Tom Vanderbilt | Essays

Material Issue

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.

Comments [4]

One word: Plastics.

That's really all these things are, or are made of. And that's what disturbs me about modern materials science. Sure, these materials are cool, but where do they come from, what are they made of, how long will they last, and what is implicit in their manufacture?

Most oil geologists agree that we're now on the downward slope of oil and gas extraction. Maybe 50 years' worth left, at current or projected rates of use (mostly for cars). And we'll see price spikes, shortages and supply problems well before that.

Modern materials, whether it be for designer-object purposes or for industrial use (like microchip manufacturing) depend to a great deal on the availability of hydrocarbons. When that supply dwindles or becomes too expensive, we're going to have to find alternatives.

Beyond that, modern plastics manufacturing is still a highly-toxic process that puts inescapable, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) into the environment. These chemicals do not break down, they enter the food chain, the water, the air, the soil, the plants and animals. Recently, they've done studies showing that Teflon is showing up in literally everyone's systems, regardless of where they live.

In a larger sense it speaks ill of our culture's mania for novelty, and the "free-market fundamentalist" idea of growth at all costs - the ideology of cancer, isn't it?

With different cultural priorities, we wouldn't need or want these materials. If we measured things by the yardsticks of reusability, biodegradability, very low to zero manufacturing waste, and going so far as to re-design products and processes to not require toxins in the first place -- would Kevlar, Teflon and PVC ever have been invented?

I'm not against materials science per se, it's just that so much of it is propelled by compounding worse on top of bad, the legacy of 1950s optimism in Science and benevolent corporations.

I'm more encouraged by the work of companies like McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), who help companies redesign both their physical environments and their industrial processes to be energy sippers and practically waste-free. I highly recommend their book Cradle To Cradle, itself printed without using trees, on an "infinitely recyclable," nontoxic plastic paper.

MDF: medium-density fibreboard
Jeff Gill

What's wrong with plastics? If I remember correctly, the most common hydrocarbon based building product in use is wood. As mined hydrocarbons get more expensive, the pressure is going to be against their use for energy, and less so against their use as materials.

Besides, it's the interesting composites, such as Trex, that allow more efficient use of wood and processed hydrocarbons, just as materials like Tyvek cut our demand for energy.

Of course, the golden age of material science has barely begun. If you read the journals, you'll be anticipating lighter, stronger, adaptive materials and new ways of guiding light, moisture and air. It's hard to even figure what the new materials will be like, given the early stage of much of the research. The world is still full of surprises.

This is exactly like Inventables http://www.inventables.com/ though the subscription is less expensive (and maybe not as slickly packaged). Wonder who got the idea first?

Jobs | February 24