Living in a Material World

Power Player / by Maywa Montenegro & Veronique Greenwood /

Scientists and designers join forces at an unusual consultancy, bringing technical savvy to assist anyone in search of the right material—from faux fur to green concrete.

Photograph by Mike Pick

Anyone who makes something you can see, smell, or touch uses a material. But the search for the right material can be a fraught process, and many design professionals and companies could use a scientist’s help in matching a new plastic, polymer, or ceramic to the attributes they’re seeking. Material ConneXion is a global consultancy that seeks to bridge that gap. Founded in 1997 and based in the Flatiron district of New York City, Material ConneXion is a team of materials scientists and design specialists who find innovative solutions to problems of performance, aesthetic, and sustainability in products, according to Vice President for Materials Andrew Dent. Their clientele, says Dent, includes “everybody who makes things—architects, interior designers, people who make sneakers, fashion designers, chair designers, home appliance designers.”

Through February 28th, Material ConneXion is opening its headquarters to the public in order to display the winners of the 2009 Medium Awards, their annual prize recognizing materials that have significantly advanced design, industry, and the economy. Eager to check out the winning goods, Seed headed over to their offices and sat down with Dent to discuss how Material ConneXion works.

Seed: You help design firms track down the right materials for everything from furniture to ski boots. Do these disparate clients have anything in common?
Andrew Dent: Actually, you often find that there are links between industries—between, say, luggage and strollers. There are also similarities between the needs of chair manufacturers and the needs of automotive designers. Obviously, we can put clients in touch with material suppliers, but we can also connect different types of clients when we find that there are ways in which they can cross-pollinate.

For example, we can link somebody who’s working in the cosmetics field—and has produced, for example, a solution for getting fragrance into a product—with someone in a different industry that’s trying to make a different product, but with similar needs. The technology can often be adapted.

Seed: Have you observed any overarching trends in what clients are looking for these days?
AD: Sustainability is something that people are requesting more and more. But what we’ve found is that clients often don’t know what they mean by “sustainability.” In fact, we’ve found that our most valuable asset is the ability to deconstruct what they think they want into what materials will solve the problem they have.

“I want a green material,” a client might say—but do they want that green material because they want to improve the efficiency of the process? Is it a marketing thing—do they want to signify that they’ve become a more sustainable company? Or do they want to do it for the real reasons? Why do they want a sustainable product? The consulting side is finding out what their real needs are, and then working to solve those needs.

Of course, people are always looking for cheaper, faster, lighter, stronger, thinner, more transparent, and more flexible. Nothing cannot be improved by being made transparent! Okay, obviously some things—like clothes—are better left opaque, but everything else…Wouldn’t everything look cooler, or seem cooler, if it was transparent?

Also, sometimes people want a product to possess certain emotional attributes. “I want to convey happiness,” or “I want it to convey a sense of warmth.” These are emotional states, and we have to be able to translate what a material needs to do in order to convey warmth. We translate the designer’s need into what science can do.

Seed: Getting down to the science of “warmth,” what particular solutions would you have for that problem?
AD: We have three areas to consider. One is thermal conductivity. Another is color. And then there’s surface roughness. If you have a material that is highly conductive—that transfers heat very quickly when you touch it—and you roughen the surface, you create a lot of air pockets, slowing the transfer. You can create aluminum that feels warm by just roughing up the surface. It’s like picking up a piece of toast versus a bagel out of the toaster. A piece of toast you can pick up, because it’s got a lot of holes in it and won’t instantly transfer all its heat. The same stuff, made into a bagel with a flat exterior surface, will burn your fingers.

Seed: In addition to the consultancy, Material ConneXion has a vast collection of materials people can use for their own research. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
AD: Our library is a collection of 5,000 innovative materials, all sourced within the last ten years. These are all commercially available—many of the solutions we find for clients of the consultancy are not—and they run the full gamut of uses in architecture to interior design. If you have a subscription to the library, you can come in and do research yourself.

