In recent years, the relationship between materials and designers has been profoundly transformed by the search for new forms of access through increasingly participatory and deep actions, progressively deeper and more participatory, by the processes of new materials’ development and their scope. Up to the 1980s, the designer’s approach to materials definition had mainly been indirect, given the clients’ mediation, serving as interface between planning requirements and the choice of the most appropriate solutions in materials terms.

The 90′ were the years of exponential growth in the number and types of new materials: a true expansion of implementation and expression opportunities. As a result, designers felt the need to understand and manage the possibilities offered by science and technological innovation to meet the increasingly complex demand of the market.

The birth of Material Connexion, founded in 1997 in New York by George M. Beylerian, the first major “Materials Library”, focused on the consultancy of new potential materials for architecture and design as well as their dissemination through databases and networks, marks an important step forward in the increasingly closer relationship between designers and materials. 

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”Material Libraries” dedicated to design and architecture have thus delivered significant results. Some of them are: Material Connexion (materialconnexion.com), Materia (materia.nl), Materialbiblioteket (materialbiblioteket.se), Design inSite (designinsite.dk), IdeMat (www.idemat.nl), Materials Library (materialslibrary.org.uk). Their success owes much to the content offer, specifically designed with a view to design, combining technical performance with formal, perceptive and environmental qualities, whose application is useful in design-oriented domains. The language of these platforms, the type of communication and graphics are cleverly designed to be able to be perceived as relating to the project’s sphere, as opposed to traditional technical-scientific contributions.

Other than collections of materials on the web, many of these “material libraries” are also places of consultation, display and interface between designers and materials. Contexts in which you can enjoy a direct and multi-sensory fruition of materials.
 Other than being places where various materials can be selected  and all possible information can be acquired without having to refer to individual companies, “material libraries” often present themselves as opportunities for contemplation, almost places of worship, with a strong emotional and inspiring potential for a new generation  of “material addicts” designers.

For a designer, a visit to the New York office of Material Connexion, which offers access to over 7000 innovative materials, is an unforgettable experience, through which to appreciate the magnificence of “making”, the infinite variety of shades and opportunities of translating design theories to subject. Some of the mentioned “materials libraries” are important hubs promoting meetings, exhibitions, competitions aimed at stimulating, engaging and  “encouraging” innovation processes shared among designers, scientists and manufacturers of materials. Intersection hubs foreshadowing future scenarios of new forms in the real world.

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The main objective of Materia.nl, for example, is to encourage cooperation between companies and designers to develop products based on new ideas related to changing lifestyles and qualitative characteristics of society. To this end, the yearly “Co -Creation Award” aims at promoting processes of cooperation rewarding the most interesting solutions stemming from this kind of approach. The winners are announced and awarded during Material Xperience, an annual event  held in Rotterdam. The public is encouraged to have a multidimensional experience through a selection of relevant strategic materials, according to a given topic, which changes every year, linked to a critical- evolutionary interpretation of the world of design.

The latest edition of Raw Material Xperience [1] was held January 22 to 24 in 2014 and dealt with the “Smart Environment” issue, displaying functionalized, interactive, self-cleaning materials, printed with digital technology that will “smarten up” the built environment in the near future. The emerging of self-generation, art design, makers and FabLab has further reduced the gap between creative people and materials, offering new and more significant opportunities to directly interface with production processes, encouraging designers to explore the inter-space between the research on materials and their application.

The new approaches lay the foundations for a renewed material culture of design in which designers choose to “manipulate” matter through empirical experiments, sharing and cooperation with other domains, which will inevitably lead to the acquisition of new scientific and technical knowledge.


Designers enter the production process in a new proactive and participated way, although on a small scale in terms of quantity of objects, limited production or prototyping. Access to the process becomes an opportunity to explore the relationship between nature and artifice, sustainability and ethics. New forms of upcycling of waste materials or using plant-derived polymers that had been replaced by plastics for technical and economic issues, are just a few examples.


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Design’s interest in process has led to the search for a new and more exciting relationship with matter and its workability thus helping the design sector to cope with greater force with the effects of the economic and financial crisis, as the lack of courage to invest in innovation by part of the enterprises. The prerequisites are established, ensuring the emergence of more accessible forms of innovation based on materials customization by changing the performance according to the project variables. Focusing on the process leads the designer to transfer his/her views and the most urgent needs of society to the world of materials.


Even education is moving in this direction. For several years, research and teaching in european design schools have focused on processes, modification of equipment, reuse of materials, processing of readily accessible raw materials using common everyday life objects, yet unusual in the world of materials production even including irons, blenders and hair dryers.

The “Linking Process” exhibition presented at the Salone del Mobile 2013 by the Design Academy Eindhoven, curated by Miriam van der Lubbe focused on the visible and invisible acts of creation, of which the “implementation” phase is one of the main components.

