Gelling Together

Silicone gels have become the latest must-have material of choice for furniture, product and interior designers. Miriam Cadji soft sells a product that was originally developed for use in the medical field.

Have you ever considered silicone implants? Perhaps you should. As well as enhancing a sexy profile, silicone feels wonderful to the touch. But before you rush to your nearest plastic surgeon, there’s one thing you need to know – the implants in question are for your furniture.

This squeezable substance is part of a group of synthetic rubbers known as thermoplastic elastomers, also known as TPEs, which were discovered during the 1950s, and have only come into their own in the past ten years. Silicone polymer gels have excellent long-term heat resistance, electrical insulating properties and good moisture and chemical resistance. They can be formed into complex shapes using similar technology to the plastics industry, such as pouring and injection moulding. Unlike the plastics of the 1960s, which were simply soft or hard, silicone gels occupy the in-between.

This new generation of touchy-feely materials disproves the fashion dictate that you have to suffer to be beautiful. In fact, the latest trend suggests that the opposite is true – silicone gels are designed for total comfort. Originally developed for use in the medical field, their softness and flexibility make them especially suitable for applications that connect with the human body. They are widely used in the field of prosthetics to provide a soft junction with amputated limbs, and for gel sheet padding on operating tables, wheelchairs and hospital beds. With a unique ability to distribute weight, relieve pressure points and offer gentle cushioning, silicone gels act as a dampening device that helps to cut down vibrations.

Quick to notice these advantages, the sports industry has adapted the material for a diverse variety of uses. US company Sports Med has developed Ultrasoft Blue Gel for use primarily as inserts in riding saddles. A non-toxic, non-aqueous, non-evaporating, flame-retardant viscoelastic polymer, the manufacturer promises it won’t leak or harden over time and is virtually indestructible. Since it distributes weight over the surface of the saddle, it provides shock absorbance for the rider – and for the horse.

Similarly, the world market leader for pro-golf footwear, FootJoy, has relied on IntelliGel arch-support inserts to provide an edge over their competitors. Like many high-memory thermo-reactive foams developed for use in the aerospace industry, the material is temperature responsive and is activated by body heat. It moulds itself to the shape of the wearer’s foot, ensuring maximum comfort. Meanwhile, Italian manufacturer Selle Royal has developed a polyurethane matrix known as RoyalGel for its state-of-the-art bicycle saddles.

Such high-tech materials were first brought to public attention when they were headlined at the exhibition Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1995. Since then, designers have been catching on to the possibilities of incorporating touchy-feely gels in their products. For the past couple of years, silicone has graced the most glamorous stands at the Milan Furniture Fair.

TechnoGel, perhaps the most successful of the silicones to cross over into mainstream design, is the result of German technical expertise meeting Italian panache. A joint venture between German company Otto Bock and Italy-based Royal Medica, TechnoGel has been top of every designer’s wish list since it was used by Pininfarina to pad the seats of its prototype car Metrocubo, also known as the M3 car. When it was unveiled at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show, the designers walked away with first prize for best interior concept.

That same year, office furniture design company Humanscale launched its award-winning Freedom chair, designed by comfort-guru Niels Diffrient. The seat of the chair incorporates TechnoGel in its cushion and has been described as “like sitting in a puddle of your own flesh”. Competitor Steelcase also turned to TechnoGel for its 1999 launch: the Leap chair, although the inserts here are rather more tentatively used in the armrests.

Also in 1999, furniture designer Werner Aisslinger’s prototype chair entirely upholstered with TechnoGel, was exhibited on the Droog Design stand at the Milan Furniture Fair. For the first time, Aisslinger left the gel exposed to celebrate the aesthetics of the material as well as the comfort it offers. The following year, the design, appropriately known as Soft Cell, was perfected and launched on to the market by Zanotta. Aisslinger’s fascination with TechnoGel has yet to fade: this year he worked the same magic for Cappellini with the Gel chair.