Seed: Does science play a role in how the library is organized?
AD: Yes. The entries are categorized according to material composition. They are loosely scientific, in that we have our eight categories—polymers, ceramics, carbon-based, cement-based, naturals-derived, naturals, metals, and glass. However, 95 to 98 percent of polymers are carbon-based, so that’s a blurred distinction. And the boundary between ceramics and glass is a little bit fuzzy too: Obviously, to a designer, glass is the stuff that you put in windows, while ceramics is high-tech material for the space shuttle, or the low-tech stuff toilets are made of. Although to a scientist there are very great similarities between ceramics and glass, to a designer, there is a clear utility distinction.

So in the library, we’ve understood the science but also translated it into what the designers need.

Seed: We understand that a material’s entry in the library is contingent on its sustainability profile.
AD: That’s one aspect. We have a jury that sits every month—the jurists are design specialists with substantial experience in using materials. They review materials based on four areas of innovation: Is it a new material or process? Is it a significant advancement on existing material or process? (Five percent better wouldn’t cut it, but if we’re getting 50 percent more transparency, that’s enough to say we’re getting real innovation.) Has it recently trickled down to our industry? This would be stuff that the military, aerospace, or medical industry has been using for maybe a few years, but may be new in our area and therefore interesting. And is it sustainable? In this category, the material does not have to represent an improvement in performance. As long as it has less impact, that’s enough for us. If you can give me a coating or a textile that does exactly the same thing as the PVC version but has a lower impact, I’ll take it.

Seed: Is that the idea behind your Cradle-to-Cradle collection?
AD: Yes. Cradle-to-Cradle is the ideal methodology in order to produce a sustainable product. Everybody who has read Cradle-to-Cradle, the book written by Braungart and McDonough, says a light goes off: “This is it!” But of course the ideal and what a company needs to do in order to achieve that ideal are two different things. The Cradle-to-Cradle wall is a display in our library of the materials that have achieved certification in the Cradle-to-Cradle methodology. They are headed toward that true sustainable future—none of them have reached it yet, but they are on a path towards it. All of the products on that wall have a certification: silver, gold, or platinum depending on the level that they have achieved.

Seed: Can you explain what Cradle-to-Cradle is for people who haven’t read the book?
AD: It basically says that in order to be sustainable, a product or material needs to be one of two things. One option is that it is a “technical nutrient,” which means that the product is complex and therefore best suited for a recycling process. At the end of the product’s life, it gets fed back into the system in a closed loop. The other option is that the product becomes a “biological nutrient”: At the end of its life, it goes back into the ground as compost, where it can fertilize the next bit of growth material.

In theory, everything needs to be put into one of those two systems. If it’s not, it’s not sustainable.

Seed: Are you also involved with the Medium Awards?
AD: Yes, I pick the materials. They are 10 materials or processes that highlight or demonstrate innovation. We’ve tried to cover as a broad a range of categories as possible, highlighting the eight categories we have in the library. But principally, they are innovations that tell a story about the way the material world has developed in 2009. There are more high-tech materials out there, but these tell a story—they chart a trend within materials.

Take, for instance, the 2009 material of the year, Concrete Cloth. Not only is this an innovative material, it also tracks the increasing innovativeness of concrete; we’ve seen many developments in the last two or three years that indicate concrete is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. And it uses a 3-D textile as part of its construction, a process that has revolutionized many industries. So it’s the combination of both concrete and 3D textiles. Concrete Cloth highlights two areas in which we’ve seen a lot of innovation over the past five years.

Seed: You’re a scientist—a Ph.D. in materials science. How does your training play into your work here?
AD:  I studied ceramics and coatings, with military applications. But obviously there is much more than that going on here. The good thing about materials science is that it gives you the fundamentals of the physical world and allows you to be unsurprised by any new development that happens. All of this work—it all fits into the worldview of a materials scientist.

Originally published February 4, 2010

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