Even the Royal Academy of Art exhibition, curated by Claudia Linders, Marie Ilse Bourlanges and Elena Khurtova attached great emphasis on the process of implementation and the relationship between project and work through performances that included the “live” creation of processes in the presence of visitors. Martin Rigters, for example, displayed a specially made machine, a rotating tray with an abrasive glove allowing users to act directly on the shape of an object by manipulating it through the glove. The resulting experience had a strong emotional character aiming at shedding light on the complex relationship between design thinking, technology, craftsmanship and users involvement. 


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One of the recurring issues in the research of designers who manipulate matter is the recycling of discards generated by production’s various cycles. The Chilean designer Rodrigo Alonso Schramm (http://ralonso.com/) has developed a system of furniture and lamps made ​​of polymeric materials and electrical components from different types of products such as toys, appliances, recycled dishwashers, developing new rotational molding technologies based on molds’ optimization and streamlining, thus creating polyhedral shapes responding to the current formal trends in design. Schramm ‘s work demonstrates how important it is in the process of defining new materials and new working methods, the role of formal, expressive, conceptual and ethical aspects that add to those traditionally used in the design of production processes.


The Israeli designer Ori Sonnenschein (http://www.solskindesign.com/) produces domestic objects with a biodegradable material called solskin peels, made from scraps of orange peel from fruit juices treated with processes borrowed from the re-interpretation of ancient drying and molding techniques.

Multidisciplinary academic laboratories are a basin particularly fertile for this kind of projects. In the context of the University of Western Australia, designer Donna Franklin (http://bioalloy.org/artist-bios/10-information/7-donna-franklin) in collaboration with scientist Gary Cass, has developed the project Micro’Be, a line of garments created with a fabric made from the cellulose derived from the fermentation of the wine with acetobacter.

The same principle is the basis of the project by London-baded designer Suzanne Lee (http://biocouture.co.uk/) coordinated by Alexander Bismark, professor of engineering at Imperial College London, who has made a collection of jackets called BioCouture by making a material substitution of the skin with a vaguely similar material, also of cellulosic matrix, obtained by the fermentation of tea with bacteria used in the transformation of green tea in kombucha.

Many of the designers involved in the processes have found in fablab and in the laboratories of the makers, fertile contexts and favourable for their researches, places of experimentation and inspiration in which the subject is mixed with “intangible ingredients” associated with the human component of the project, such as curiosity, generosity, empathy, ethics, and social cohesion. The spaces of making are informal and open to the meeting between disciplines that encourage artists, engineers, and designers to interact with each other by triggering processes of transfer, contamination, and shared investigations.

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The Institute of Making (instituteofmaking.org.uk) is a London-based institution, linked to the University College of London, dedicated to new material, attended by a diverse audience of designers, artists, engineers, and inventors interested in experimenting with the manufacture of products from different areas from the jewel to lighting and robotics. The member subscription allows direct access to a co-working system, a Materials Library, an exhibition part, events, and a laboratory defined Make Space that offers a wide range of traditional and digital tools for processing and manufacturing. The contiguity between Make Space and Materials Library and the involvement of teachers and university students ensures vitality and participation in both places and incorporates them into a system strongly linked to the concreteness and feasibility that reinforce the sustainability of the initiative.

This type of organization, which is rapidly spreading even outside Europe, provides to the structure the possibility to count on the support of many members who, by sharing costs and resources, acquire the possibility to enjoy, at affordable costs, laboratories with large equipment and always updated high quality facilities, supported by the help and the maintenance of technical experts.

In the context of the relationship between designer and materials the dissemination of the making approaches, Open Source and Open Innovation, based on the principles of co-operation and the potential innovation of communities, has offered the opportunity to disseminate and share experiences of strong experimental content that in some cases assume almost the character of alchemic practices, in order to make the experiences repeatable and implementable.

It is in such a context that the scenery of the Open Materials opens up, materials prepared by designers and creative people, akin to the “makers” culture, that they confront with the processes that are the basis of their transformation. The transfer of the results of the researches conducted by one to another subject offers an opportunity to make exploratory paths, in some cases scientifically and technically not strict, but most of the times characterised by a full expression of the capacity for insight, foreshadowing, vision and modelling of the designer, as well as a strong communicative and critical potential, often linked to principles of ethics and environmental sustainability.

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The construction of a patrimony of experience and common knowledge helps designers to approach with less subjection the world of materials, with a more open and informal approach that facilitates the creative flows. And, even when the process starts or remains on a level of empirical experimentation, can still constitute for designers and artists a vector of innovation and interest toward new horizons that in the past were hardly addressed because perceived as foreign and unmanageable. The role of design to construct visions of the material and immaterial world of the future is, thus, supported by new paradigms that procedural build textural tracks of such visions.

