Surface attention

Imagine a phone that moulds itself to fit the shape of your hand, kettles that change colour as they come to the boil, a laptop computer as slim and light as an exercise book. They’re all ideas just waiting to happen.

The past five years have witnessed an astonishing advance in the variety and versatility of materials available to the product designer. “It’s given us the freedom at last to design how we always wanted to,” says Dan Harden, California-based president of product development at the international consultancy Frogdesign.

“For years industrial designers have been working towards designing more complex and fluid shapes and producing them using combinations of materials. And now many of those ideas are being transformed into reality.

“There have been huge advances in polymeric materials and we’re just seeing the start of the trickle down from the space programme which means the availability of extremely light strong materials like carbon fibres and laminates. Then there are all the new elastomers, plastics and metals,” says Harden.

One of the most vivid illustrations of the use of new materials and manufacturing processes is the latest ice-hockey skate blade for German sports-equipment manufacturer Wurthner. The Frog team comprised industrial designers working alongside the in-house materials and manufacturing experts.

Close up the blade looks like a section of a bridge, but the pared-down skeletal structure is a highly wrought piece of engineering. A 0.4mm sliver of carbon steel is embedded in engineering polymer which is then fixed to super-strong injection-moulded glass-filled nylon. The blade is not only 30 per cent lighter than conventional versions but it’s also 25 per cent faster.

“This simply would not have been possible a few years ago,” says Harden. “We’ve succeeded in putting a huge 300lb hockey player on the thinnest strip of steel imaginable and seen them travel faster than they ever dreamed.”

Using combinations of materials is an area explored by fellow Frog designer Josh Morenstein. His particular interest is in a manufacturing process called double-shot moulding.

“This has opened up lots of possibilities. The process allows you to put together contrasting materials such as plastic and rubber to produce great aesthetic effects and excellent performance,” he says. “Just one mould is used but it comprises different compartments; you shoot the plastic into one and the rubber into another and end up with a fully integrated case. We used this recently in work on surveying equipment.”

Morenstein predicts that combining materials is the way forward, especially when they produce intriguing contrasts and unusual tactile experiences. “The most exciting work is in communications and computer design and here we’ve found that users want to identify more closely with everyday products,” he says.

The idea that we will begin to see a richer use of materials is shared by UK designer Tim Brown of Ideo. “We’ve been through the soft rubbery phase and are now probably in the late stages of exploring translucent materials. Next we could see a more widespread use of multiple materials. The technology is in place and manufacturing costs have fallen significantly to make that viable,” he says.

Brown believes materials are an integral part of a product’s character and in part suggest how we might respond to it. “Great care must be taken to understand the deep connection between use and design and technology in order to make products accessible,” he adds.

One of Ideo’s recent projects, for example, was an electronic book. “We had to address the question of how the technology and materials would combine,” says Brown. “The response was to design the ‘book’ part as a moulded plastic case, but we gave it a tactile leather cover which, when flipped open, activates the book and lights up the screen.”

And finally, despite the deluge of new materials, designers continue to dream of yet more variations. Harden has spotted two materials which have begun to inspire. “I recently saw an amazing ceramic composed of open cells about 3mm in size, it was very light and great at retaining heat, I have no idea where to use it, but it’s got to appear somewhere. I’m also inspired by very simple architecture using adobe bricks, just baked mud. That’s the ultimate in sustainable, environment-friendly material.”

For Morenstein fabrics are a fascination. “I like the flexibility and lightness of cloth and have for a long time been thinking of ways it can be used in product design,” he says.

“I see fabric as a means to provide a cheap, replaceable skin with all sorts of applications. At first it was instantly dismissed when we had product meetings, but as time has gone by I seem to be winning more support,” he adds.

Morenstein’s second choice is a dream material. “I’d like to find a modern material that wears in like leather or wood and which can actually improve with age and use.”

At Ideo, Brown is looking forward to the development of a number of hybrid materials. “Work is already in progress on this where one material is bombarded with the atoms of another,” he says. “The result is nothing like a laminate, but is a fusion of the two. However, the ultimate has to be the possibility of designing bespoke materials for each product.”



The designers at Frog seem positively to relish the opportunity to take on apparently unpromising projects and turn them on their head. Among their recent triumphs is work on global positioning systems and completing two distinctive hand-held products for different manufacturers.

To most people the dreariness of this electronic gadgetry is hard to beat. Used in a number of specialist contexts including mapping the movements of shipping, and most often in land surveying and cartography, the earth-based global positioning system communicates with orbiting satellites and pinpoints locations to an accuracy of just a few millimetres.

When the manufacturer Ashtech approached Frog, it wanted to attempt a first – to capitalise on the miniaturisation of electronic components and incorporate into one hand-held unit a receiver, power supply, removable memory, and a radio link.

