Material gain

New technologies and artistic experimentation are providing interior designers with a whole new palette of innovative, tough and attractive materials. David Littlefield takes a look at what’s available

The name Ethylene Tetra Fluoro Ethylene is not one that trips off the tongue. Better known as ETFE, it was developed for US space agency Nasa as an electrical insulation material and is still used widely in the aircraft industry. But configured as air-filled cushions, this material can act as a long-lasting, lightweight substitute for glass, and has become best known for roofing Nicholas Grimshaw’s Eden Project in Cornwall.

ETFE is generally used as an exterior cladd-ing material, and ETFE specialist Vector has edged into the interiors and exhibition sector by building temporary structures for Mercedes and Absolut Vodka. The beauty of this versatile material is that it can be coloured, patterned and lit from within – the cushions can even contain internal structures, which can be manipulated by controlling the air pressure inside.

Anything is possible, says Vector managing director Ben Morris. ‘We just like working with anybody who’s fun to work with. That’s the first principle,’ he says. But the relatively delicate nature of the material does have its limitations. ‘You want to keep it away from people, as they could damage it. You don’t want anybody rubbing up against it with their bar stool,’ he adds.

ETFE isn’t the only material to make the leap from aeronautics to interior design. A couple of years ago the Huntingdon-based Cellbond Group, which provides flooring structures for Westland helicopters, set up Cellbond Architectural in an effort to adapt part of its product range to the design sector. The company previewed some early ideas at London’s 100% Design show in 2000 and then spent two years developing a product range that was finally unveiled at this year’s 100% Design event, generating more than 600 enquiries.

The most exciting product is a rigid flooring system composed of a 19mm-thick aluminium honeycomb structure sandwiched between two layers of 4mm glass. These three elements are bonded together with clear or coloured resin, creating a tough structure that will span distances of up to 1.8m and will simply bend rather than crack under intense strain.

Moreover, according to Cellbond sales manager Clive Sangster, the product is lighter and cheaper than toughened glass, prompting architect Michael Squire and Partners to specify the material for its new office space in London’s Kings Cross. The product is also robust enough to be used for other horizontal applications, such as bar tops; while a lighter ‘almost vandal-proof’ variation using polycarbonate panels instead of glass has been developed for vertical uses such as screens and bus stops.

The innate strength and versatility of the honeycomb structure has also been adopted by Tom Barker, founder of architectural adviser B Consultants and research spin-off Box Technology, developer of the SmartSlab. The SmartSlab is a 60cm-square panel made of an aluminium honeycomb core faced in clear glass fibre resin. Embedded within each hexagonal cell is an LED lightsource, which, when linked to a computer, behaves as one pixel within a wider image.

The idea is that hundreds of slabs could be linked together to create a structural wall (or e e floor) with an integral messaging system, broadcasting advertisements or customer information. London Underground is interested, while Barker is also talking to the Richard Rogers Partnership with a view to installing the system in Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Barker is also working on a range of other new composite materials, including Curvatex, a blend of Lycra fabric, loose woven glass fibre and stretchable foam that can be curved, warped and hardened on site by brushing it with resin. It was developed with architect DLM for the British Council’s touring exhibition, Fabric of Fashion, and Barker is talking to Will Alsop about using it to create the complex curves for an education pod called the Centre of the Cell in the hi-tech research facility he is designing for Queen Mary University of London.

US furnishings giant Knoll is also exploring the benefits of combining fabric with resin. Described by Knoll Textiles’ creative director Suzanne Tick as ‘frozen fabric’, the sheets of Imago hardened fabric represent an alternative to glass as vertical screens – they are half the weight and are more easily fitted because they can be drilled and cut to size by shopfitters. Furthermore, the product preserves the texture and transparency of the fabric, and the individual threads remain highly visible.

Composites are the order of the day, and nowhere can this be appreciated more clearly than in a product range called Cristal, manufactured by French company Ravier, but cut and polished by Herefordshire joiner Taskworthy. Cristal is multi-layered, consisting of alternate bands of hardwood and acrylic sheets.

Impressively, the glue is invisible, giving a first impression of multiple layers of timber floating perfectly parallel in space. It is not suitable for horizontal applications, and Taskworthy is marketing Cristal as a door and screening product – the acrylic refracts backlighting beautifully. Launched in the UK a year ago, it is only just beginning to catch on.

It is somehow comforting, however, that more traditional materials are still with us, albeit in new and improved versions. Take concrete.

Concrete has long been used for work surfaces in bars and kitchens, but Dorset-based Cast Advanced Concretes has developed a chemically modified concrete slab that is considerably thinner and lighter than the conventional cast product and has a far superior finish.

Called Mass, the sheets are strong, and company founder Guy Bamford says it’s virtually crack-proof. ‘An attack with a sledgehammer would probably just bend it,’ he says. It’s still relatively expensive, but sculptor Rachel Whiteread has one in her studio and references don’t come much better than that.

Glass, too, has been subjected to new treatments, and this is where design comes in. London-based Proto Studios, for example, specialises in screen-printing ceramic enamels on to glass, allowing designers such as Kate Maestri to create large-scale installations without having to resort to leading.

But glass artist George Papadopoulos of Yorgos Studio takes another approach entirely – he smashes it. Using sheets of laminated glass, Papadopoulos will colour and hammer a sheet of glass in a way that gives it almost geological properties. He then covers the roughened surface with more glass and seals it with resin, preserving his marks.

‘It’s more controlled than you might think,’ Papadopoulos says. His work is due to be installed in two projects: a screen for a private house in Hertfordshire by architect Fraser Brown McKenna, and a reception desk for a Berkeley Square refurbishment scheme by Consark Design Architects.

‘Hopefully, it’s going to be stunning,’ predicts Papadopoulos. And it probably will.

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