Samples and patterns have long been used in the teaching of craft skills, but it was only with the professionalisation of archives and systematic access to knowledge in the 19th century that pattern books began to be published and distributed. While these pictorial representations of objects and components focussed on forms, they were unable to communicate materiality with its haptic and visual qualities. Parallel to the illustrations, this led to the development of collections of physical samples designed to convey material knowledge. From the early 19th century, progressive concepts aimed to teach schoolchildren about the materiality of their environment and to communicate knowledge about direct observation and the sensory experience of nature. [2: Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Objektstunden. Vom Materialwissen zur Materialbildung, in Herbert Kalthoff, Torsten Cress, Tobias Röhl (eds.), Materialität. Herausforderungen für die Sozial- und Kulturwissenschaften, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2016, p. 171–193.]
An interdisciplinary overview of teaching about materials and the history of educational collections was recently presented in the exhibition “Object Lessons. The Story of Material Education in 8 Chapters” at the Werkbund Archive – Museum of Things in Berlin and is now on show until 1 October 2017 at the Winterthur Museum of Applied Arts and Design. The central exhibit, a so-called object lesson box developed in England around 1850 by the siblings Charles and Elizabeth Mayo, shows an early collection of materials and objects systematically compiled for educational purposes. As well as offering direct examples, the reduced scale and fragmentary dimension of the samples also gave them model character. [3: Taking their cue from the concepts of the Mayo siblings, who based their work on techniques developed by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the curators Imke Volkers and Ann-Sophie Lehmann presented eight sections focussing on the peculiarities of various material collections and approaches: from apothecary’s cabinets to collections for training restorers through to the kits developed by the Werkbund to shape students’ attitudes in the 1950s, available at museumderdinge.org/exhibitions/object-lessons-story-material-education-8-chapters-0 (last checked on 11 May 2017).]
At the turn of the last century, ambitious figures in the reform movements of the time, including educators in the Werkbund and teachers at the Bauhaus, launched broad discussions and critiques of the ways materials were dealt with and understood, promoting a new diversity in material education. As well as the presentation of aesthetic models, courses in applied arts also introduced basic craft knowledge based on actual training with materials. Today, 150 years after this coupling of education and materials, such collections should be based on a more fundamentally differentiated approach – because in addition to their technical properties, materials develop narratives whose decoding is now of special importance. [4: The desires stimulated by products are often based on their materiality; they resonate with ideologies, trigger emotions, and support identities. Franziska Müller-Reissmann, Haare, Pilze, Asbest. Bedeutungsebenen von Werkstoffen im Kontext der Produktgestaltung, in Friedrich Weltzien, Martin Scholz (eds.), Die Sprachen des Materials, Berlin: Reimer Verlag, 2016, p. 17–33.]
Due to the technical complexity involved in making material products and the number of new products appearing every day, as well as the constant shifting of paradigms for designers and artists concerning the marketing of their works, the underlying properties of the materials must be diversely sampled to highlight specific aspects with model character. In order to richly equip sample collections in this sense as aids to reading the language of materials in today’s academised design training, it is worth taking a differentiated look at the various meanings of the terms involved. A sample is something drawn from a larger whole, standing in for it. As reproductive patterns, samples can have two distinct functions. Firstly, as educational samples they help to develop an understanding of some particular manual skill. Here, techniques are executed in exemplary form in order to observe the correct use of the materials in question, with fibres, stones, and woods being presented in order to study their properties. The second function of material samples, directly derived from the first, but with a different impetus, comes into play when the results are to be sold. If a product involves a complex manufacturing process, if it is too heavy, too large, too resource-intensive or too numerous to be produced without a commission, then it must be sampled.
Types of Samples in an Educational Collection
Both kinds of samples are included in the material collection at the Zurich University of the Arts that I will present in the following as a current example in design teaching. In this collection, the samples have an educational value: they are samples to learn from. Whether a sample is produced for teaching or promotion is a key difference; they follow different principles because what they are designed to render visible and experienceable is different. The sales sample is supposed to be immaculate and inspirational; weak points and peculiarities that point to obscure applications are of no interest here. When a product or collection is being marketed, the sample’s purpose is to allow the material to be seen and touched, to combine it with other materials, to facilitate an aesthetic relationship. It serves the consumer, the user, the enjoyer. An educational sample, on the other hand, is aimed at manufacturers, craftspeople, and designers, to familiarise the user with the material, including both its weaknesses and its potential. The production of an educational sample, therefore, aims to render traces of processing visible, and positive as well as negative sides are presented. This is especially evident in the numerous wood collections that exist around the world, so-called xylotheques. They are designed to be exhaustive, showing types of wood with all of their peculiarities, including growth defects and knots, as well as prepared samples showing their microscopic structure. They are used above all in dendrology, but also in teaching and for analysis in the forestry industry, in engineering and in carpentry training. [5: See for example Hamburg’s institute of wood research, available at schattenblick.de/infopool/umwelt/fakten/ufafo740.html or the wood research department at TU Munich, available at hfm.tum.de/index.php?id=39&L=0 (last checked on 11 May 2017).] By contrast, wood samples from traders are usually focussed on the positive side of the wood – unless defects are part of the aesthetic concept, as in the case of grained veneers.
