The important progresses made by the science of materials in the last decades, have offered to the artifacts’ projecting new and unusual opportunities to interpret the traditional concepts of materials’ family, characteristics and sphere of application that in the past were typical of the materials selection for designers, architects and artists. 

Contemporary materials acquire an always higher content of information and functionalization. They can be projected to adapt to complex requirements and applications, and to perceive and react to stimuli in ways everyday more similar to those belonging to living beings. All this requires new approaches and new cognitive instruments to choose the most suitable materials to render the expressive wills of design and arts.

A scenario easily defined “hybrid” because it is characterized by material entities with unusual technical and aesthetical features, not enclosable in a usual material definition. Their characteristics escape the conventional categories, which dissolve until becoming transparent. Soft woods, liquid or flexible ceramics, electro-luminescent or biodegradable plastics, see-through cements, glass with controllable opacity are materials of the close future, and they are already changing the contemporary project, linked by a common denominator: overcoming the traditional barriers between various typologies of materials, and the borders – once unmistakable – between families of materials and quality.

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Foamed aluminum.

In this scenario, experimentation of new productive and transformation processes and transferring all this from a sector to another, become more and more meaningful and important. Both new and traditional materials, when put through these processes, can acquire characteristics completely different from those they originally had, that often make them unrecognizable.

Matter, when modified and made functional, is bound to blend with the performance, and to become essence of the product itself, thus removing the always existing borders between material object and function. The so-called smart or intelligent devices, for example, that use such miniaturized electronic and computer technologies as to define them materials, integrate these three spheres until overlapping them.

In this scenario of hybridization between animated and inanimate matter, also user and instrument are blurred. “You cannot talk anymore about man and technological artifact, about subject and object, you have to talk instead about a <>, that is about interactions between man and machines, where probably we are no more ‘subjects’, and where things, objects, that we use and with whom we extend our mind and our senses, reveal aspects of themselves that were unthinkable before, and open new ‘worlds’ while guiding us towards new logics. The presence of these intelligent “objects” has therefore consequences on reality itself, but on our body as well, and influences our relations with the others and our language as well.” (Fiorani E., La comunicazione a rete globale , Lupetti, Milano 1998, p. 10).

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Alumina ceramic foam.

Hybridization as an instrument for the environment-sustainable design

The possibility to modify materials is an opportunity, not only in terms of aesthetic and performance, but also of environmental impact. Thanks to the possibility to project the characteristics, it is also possible to affect environmental performances starting from their limits, to then overcome them.

Through innovative processes, like co-extrusion, it is possible for example to create one-matter – thus more easily recyclable – components, in which the material takes on different characteristics in different parts of the object (density, molecular weight, conductivity, orientation) to support specifically and punctually to various structural or functional needs. A similar approach is found in nature, that in living systems obtains functional differentiation, while not varying the chemical base elements, but rather the organization of their structures.

Everyday materials like metals and ceramics, processed to obtain a foam-like structure, offer interesting opportunities of decrease of the quantity of matter and increase of the specific resistance, but also some interesting artistic potentiality.

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Cascade, installation realized by Michelle Brand with PET bottles.

Today, innovative materials are used by designers and manufacturers also in a communicative way, in order to show the attention of the producer to subjects as: scientific research, technological innovation, commitment to pursue higher and higher performances. An approach that, in some cases, leaves aside the real functional exigencies of the application, and this is why it risks to make the choice not appropriate to the kind of product and to the potential of the materials, depressing instead of enhancing them.

Materials and interactive devices, for example, are chosen mainly in applications related to the game’s dimensions, but can have many different technical and functional potentialities even in very distant spheres, like social or sustainable design. In these fields of design where the conceptual message expressed by products gets very important in order to alert and inform people, it is essential to be aware of the communicative value of the new materials and technologies.

New materials – thanks to their peculiar characteristics (project, interact and react) – can contain a big amount of information. The possibility of manipulating them by influencing their structure, and the tendency to miniaturize all computer and information technologies, offer more and more chances to project and control even the concept behind products. In sustainable design, this potentiality is an useful opportunity, since it helps linking a low-environmental-impact product to a conceptual message coherent with sustainable approaches.

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Wattson produced by DIY Kyoto.

Smart materials, for example, are able to detect and signal maintenance level and eventual damages in real time, and this allows for immediate restoration and maintenance. They can therefore create reactive, self-diagnosing or self-repairing structures, with longer and more intense life spans, able to communicate to users meaningful pieces of information about environmental sustainability, and to induce compatible behaviors.

For example, using recycled materials has always been subject to their polychromatic aesthetic appearance, which is usually linked to negative concepts like poor mechanical performances and low durability, and this limit the possibilities to use them. Design should also be aimed to “dignify” these materials, interpreting and amplifying the expressive and communicative potentialities and their capacity to conduct ethical values, thus inverting the negative into positive.

Biodegradable materials instead, tend to resemble and be mistaken for the conventional plastics they have been called to substitute. In this case, design should instead “explicit” their environmental value through projects aimed to the communicative aspect. For example, by including in a product made of biodegradable plastic some vegetable material, or seeds bound to grow only if the object is planted into soil at the end of its lifespan, the characteristics of these materials can be conceptually evoked and related to sustainability.

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Energy Curtain by Static ! .

The message-oriented approach, is nowadays mainly followed by an experimental design which is closer to contemporary art than to the industrial production project. This is the case of Michelle Brand’s installations, English Eco-designer, who works on the possibilities of extending the mass-products’ waste – i.e. PET mineral water bottles – by re-using them as furniture like tents and dividers, that reveal the aesthetic potential implied in their geometries or in the light refractions effects, in order to emphasize the matter potential even when it becomes waste.

Communication of ethical values is a fundamental and precious opportunity for design and architecture to conceive objects “reporting” problems, values and sustainable objectives. Design has a growing responsibility towards the issue of environmental sustainability. Its opportunities of intervention and influence are everyday wider: from the choice of materials to the productive processes with which the artifacts are realized, design can today influence the environmental impact of the whole life cycle of products, and their consumption and fruition conditions.

Acquiring new scenarios and consumption models by more and more consumers, allows to strongly amplify the results of environmental politics, that in the past were mainly sustained by very limited and specialized cultural and social groups. Nowadays research in this field has obtained steady results, same as the methods and instruments for the sustainable project have consolidated.

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‘E-Static Shadows’ project and experimental research by designer Zane Berzina and architect Jackson Tan, aimed to obtain smart fabrics able to make static electricity perceivable.

A new phase has also started, in which the results of application of these methods have to be verified on a large scale through a diffusion that involves more and more users, and that happens through communicative processes which are planned and strategic, able to lead the way to a deeper and extended consciousness. In this phase, the role of design to spread and “induce” this consciousness is fundamental, and preludes to new modes and project interventions.

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