So, OpenMaterials (openmaterials.org) is a platform born in 2009 that proposes, under the labels “Materials 101″,”Techniques”, “Tools”, “Circuits” and “Research” a set of results of experiments on materials and new processes developed in different areas including luminescent materials, conductive materials, thermo chromic devices and sensors. Of all the materials, it is shared, in a logic open access, the modality of realisation in the form of a “recipe” that describes, so as to allow replicability, the ingredients, the mode of retrieval, the steps, and the variables of process. The contents available for the various materials are photographs, descriptive texts and tutorial clips that, in a DIY (Do It Yourself) view, allow others to repeat the processes and possibly to interpret them, personalise them and, in turn, share them again.

Materials are divided in the following categories: Paper, Textiles, Polymers, Metal, Conductive Materials, Organic Materials, Ceramics & Glass. The website includes wide-ranging projects that, from various points of view, allow you to glimpse of new paths, as the research of Belgian designer Laurance Humier (http://www.missdesign.it) that processes new materials by integrating techniques and ingredients of chemistry and gastronomy inspired by molecular cuisine; the transparent electrical circuits proposed by Becky Stern (http://sternlab.org/), or compounds of cement and Papercrete paper for sustainable construction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papercrete). All the contents of OpenMaterials fall within the scope Creative Commons.

Open access also offers the opportunity to acquire knowledge made available by scientists, engineers and experts of the materials in the open form and “facilitated” by languages of sharing, opportunities that would otherwise require the consultation of sources and specialised magazines or expensive consultancy.

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Online are available several resources such as Open Materials Science Journal, an online Open Access (http://www.benthamscience.com/open/tomsj/) magazine, which publishes research papers, reviews, and letters on the great advances in the field of science of the materials and their application. The journal aims to make freely available and accessible to all types of users worldwide the results of the most advanced and trusted research. An example that demonstrates a trend, now widespread and well established in many fields of science, to open outwards and to disseminate its advances to worlds also very far away from each other.

It is just this awareness of the opportunities for innovation inherent in the possibility to establish collaborative flows between conception, development and application of materials that lays the reason of this opening. Designers and artists nothing remains but to dive in this universe of new opportunities getting rid of attitudes distrustful and fearful towards scientific disciplines that, in the past, have hindered the development and implementation of many insights.

The thickening of the flows of one-to-one contamination between design and science is generating a new phenomenon that can be defined as “Designer in Lab” that includes the figure of the designer in groups of scientific research, in particular in the fields of materials science, chemistry, and biology. The skills, methods and tools of design are used to encourage the translation of research and innovations developed in science laboratories in applications that can land to the market in a faster and more efficient way, according to a model of research “cascade” which also includes the involvement of companies. Different points of view, closer to the needs of society and of common life can assist science even in input, in the initial phase of the selection of the objectives and propose drivers able to orient and accelerate scientific paths in directions that could lead the research to meet the real needs of the living.

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An example of this approach is the project “Design in Science” developed by the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) of the University of Cambridge, led by James Moultrie, Director of the Design Management Group, in collaboration with Alex Drivers and Carlos Peralta, which investigates the possibility to define a new model for innovation through the integration between design and science [2]. This type of model constitutes the most evolutionary advanced process of engagement of the designer in the dimension of the processes, because it sees the figure of the designer to take a proactive and propulsive role in the definition of the scientific process.

Very often design trials such as those shown here are unfortunately still confined in the dimension of the limited series, closest to art rather than to the industrial production because the jobs processed are laborious, expensive or time-consuming to be able to be easily replicated in large scale or because the results are characterised by functional performances, such as durability or mechanical strength, insufficient for many types of applications. 

For many of these reasons, it is important that these paths see designers together with scientists and companies, so that the insights and experiments can be translated into real innovations. But the value of these initiatives and, in any case, a cultural value because it induces the culture of the project to look beyond the borders of the existing and to lay the foundations for the concretisation of visions that aim to change things in the direction of different futures.

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These are impulses useful to the world of design to test the technical opportunities and expressive qualities of materials, but also to induce the definition of new horizons in research procedures based on values such as environmental sustainability, as in the case of multiple experiences of the reutilisation of waste materials or applications of biodegradable materials. Many of these projects aim at having a conceptual and ethical value rather than proposing new forms of production that can come to an industrial scale, but this does not mean that in a not too distant future may not give rise to new generations of design related products more sustainable for the environment and society.


Notes:

[1] The next edition of Materia Xperience on Tour will be held in London from 8th to 20th of May 2014 at MXOT-14 MDS.

[2] Peralta, C., Driver, A., & Moultrie, J. Discovery and Creation: Explaining Collaboration between Designers and Scientists in Scientific Research, 2010. (http://www.designresearchsociety.org/docs-procs/DRS2010/PDF/094.pdf)