and took the bronze prize in design for society and eco-sustainable design category from the European Product Design award 2019.

She earned the Recycling Design Award and the Green Product Design Award in 2019.

Eggshells bio composite granulates

“The period it takes to create and design the material mixture differs. All the colour palettes are natural and customisable,” she said. “I am currently producing the material on my own, but I have craftsmen who help me build my designs,” she added. 

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