Mr. Material speaks up
Interview: Gerrit Terstiege
Mr. Lefteri, you have so far published seven books on materials. You work as a consultant, you blog about materials, give talks and have staged a number of exhibitions on the topic. What started your interest in materials in the first place?
The same reason that I got into design, which was simply that I was curious to find out about stuff. It’s like that moment as a child when you stumble upon something, either natural or man-made, and you want to find out what it is, where it came from and what it’s made of.
This curiosity has never abated, and when I had the opportunity to write a book, it was like being invited to produce something that would get across what I knew, like having an excuse to find out about what I didn’t know. This first book was, in many ways, an experiment into how I could find interesting ways of telling stories about these materials that were relevant to design. The more I played about with the ideas for images and layouts, the more I realized that there was something quite important about the way designers use materials that was missing at that point.
What inspires you?
One of the main points of inspiration comes from food. For example, I was recently asked to write a book on that topic, but approached it like a design project. I believed that if I could talk about materials and engage readers in a way that transmitted a very strong emotional connection with materials through text and images, then I would be able to get to the heart of this topic, and bridge the gap that exists when you don’t actually have a sample in your hands to feel, test, smell and all the other things we designers do when we play with materials. I always wanted to get away from the dry technical language of the traditional approach to materials that comes from engineering and science. So I would use very sensorial words, like “finger skinny” to describe a thin-skinned material or “steamy shower” to describe a sort of translucency. Again I wanted to evoke in the reader a snapshot of the material that would make them want to embrace it in the same way that cookery books make us want to cook and eat.
That sounds tasty! Why do you think the issue of materials has become so important in design lately?
It’s a whole range of issues coming together at the same time. From one direction there is the focus on all areas of design that has become much more experience-based. This means that designers need to have more design tools available so that they can create these experiences. This also feeds into branding and communication, and materials clearly have a very strong role to play in these areas. We also have this strong growth of interest in the environment, and clearly the types, sourcing and processing of products and interiors and their material make-up is at the heart of addressing this issue. And a third strand is the exponential growth of technol-ogies today, which is really exciting, and we all know that especially designers want to discover and apply this new and really exciting stuff.
What has been the most relevant development in the field of “new” materials?
Again, it’s not about a single development, more about many areas of research that often overlap. Bio-mimicry and nanotechnologies are finding their way into all sorts of materials, not just the well-known textile- and glass coatings with self-cleaning properties, but also in the area of permanently bonding dissimilar materials. There is also the area of composite materials that has had huge impact on construction, aerospace and transportation. One of the most interesting new materials in this category is a ceramic that is based on nacre, the substance that lines the shells of crabs, that combines the hardness of ceramics with the toughness of metals. But there is also less high-tech technology that creates a new class of plastic moulded products that use sawdust – a by-product of the timber industry – and up to 50% wood fibre. I also think that in the future we will see the production of materials and products become much more intertwined.
Give me an example, please.
For example in nature, the growth of plants and the production of material for that growth march in lockstep. This eliminates the whole man-made process of making a material and then converting it into a final product as we do with machines, a process that consists of many different steps of forming, finishing and transportation. A lot of people believe that what physics and mechanics was for the 20th century, biological engineering will be for the 21st century.
In the hands of the right people that may hold true. But, speaking of nature, it is obvious that environmentally safe materials, recyclable materials, have gained a lot of attention during the past few years. How can designers convince a company to use them, even if they are possibly more expensive?
I think that it is more important that designers get a little more creative with what constitutes an ecomaterial. I think we can separate this area into two categories: the first being those that have some kind of “eco” branding and the second being those that are non-eco labels, but because of their physical properties can reduce weight, can be processed using little energy or can be easily recycle-d. These are much harder to spot in terms of being “eco” but can be just as, if not more, sustainable than many so-called “eco materials”.
Do you think in, say, 100 years, many products will look completely different than they do today because of new materials?
People who try to predict this kind of thing always get it completely wrong, so I have no predictions. The next 100 years could potentially result in the concept of a “product” evaporating, and what we mean by a product being something much less tangible than we have today. At the moment, our relationship to products and objects is to a large degree feeding an emotional hunger rather than facilitating functionality, which, in the main, is what products were about a 100 years ago. In terms of materials I do think that materials like plastic, wood or metal will be obsolete, and the only things that will be made of those materials will be antiques from our own century. A fairly safe prediction would be that these material families will have evolved to the extent that there will be hybrids and new biomaterials that are made of different raw ingredients blended together. Also, I always felt that the future would belong to a single material that could be tailored to any number of applications, a single material that would take a minimal amount of energy to convert into new products.