New materials
Enza Migliore

In 1902 Georges Méliès produced what is considered the first science fiction film of the history: “Le voyage dans la lune”. It was a virtual imaginary about a fictional spacecraft crashing into the eye of the moon. Decades later, that image on the screen takes shape, becomes aluminum, titanium, metal alloys, ceramics.

Subsequently, a few decades from the materialization of that dream, in the 80s, the bits start to pervade our daily lives and the whole world, from philosophers to artists, sociologists and designers, believe that these small units are decomposing the reality to recompose it in a virtual universe. A process of dematerialization seems to take place which blots out time, space and physicality. The real and living spacecraft looks like returning to its antecedent entity, a projection on the screen.

Actually, moving away from the idea that the reality is losing its physicality in favour of a computer virtualization, we could say that the process of digitalization is almost making clear and understandable some theories of the modern physics.


For example, in Science and humanism, Erwin Schrödinger describes the matter from a physical and philosophical perspective, highlighting a strange circularity in the relationship between matter and spirit: “the matter is an image of our mind, the mind is then before the matter (despite the odd empirical dependence of my mental process by physical data of a certain part of the field , my brain)” [1] (Schrödinger, 1978)

Schrödinger argues that materialism of 19th-century science is unacceptable: matter can not longer be considered “a coarse tangible thing in the space”.

The idea that atoms are small and identifiable individual bodies vanished. Specifically, the physics of the twentieth century had to abandon the idea that the ultimate constituents of matter retain their own identity. Schrödinger, referring to Plato says that matter is made up of immaterial forms and that these forms, at an invisible level, give identity to the matter at a visible one and he shares the Platonic idea that the matter “takes on a very specific meaning. It, in a sense, comes to an extreme level of “rarefaction”, assuming connotations that go far beyond our powers of imagination.[2]

For Plato the matter is not the foundation, brick and base on which to build the real, but it is a product.

These theories, formulated a long time ago and never officially and unanimously accepted because of their counter-intuitive nature, seem to find validation and evidence in the current material scenario, in which a material is designed and programmed from intangible forms, which Plato called ideas, and that, in the specific case of this analysis, we could identify in the digital codes. You can design materials identity and their features through shapes and configurations realized by encoding numbers. And the material itself becomes a product.


Vilem Flusser, about the impact of digital technology on tangible matter, says: “the material world is what is introduced in the forms; is the filler of forms. (…) At the present time, (…), at the urging of computing, we are returning to the concept [..] of “matter” as a temporary filler to eternal forms.[3] (Flusser, 2003).

Flusser understands the great “material” potential of the digital. He sees in the new codes, not only languages that finally make us to understand and describe the reality in its nature, that is a set of points, but even new processes that make us aware there isn’t only one reality, but many. These codes have the ability to “manifest” to our senses compositions by endless numbers encodings.

He says: “[…] the ticking is mechanised more easily than scrolling. (…) because virtually everything that exists in the world (…) stutters. (…) The world is calculable, but indescribable. (…) And that is exactly what is happening. The numbers leave the alphanumeric code in favor of new codes (the digital code, for example) that are used to program the computer. While the letters (if they survive) are forced to simulate the numbers. That’s why typewriters tap. (…) now thanks to computers you can recode the numbers in the form of colors, shapes and sounds, the beauty and depth of the calculation have become the object of sense perception. You can see its creative force on computer screens, hear it in the form of synthesized music and in future you will probably experience it, touch it with your hands, using holograms. (…) The exciting thing about the calculation (…) is (…) that is capable of projecting worlds attainable by the senses. (…) These worlds are collections of points, computations of calculations. But the same applies to the real world in which we are thrown.” [4] (Flusser, 2003, pp. 57, 58)

While Flusser, on a philosophical level, affirms that new languages are finally available for codifying the reality, the concept of “liquid modernity” by Zygmunt Bauman seems to describe this phenomenon on a cultural and socio-economics level. Bauman says that we can “(…) consider << fluidity >> or << liquidity >> as relevant metaphors when we want to understand the nature of the current and in many respects new phase in the history of modernity. (…) The <> was <> insofar as it was decided to emancipate the reality from the << dead hand >> of its history, and this could be done only by dissolving the solid bodies (that is, by definition, dissolving everything persists over time and is unresponsive to his passing or immune to its flow). (…) purpose of this wasn’t to get rid once and for all solid bodies and leave forever the beautiful new world by their presence, but pave the way for new and better solids; replace the inherited series of solids and ineffective with another better and preferably perfect (…).” [5] (Bauman, 2002)