Another designer to be seduced by the material is Philippe Starck who first dipped his toe into the waters in 2000 when he showed a one-off Louis 16th chair upholstered with TechnoGel at the Essere Ben Essere Triennale exhibition in Milan. For this year’s Milan Furniture Fair he developed the Jelly Slice range of metal-framed tables and stools covered with a deliciously thick slab of candy-coloured TechnoGel for Italian manufacturer Driade. As testimony that this is a trend set to last for a while, yet another Italian manufacturer launched its TechnoGel enhanced furniture at Milan this year: the whimsical Voyager Nest chaise by Saporiti.

More recently, Royal College of Art design products graduates Indri Tulusan and Kelly Sant developed a series of silicone prosthetic tags for a project sponsored by Orange. Hypothetical uses for the Intelliskin tattoos include body decoration, chip storing (for computer addicts who crave their fix of information) and recognition via flashing lights. Intelliskin’s patent is currently pending.

If designers are suddenly aware of silicone, it is due in no small part to materials database Material ConneXion. This hugely influential New York-based library was founded in 1997 by George Beylerian, a man with his finger firmly on the pulse. “We don’t want to call ourselves a trend shop because trend creators come to us – we are simply a supplier of ideas,” says Beylerian. With a rapidly expanding team of architects, textile designers and material researchers each connected to research labs and material scientists around the world, the company charges about £353 for four hours’ consultation. The archive is home to a database of over 1200 innovative materials, which, according to Beylerian, designers cannot get enough of. “If you’ve got a cool design and can make use of a new material, it’s an extra bonus that will get you noticed,” he explains.

It seems that silicone gel fits the current brief for softer surfaces that take the harsh edge off the acres of glass, stone and steel of contemporary interiors, yet still have a sympathy with a clean, modernist aesthetic. It’s moulded contours and synthetic, alien feel sits well with the formal rigour of slick, minimal surroundings – never fussy or frou-frou in the way that some fabrics cannot quite avoid.

Innovative materials play an important role for Prada, the fashion house that prides itself as a true barometer of style. With architect Herzog & De Meuron and Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture at the helm, Prada has commissioned a host of radically designed stores due to open in the next year. While Herzog & De Meuron remains tight-lipped about its plans for Prada headquarters in New York and distribution centres and warehouses in Italy, the group has revealed that it is investigating the possibilities of using resin and silicone for the changing rooms in the megastore in Tokyo.

It’s a safe bet that silicone will figure large in the stores OMA is creating in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles: Koolhaas was perhaps the first architect to use the material. Having been introduced to TechnoGel by Material ConneXion, he was so impressed that he specified it to upholster the seats at the Second Stage Theater in New York, designed with Richard Gluckman in 1999.

Chris van Duijn, head of product development at OMA, is overseeing the materials specification for the Prada projects and says the team intends to use translucent pink TechnoGel for the seating in all three outlets. Anticipating a rush of “bums on seats”, the architect has worked with the manufacturer to develop a spray-on coating to make the surface extra durable, and is researching the possibilities of using TechnoGel as a flooring material.

OMA is also investigating ways to create a soft, open-textured surface that would allow clothes to be displayed on the walls in a non-traditional way. The architects started experimenting on different materials with a scale model and liked the effect they achieved using a kitchen sponge. Working with a resin casting workshop in Rotterdam, they created a scaled-up prototype, using water balloons to cast a cladding surface riddled with dips and holes.

They then turned to material research and development agency Panelite to translate the prototype into something workable. Using advanced computer technology, Panelite developed a mould that would recreate the geometry found in the prototype. Although the pattern of bubbles and holes repeats, it does so seamlessly. The finished result – achieved after painstakingly modelling hundreds of thousands of surfaces – appears random and totally organic. The company has developed a fire-rated soft elastomer resin, currently known only as Sponge Foam, which, when cast in these moulds, will be used to wrap the ceilings and walls of the store’s interiors. The translucent gel will be softly tinted in Prada’s stores pistachio green and backlit.

If such extravagant use of the material is rare, it is due to its prohibitively high cost rather than a lack of appreciation or demand. Manufacturers are confident that with sustained interest, prices should start to fall and once this factor has been resolved, silicone promises to be the next great material of our age.

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