Since an encyclopaedic approach to materials is no longer appropriate, the samples in educational collections offer a partial view, requiring them to be as expressive as possible. The material collection at the Zurich University of the Arts thus includes various types of educational samples, each illustrating specific aspects in concentrated form. There are pure material samples (a piece of wood, a sheet of metal) that offer an experience of the material in unprocessed form as a raw material. These form the basis of the collection (roughly 1,000 samples), presenting groups of materials via the best-known examples in their raw and unprocessed form.
To supplement this basic range, the collection also includes many of the kind of commercial samples described above from manufacturers, mainly showing current products. They serve the students as direct sources of inspiration for their designs. Most are elaborate composite materials made using very specific, often patented procedures that characterise a special product, usually appearing in connection with a brand name: glass wool, light-reflecting concrete, thermochromic coated leather or acrylic-bound solid surface material.
Process samples, on the other hand, are half-finished products or process steps, an important instrument in understanding and imitating procedures and techniques. They reveal the genesis of a product and follow the development from material to finished product, offering behind-the-scenes insights. In this they resemble experiment samples, another category that documents failed attempts, tests, and accidents, allowing another different view of materials. Such samples are capable of directly promoting creativity in design training. This works especially well when students conduct experiments themselves and archive their results as samples for those who come after them.
Another type of samples are application samples. These are fully finished objects that show the ways materials are processed and finished, in formal and functional terms. Such samples may be everyday items, but they may also be designer objects or technical products. They can also usefully be shown in used or aged form, and the resulting category of damage samples shows traces of use, weak points, and patina. Broken objects, like a shovel eaten away by rust, illustrate the phenomenon of corrosion; Tupperware with a sticky, sweating surface shows the way softeners leak out of plastics; crumbling elastic bands show how rubber perishes. In order to understand how materials degrade, such defects are welcome here. When objects are shown as fragments, then they tell stories about what has happened to and with them. As a designer or artist, if one knows the weaknesses of materials, one can either avoid them by design or make deliberate use of them by emphasising them to an artistic effect.
Digital Networking of Analogue Samples
To actually read the narratives in materials and the things made out of them, however, more than physical samples are required. Compared to the Mayo siblings’ object boxes or the Werkbund kits of the post-war period, today more information is needed to understand a material. The social and historical conditions involved in obtaining, processing, using, and disposing a given material are not visible in a physical sample. Choosing a material for a timely design depends on extensive knowledge of such background detail. In the context of the debate on sustainability, greenwashing, and style marketing, such information is vital when navigating the world of materials and products. Only by shedding light on the production chain with all its social and ecological conditions is it possible to critically question marketing strategies, thus enabling good choices in the implementation of design ideas and product launch. Today, more than ever before, the choice of material determines success, and it is no longer merely a matter of technical and aesthetic properties.
For this reason, the material samples in the collection at the Zurich University of the Arts, like those at the seven other collections across Switzerland participating in the Material Archiv joint project, are linked to digitally stored information. [6: The Material Archiv association comprises five universities and departments of architecture, design, and restoration, a museum, and an art foundry. The association’s public database offers access to materials knowledge independent of specific manufacturers, grouped in eight distinct collections each aimed at a specific target group, available at materialarchiv.ch (last checked on 15 May 2017).] Using RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology the sample is linked to a data set via a chip, allowing sensory and analytical levels to interlock. The Material Archiv database is freely accessible online and can be used independently of the sample collections.
When archiving materials in the form of written, theoretical accounts, digital storage has several advantages: material data sets can be included in almost unlimited numbers, since their dimensions are not restricted by the walls of crates or buildings. In addition, it offers maximum flexibility: information can be added at any time, knowledge can be updated or supplemented, errors can be removed, accuracy increased. The analogue samples in the physical collection, on the other hand, have the advantage that they can be used comparatively. Juxtapositions offer new perspectives and differences become clear when samples are (accidentally) seen side by side or (deliberately) grouped together. Just as a digital clock names a single moment, a data set shows just one material, whereas an analogue clock shows the moment within the course of the day, just as physical samples are seen as parts of a larger whole.
In this sense, the samples serve as models of a complex material reality; they are reduced, compressed bundles of properties, and as focusers of meaning and expressive objects they can usefully accompany training in design-related professions, especially at universities.
After a carpentry and joinery apprenticeship, Franziska Müller-Reissmann studied art history, classical archaeology, and philosophy in Hamburg and Berlin. Since 2008 she has been working at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich in the collections and restoration departments. Since 2011, she has also been managing the Material Archiv at the Zurich University of the Arts, which is part of the university library that makes materials available as media in structured form, operates the materialarchiv.ch database, and generally anchors access to materiality in teaching.