According to the latter concept, we can see that the “immaterial” announced as dematerialization of physical body, looks today rather like a liquefaction of solid matter. This is to say that the matter has been undermined in his stiffness, immobility and recognized identity and blown with the properties typical of gases and liquids to change according to space and time and to hide themselves to one or more senses simultaneously.

New technologies, especially digital ones, dramatically changed the material landscape that surrounds us, but following a sense of rarefaction rather than dematerialisation, of lightening rather than disappearance and of interaction more than virtualization.

Advances in materials science and new digital tools and languages led to bypass the design limits, allowing to overcome concepts such as reliability, durability, imperturbability, predictability and certainty to update the material component of the project with new expectations and potentialities such as interaction, intelligence, efficiency, versatility, accuracy and autonomy.

Tomás Maldonado argues the theories of dematerialization starting from a very simple idea based on the weight, the first of properties mined from the virtualization and digitization processes. He claims that “[…] the fact, certainly true, that light materials are now replacing heavy materials does not allow to infer that we are on the road to a low-intensity of materials production. […] this would mean taking the weight of materials as the only parameter eligible to judge their intensity. If you use another parameter, that, for example, […] of the total volume of materials used on a global scale you could get at a much more reasonable conclusion. Namely: the current trend would not be, as they say, toward a low-intensity of materials production, but rather towards a high-intensity production of lightweight materials.[6] (Maldonado, 2007)

The interesting aspect of the influence of digital technology on the matter, then, is that it is not at all undermined in its tangibility, and indeed, even come out invigorated by new possibilities, both performative, perceptual and manufacturing. It looks like the matter becomes more rarefied and scattered, creeping on tiptoes in each interspace.


Achim Menges, Director and founder of the ICD, Institute For Computational Design of Stuttgart explains “[…] how the material is not a fixed structure and passive receptor of shape, but how it can be turned into an active generator design and an adaptive agent both of structural performance and architectural performativity.[7]

Menges explains how digital computing allows to “inform” the design process with specific behaviors and characteristics of materials and at the same time to drive the project with feedbacks from the environment; in short how it can help the designer in the prediction of material behaviour in response to certain external conditions or interactions with customers.

Somehow the new technologies shall release the material from the machine, putting it near a more natural, organic, responsive and adaptive behaviour.

New electronic tools have made it possible to explore nature in its most intimate mechanisms and, through computational design, computer software and new technologies, we can transfer them in our project, imitating the operation process, establishing a relationship with the biological paradigms and materializing in nature.

Rereading the thesis of theorists of “the matter”, from physics to philosophy to design, the material scenario appears today an inseparable amalgam of nature and artifice, where each becomes, if necessary, instrument, object or subject. Digital technology has made it possible that the efficiency of nature became a model for design.

In addition, thanks to Internet, the digital has transformed materials in cultural values, making their knowledge and manufacturing accessible and widespread, democratic and giving it an intangible life that materializes where required. These aspects seem to make the new digital materials more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.


A synthetic portrait that gives a conceptually and visually emblematic idea of the new materiality are the works of Kohei Nawa, a Japanese artist working almost obsessively on the contamination between digital and biological: the new materiality is a hybrid of molecules and bits, which behaves according to biological paradigms, but through a digital process.

In his work PIXCELL he covers stuffed animals with transparent crystal beads, inside which the portions of object are magnified and distorted, altering the perception of the surface that appears to us, at the same time, as a molecular structure and a pixilated screen of a computer.

In the work FORCE he plays on the laws of physics, showing how liquids interact with gravity, but by exploiting technological possibilities such as to manipulate a material, specifically a black silicone oil to make it according to a performative behavior foreshadowed.