‘From early research with professional mapping surveyors we learned that it is a lonely job out there,’ says design team member Yves Behar. ‘Making this product a friendly companion, with portability and tactile response was the least we could do.’

The Z-Surveyor is shaped to fit comfortably in the hand and is extremely comfortable to carry, fitting snugly into the contours at the side of the body. The final brilliant touch is in the finish of the casing, which was borrowed from the fashion and music industries, and resembles a Walkman or portable CD player.

An intriguing aesthetic is created by the use of hard and soft materials. The hard is a lightweight injection-moulded ABS plastic and the soft is an elastomeric rubber which, as well as feeling good and providing a firm grip, also protects against knocks and wet weather.

Following on from this work came the opportunity to work on the Javad Positioning Systems. Recycling imagery from space programmes and science fiction, the elegant green and silver unit became the first global positioning system to combine a receiving antenna, a processing unit, batteries and a transmitter. The system can be used with additional high precision antennas delivering astounding accuracy of within 1mm.

It was a tough challenge to incorporate all the functions in one hand-held unit, but the Frog designers were determined to cut down the clutter usually carried by surveyors – using old equipment could mean carrying up to seven separate items. Once again materials were selected for their durability and tactile qualities; the glass-reinforced ABS plastic passed stringent drop tests and proved to be highly weather- and temperature-resistant.

‘We made the best use of double-shot moulding,’ explains industrial designer Josh Morenstein. ‘These advanced techniques allow us to work more easily with combinations of materials. In this case the elastomeric rubber and glass-reinforced ABS plastic are shot into different parts of the same mould to produce a really powerfully united casing.’ The highly distinctive lime green and silver colouring was chosen to make the unit easy to spot when in use outdoors.

Expressive tastes


Occasionally, Ideo designers set themselves an in-house challenge to work with new materials or to redesign familiar products. In the project called Expressive Tastes they tackled both by working with chocolate.

‘Chocolate symbolises beauty and simplicity along with the more complicated idea of ritual and we wanted to explore some of that,’ explains Tim Brown. ‘We looked at the emotional responses to chocolate, and also the problems of manufacture. For example, one of the chocolates blended ritual and restraint with the idea of an Airfix kit – you were invited to lick the pieces and stick them together before eating the whole.’

Another was a chocolate spear filled with liqueur designed for use in coffee. The hot liquid melted the end of the spear to release the liqueur, leaving you to enjoy the chocolate with your coffee. ‘This was a fun project, but it did have a serious side. We demonstrated how much there is to be learned by thinking about familiar objects and materials in new ways,’ says Brown.



The question of how to make computers child-friendly has long challenged designers. Most recent work has concentrated on improving software. However, Ideo has approached the problem afresh and has transformed the perception of the computer unit itself. From a precious piece of expensive and vulnerable desk-bound hardware, it has been reborn as a tough, rugged, friendly item of school kit that’s as practical and durable as a pair of trainers.

‘We’ve been exploring how materials can give a product character,’ says Tim Brown. ‘And in this project the materials have helped us push forward a long way, even to the point where perceptions about computers have changed.’

Ideo’s client was NetSchools, a US company specialising in school computer systems and the brief was to break down the barriers between child and computer and improve accessibility to electronic databases. Ideo’s response was to devise a super-tough workbook computer with bold playful styling which instantly signals that it’s aimed at a youth market. The case is in durable diecast magnesium with aluminium, and rubber corner bumpers give it a rugged, friendly form. The screen is rubber-mounted to absorb shock, and the keyboard is watertight to prevent damage from spills.

In addition to its looks, the computer has the advantage of operating without wires and cables. An infrared link connects children to the teacher in the classroom, to the school server, and to the Internet as a whole. They can browse and search for information or receive and submit assignments electronically both at home and at school.

‘It’s built to take the worst knocks,’ says Brown. ‘It can be pushed off the desk, thrown out of the window or soaked in coffee and will survive. Through the use of these very specific materials, we’ve succeeded in changing the character of the computer – it’s virtually indestructible and that was a joy to achieve,’ he says.

Pamela Buxton finds polished plaster, metallics and textures are leading the way in interior finishes

You can’t rush a good polished plaster finish. Go back 2000 years and it involved slaking lime putty for at least seven years and combining it with a cocktail of crushed marble, gypsum, geranium and soured white wine before slapping on no less than seven coats.

Fortunately, the process nowadays is considerably less arduous, although a Venetian polished plaster finish still requires up to five coats. This hasn’t put designers off specifying it in increasing numbers according to surface specialist Armourcoat, which has seen a six fold increase in turnover in the last few years for Venetian polished plaster. Armourcoat technical director Duncan MacKellar says demand has “gone absolutely mad” for the product, which the company now supplies in a range of 250 standard finishes.

