Material matters

As Aidan Walker prepared to chair an FX-sponsored panel discussion at the Surface Design Show at the Business Design Centre in Islington, he pondered on the nature of materials and the unique insights into them held by his chosen panellists...

Thanks to a joint invitation from the FX editor and the MD of Montgomery Exhibitions, organiser among many other trade shows of the Surface Design Show at the BDC in Islington I am 'curating' a panel discussion at the show's Preview Evening in early February (in one of those weird publishing time gaps, I write this before the event, but you will be reading it afterwards).

Although most of what I do is curating (or producing or directing, depending on who I'm working for) seminar and conference programmes, I very rarely have a free hand to put together exactly the session I want. The Surface Design Show, bless it, has given me that opportunity, and pretty much the only defining element of the brief is context, which in this case, of course, is materials.

My technical knowledge about them can be summed up thus: 'I know materials are fantastically interesting and challenging and a key factor in rewriting architecture and design as we know them, but I don't know what and I don't know how. I don't even know what I don't know'. Situations like this I leave to the experts. What I wanted to do was gather together a bunch of people whose work is very much defined, not only by materials, but by their personal relationships with them.

As a former cabinetmaker I completely understand how any given material can be a designer's or craftsperson's instrument not only of choice but also of passion. (You can always tell 'woody' people, for instance, by their strange compulsive habit of touching, even sniffing, bits of raw timber.)

Materials are rarely the point; they are usually the means to an end, one of the routes by which your project or product arrives at existence in the three dimensional world. You will make materials choices which can redefine a typology, or generate an aesthetic and practical reassessment of a product, and new materials technologies will enable you to get results that were previously impossible - but materials are usually part of the toolkit, not the actual job. I wanted to get people for whom materials were much closer to the end in itself.

I managed to persuade Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, inventor of Sugru, the material that is being hailed as 'the best thing since Sellotape'; Rachel Armstrong, who has appeared in these pages before, a co-creator of 'living matter' out of which new buildings may be not built but grown; Laura Ellen Bacon, who inhabits the mysterious world between art, craft and architecture and renders it yet more mysteriously beautiful with her magnificent undulating forms woven from willow stems; and spectacles designer Tom Davies, a name to conjure with in the world of optics, who has built his pioneering business around bespoke frames and the use of natural buffalo horn.

An unusual bunch, eh? Let's take Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh (it's Irish, pronounced 'Ni Gulqueentig') first. 'While studying for my MA in Product Design (read 'playing and experimenting with materials') at the RCA in London, I had a bit of an idea,' she says. 'I don't want to buy new stuff all the time. I want to hack the stuff I already have so it works better for me.' This word 'hack' keeps turning up in her conversation, and on her website; one of the driving forces of Sugru is her conviction that 'we could adapt and improve almost anything mass produced.'

Her first attempts enabled her to 'hack' her sink plug to work better, and make a kitchen knife into a much more comfortable and efficient tool. Six years, a whole team of experts and a £35,000 Nesta grant later, TIME Magazine listed Sugru ahead of the iPad as one of the top 50 inventions of 2010. At last year's London Design Festival she won the inaugural Design Entrepreneur award.

Rachel Armstrong has moved on from The Bartlett, where she was in February 2010 when she featured in this column, to the University of Greenwich, but is still co-director of Neil Spiller's AVATAR experimental architecture group. Essentially, her work - in collaboration with the Center for Fundamental Living Technology in the physics and chemistry department at the Southern University of Denmark, and the department of Unconventional Computing at the University of the West of England - is about creating a synthetic living ('self organising', she calls it) material for building. But you don't make buildings with her 'protocells'; you set them aside and leave them to grow (apologies to Rachel if I'm dumbing this down to the point of no return; it's rarefied indeed). 'Her work,' I said in 2010, 'proposes another way of looking at the world, a more holistic, intuitive, non-linear, collaborative vision that is characterised by femininity. It also pushes on to new ways of looking at architecture as a "social laboratory", developing a new set of conditions for architectural theory and practice where social benefit and the utopian ideal are paramount.' The human factor again.

The work of Laura Ellen Bacon, whose sensibility is more an artist's than a designer's, is not what you'd call architecture, but has evolved in such a way that it feeds off built structures, and indeed feeds back into them.

'The sculptures that I make have a closeness with a host structure or the fabric of a building; their oozing energy spills from gutters, their "muscular" forms nuzzle up to the glass and their gripping weave locks on o the strength of the walls,' she says. It's the activity of rendering natural materials into a mechanistic, constructed context that interests me about Bacon's work; her own description suggests the interaction and, more importantly, the mutual nourishment between forms woven out of organic material and those built out of brick or stone. There's something very human and faintly magical about the process.

Similarly, but perhaps less mysteriously, Tom Davies's work with natural buffalo horn for spectacle frames speaks of a commitment to the relationship between people and materials found in nature. 'I loved the idea of working with horn for eyewear before I actually loved the material,' he says. 'In fact, my frustration and bloodymindedness to make this work led to some technical innovations and solutions which finally made me fall in love with natural horn.'

People respond to natural materials in a way that synthetic, digitally produced or petro-chemical based ones can never hope to achieve. Aligned with Davies's bespoke design service, the end result of which is a pair of specs designed and made to fit your face and your face only, the appeal of horn must somehow hark back to a time when almost every material was natural. We experienced the world around us through the medium of materials that had come from that world and at the end of their useful life would return to it. There was iron and steel, but they were only one step removed from 'natural', and their manufacturing processes depended entirely on the craft of human hands.

Not that anyone could call me a Luddite. I love my Mac, my iPhone and my TomTom just as much - more, probably - than the next person, and am constantly amazed and delighted by what can be achieved with digital technologies. I suppose it comes down, from the point of view of design, to the necessity to exploit all the opportunities that 21st-century technology offers, but to balance those amazing capabilities with 'human truth' - we are ourselves are living beings, and create synthetic and inorganic products and environments at our spiritual and physical peril. And at the peril of our planet, come to that. My four panellists may not know it, but I personally believe that their innate understanding of this subtle balance in the definition of 'humanity' is what makes their work so compelling. I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing them in action.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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