As Madonna once sang, we are living in a material world. Nowhere is that more accurate than in design, where the recent explosion in the variety and functionality of materials has opened up vast new areas for design innovation.
‘We try to present a wide selection of materials for all kinds of applications,’ says Daniel Liden, senior designer at Chris Lefteri Design and co-curator of this year’s 100% Materials. The event, now in its fourth year, is grouped around four key trends: science looking to nature; wellbeing; decoration and pattern; and organic materials. ‘The installation definitely has a kind of jumble sale feel to it – it connects with designers’ hunter gatherer instinct,’ says Liden.
The science looking to nature space showcases some of the most interesting developments. Products on show include self-cleaning paints and so-called active packaging which mimics the way plants use chlorophyll and riboflavin to make packaging more immune to the deteriorating effects of light and oxygen. Another innovation is phase-changing textiles, which replicate the way reptiles adjust their body temperature to keep the wearer comfortable by absorbing heat when it is warm and releasing it as it gets colder. ‘Materials like these offer new possibilities within design and architecture. For example, BMW’s Gina concept car uses super-strong textiles that stretch just like skin over joints as the doors open,’ says Liden.
Wellbeing is a broad social trend that is gaining ground across every aspect of life, from where we live and work to what we wear and eat. The materials industry is reflecting this trend with numerous products that are entirely plant-based; durable materials made from vegetable starches and an impressive variety of recycled plastics for every conceivable application. One American company, Novomer, is working towards commercialising a plastic material that is made with carbon dioxide. ‘Plastic materials are obviously responsible for some environmental ills, but they are also some of the most versatile materials that are available to designers,’ says Liden. ‘There’s some interesting research into eco-friendly and sustainable raw materials, such as using enzymes to produce ethanol from timber, grass and crop residues, which I hope will restore the reputation of plastic materials.’
At a more aesthetic level, new materials offer many options for decoration. Fish leather is a by-product of the fishing industry, where fish skin is considered a waste product. ‘Fish leather is suitable for any application where you would normally use conventional leather and is available in a huge range of different patterns and colours, including metallic shades,’ says Liden. He believes the most successful design projects ‘take into consideration how the products or environments are being used and how the choice of materials fits with that’. Tobias Wong’s Ballistic Rose illustrates how designers can subvert materials – Wong’s delicate rose-shaped brooch is made of bulletproof Kevlar fabric.
The storytelling and sensorial experiences trend is a reflection of a growing preference for interactivity – think products and interiors that react to the environment, respond to users or alter over time. Designers can now access materials initially developed for industrial purposes and play with their properties. Examples on show will include thermochromic materials (which change colour in response to temperature changes), pressure-sensing, conductive and shape-memory materials. ‘Materials like these can take on almost poetic meaning when they are removed from a technical environment and used in applications such as furniture and lighting,’ says Liden. He points to Geltec’s magnetic rubber, a gel that is shock absorbing, elastic and temperature-resistant, as a product that offers designers interesting new possibilities.
From a design perspective, knowing about materials is one thing, but touching and interacting with them is even more important, says Liden. ‘Seeing a photograph of a material simply isn’t enough. It won’t tell you anything about whether it feels cold or warm to the touch, what the surface texture is like; you have to get your hands on a sample,’ he says. ‘For example, a material like Aerogel just looks like a boring lump of grey matter in a photograph, but pick it up and you will be amazed how lightweight it is, not to mention that it is a super-efficient thermal insulator.’