Venetian polished plaster is just one of an increasing range of textured, metallic, sparkling and pearlescent finishes enjoying growing popularity as designers eschew the sparse industrial aesthetic and opt to add depth and individuality to plainly coloured walls and floors.

United Designers specified a chocolate brown Venetian polished plaster finish by Armourcoat for curved wall panels in London’s fashionable Met Bar.

“It’s very durable, has a reflective quality that makes it glamorous and is an interesting way to have a plain wall,” says a spokeswoman for United Designers.

Similarly, interior designer Claire Nelson of Nelson Design enjoys creating unusual surface finishes. At the three-floor Corney & Barrow wine and champagne bar close to London’s Trafalgar Square she used various polished plaster, metallic and pearlised finishes by south London-based DKT Specialist Decoration. The main walls in the mezzanine and ground floor have a pearlised finish “like icing” with combed-on gritty bits for texture, while columns in the snug downstairs bar are treated with metallic blues, blacks and greys on a polished stucco finish.

“Experimenting is half the fun,” says Nelson. “Although they’re frightfully expensive I do love Italian plaster finishes. You can get such depth and diversity. It has this look that draws people in and makes you want to touch it,” she says.

Metallic surfaces are particularly fashionable in the capital’s bars: architect Sproson Barrable specified expanses of gold and silver finishes at Ion, a new Ladbroke Grove bar run by the Mean Fiddler group.

At Dust in Clerkenwell, owners and designers Raymond Brown and Mark Thompson used copper leafing to line a double height space at the rear of the bar and aluminium leaf on the basement lobby to make visiting the toilets a slightly more glamorous experience. Architect Mackenzie Wheeler went one further at Café Fish restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, where it incorporated a rusted steel-clad wall designed to suggest the hull of a ship.

Few metallic wall finishes are gilded with real gold leaf. It requires expert application, lengthy preparation of the surface and time-consuming burnishing but looks richer and will not tarnish. Instead, most are covered with a Dutch Metal alloy amalgam applied like transfers in squares, which are then burnished and sealed. Alternatively, a polished plaster may be given a metallic wash to create the required effect.

“Metallic look finishes are most definitely in,” says Armourcoat’s MacKellar. Inside ABN Amro’s new City of London offices, a plaster wall finish is washed in a mix of pigments to give a silver pearlescent quality.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop – at the new Donna Karan shop, another Armourcoat job, walls are given a plaster finish plus an application of gold metal leaf which is then treated to achieve an aged effect.

Those after the Midas touch in the bathroom can opt for a glass mosaic tile containing 24 carat gold leaf, available from glass mosaic specialist Mediterraneo.

In addition to such luxury applications, there is a trend for metallic and special wall finishes across the whole market. Dulux Trade Paints has developed a new portfolio of products to meet demand for rag-rolling, speckled and marbled effects. Crown Trade last year introduced the Colorfects decorative range of metallic, pearlescent and woodwash effects in response to requests for more innovative finishes.

Animated finishes are not restricted just to walls. Flooring specialist Amtico has enjoyed enough success from its recently launched Iced Glass faux glass tiles to extend its range this year by four colours. The deep bevelled finish lets light into the tile while the body of the tile has the illusion of an embossed textured finish.

“The concept of a glass-look tile without the faff of real glass seems to blow people’s minds,” says Amtico marketing manager Karen Rowe.

Amtico’s two other new fashion products, the sparkling Stardust tile with integral glitter chips and the faux fur Snow Tiger, pick up on the current trend – identified by Amtico’s colour and materials consultant Linda Barron – for extra texture and “magical” finishes.

Rubber expert Dalsouple is introducing new tactile fashion lines such as the fine hammer-blown textured Granita and a range of luminescent terrazzo suitable for clubs, bars and leisure applications.

Dalsouple is finding that designers are increasingly choosing its products for walls and countertops as well as floors, and the company has recently achieved the Class O fire test standard for applications on walls and ceilings. At the Buttery Bar at Nottingham University design group Lief Interiors specified Dalsouple on table-tops and as cladding for walls, attracted by its durability and easy maintenance.

Armourcoat’s Scagliola finish, which has the appearance of richly marbled plaster, can also be used in a variety of applications and has been installed as surface tops in the homes of fashion designers Karen Millen and Calvin Klein.

Apart from the fashion for richly textured specialist finishes, another trend is for ecologically-sound finishes which can also satisfy a desire for innovative effects. The Construction Resources centre, which opened last year in London’s Southwark, promotes paints made from traditional ingredients that are healthy to manufacture, apply and live with. It also stocks the Tierrafino clay and sand finish which contains no chemical or pigment additives and can be custom colour-mixed or combined with mother of pearl or straw for special effects.

With such a variety of special wall and floor finishes available, there’s no excuse for plain magnolia walls or boring beige carpets. As the end of the millennium takes on a fin de siècle opulence, it seems that for once less may not necessarily be more.

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