Materials scientists rarely get their due in the design world. The ones that create the breakthrough products, the ones that soon adorn every home or consumer product, usually suffer the fate of seeing their creation become a mere brand-name, or acronym whose full title can never be remembered MDF? Ya got me. When I walk through Ikea, all I can think is that I hope someone, somewhere, is getting royalties.
Astroturf, Gore-Tex, Kevlar where do these things come from? Who created them? (For the record: James M. Faria and Robert T. Wright of Monsanto Industries; Wilbert Gore; and Stephanie Kwolek, respectively). In many cases, they were designed for something entirely different than the uses they have come to be known for; and in many cases, their original promise was never quite realized e.g., Monsanto's House of the Future offered an entire house made from plastic (indeed, every new breakthrough material, from tempered glass to aluminum, seems to get its house of the future).
Given the perpetually taken-for-granted condition of materials, I was delighted to receive today in the mail however an entirely different kind of design "publication." This one is not concerned with sleek modern houses or stylized final products. Instead, it features the very building blocks of design. It is called Materials Monthly, and it comes in a box. The box contains a handful of samples of new materials, with accompanying background details. It is a three-dimensional magazine, a grown-up busy-box of tactile surprise, a wunderkammer that arrives via parcel post.
It does not come at a more opportune moment. "It has been said that more new materials have been created in the past twenty years than in the entire history of science," observes Jennifer Siegal, of the Office of Mobile Design and editor of the inaugural volume, in a short introduction.
For her volume, Siegal has chosen a trio of new materials that are essentially retakes on familiar materials and materials, like design itself, are never "finished." The first, my personal favorite, is Imagine Tile, which takes ordinary ceramic tiles and allows the consumer to overlay, through digital imaging, any kind of pattern or image they desire. As Siegal writes, "floors, walls, and other surfaces suddenly become the means for presenting highly communicative imagery and symbols, ultimately realizing more powerful design concepts." Some enclosed examples show a kitchen floor that looks like a beach, a bathroom floor that has taken on the gritty texture (and yellow warning lines and manhole covers) of an urban street, while a set of outdoor tiles bears imagery of grass. And rather than merely get fake "Venetian" tile at the Home Depot, why not get the actual pattern replication of the Basilica di San Marco? It's beyond my ken, but for those in the know there's an accompanying set of statistics, ranging from water absorption rates to frost resistance. In any case, I'm currently considering a number of options for my kitchen, perhaps a scan of a Gerhard Richter painting or a set of LANDAT images of the Great Salt Lake.
The next piece to spill out was a small square of a Knoll Textiles product called Imago, which combines elements of fabric, resin, and glass. Created by Suzanne Tick, it's a hybrid material that allows the varying translucency of glass (from 4% to 77%) but with half the weight and a much greater range of flexibility (it can be sawed and formed, under moderate heat, into soft curves). It has a finely nubbed surface intended to resist scratching and fingerprints, and the sample I had contained its own lenticular patterns, a set of pixellated lines that seemed to be coming from somewhere within the material itself.
The last entry in Materials Monthly was a small piece of polycarbonate sheet called Polygal, which, Siegal assures us, "is not your father's polycarbonate product." Indeed, what looks like a humble piece of plastic has some interesting capabilities it reflects summer sun, but allows for the sun to penetrate during winter months; a set of internal cross-braces provide super-strenght; it is twice as strong as standard 16-mm polycarbonate sheets (try as I might, I could not damage it); polygal resists moisture accumulation and is 100% recyclable.
I don't know what actual designers will make of Materials Monthly. The materials to them may be old news, or they may not agree with the choices made (and since the materials chosen are being chosen because the editor likes them, you will not read anything negative). My interest in Materials Monthly is purely voyeuristic, as I will not be using of any of these materials myself. But I like the idea that someone is out there, sifting through the detritus of the material world, picking those new materials that might be tomorrow's unsung stalwarts. These are the kinds of things we use to go to World Expositions and the like to see, outfitting those forgotten houses of the future, and now the Exposition comes to the home, in a box.