[1] – Literal translation by author from Schrödinger, E., Scienza e umanesimo: Che cos’è la vita?, Sansoni, Firenze 1978, pp. 15-16

[2] – Literal translation by author from Gembillo, G. , Werner Heisenberg. La filosofia di un fisico, Giannini, Napoli 1987, p. 29

[3] – Literal translation by author from Flusser,V., Filosofia del Design, p. 8, Ed. Bruno Mondadori, 2003

[4] – Literal translation by author from Flusser op. cit.

[5] – Literal translation by author from Bauman, Z., Modernità liquida, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2002

[6] – Literal translation by author from Maldonado, T., Reale e virtuale, Seconda edizione, Feltrinelli Editore, Milano 2007, p. 81

[7] – Literal translation by author from Menges, A., Lecture at the Arkitektur-och Designcentrum of Stockholm, 03/04/2014

[8] – Literal translation by author from Santulli, C., Biomimetica: la lezione della Natura: Ecosostenibilità, design e cicli produttivi nel Terzo Millennio, Milani (a cura di), Ciesse Edizioni, 2012.


Printable materials
Ivo Caruso

Using the computer language for transforming a digital shape into three-dimensional objects brought incredible opportunities in the field of materials for the project.

In fact, materials acquire structural properties: the same material can take the desired properties thanks to the shape; new 3d modeling software, based on parametric logic and able of reproducing the generative principles of nature, allow to obtain very complex structures that can give dignity and legitimacy even to poor materials or other lacking a strong design identity. For example the formal experimentation “Fractal Forms” and the latest “Gridby Daniel Widrig reproduce complex and sophisticated crystal lattices with an aseptic and impersonal polyamide.

The fact that 3D printing, today, has the limit to be used with few materials, although there are many projects, experiments and research that demonstrate how we are approaching the time when any type of material will be printable, does nothing but reinforce the convergence of the digital and biological processes: nature has in fact a few items with which can build, in a timely and efficient way, different types of structures that meet specific needs and functions. “Nature has a particular way of designing: applies the principle of structural redundancy, which, in spite of the expression, results in a physical optimization.” [1] (Santulli, 2012)

For example, a fruit is composed of a greater number of seeds than those who will give birth to new life, to ensure the continuation of the species even if exposed to adverse conditions.

Thanks to 3d printing technology a material becomes structurally efficient, even redundant, as making details or components that are very complex or even in excess with this technology is not complicated or expensive as with traditional industrial processes.


Still Widrig realizes, in 2014, the stool Degenerated Chair, where nature and technology merge into one object: thanks to 3d printing he produces a biological material obtained with sugar, gypsum and Japanese rice wine. After he created the 3d model, this was divided into pixels and then 3D printed. A striking example of the contemporary materiality: a hybrid, organic, open-source material, printed in a form digitally obtained and even aesthetically digital, given the pixelate appearance.

It appears, in this example, another dominating element of the material culture in the digital age: the open source. The noble principle of sharing and democratisation of knowledge generated by the network has triggered an attitude of open access and DIY also concerning the production of materials from biopolymers to smart materials. You can find recipes online and use the self-produced material by printing it, why not, with a self-produced printer. Platforms as and arise.

It’s a democratic, economic and for use by all process, just like the principle according to which and from which the press was born. The project Edible Growth by the food designer Chloé Rutzerveld consists of forms 3d printed with seeds, spores and yeast that will begin to grow after a few days and produce vegetables and mushrooms. The designer Eric Klarenbeek combines organic materials such as straw or mushrooms with biopolymers to produce objects in Rapid Prototyping, such as the Mycelium chair.

Interesting developments in the field of 3D printing are conducted by the Self-Assembly lab of MIT, which, in collaboration with Stratasys and Autodesk developed the 4D Printing process: Multi-Material Shape Change. This is a new print process of smart materials, where through a printer Stratasys Connex it’s possible to combine more materials in the same object, foreseeing and planning in advance the desired behavior that material should have for a given product and function. So, via triggers such as water, heat, air or light a material will turn to the need.

Kinematics Dress of Nervous System is based on a 3d printing process which involves a paradigm shift of material according to different situations: it is a fabric, translated into dress, printed by folded to minimize its size for adapting to the printer. Each piece is a hard nylon triangle. When the dress is worn, the set of parts creates a single fabric flexible and adaptable to the body movement. Unlike a traditional fabric, this Kinematics Dress is not uniform; it chages its bending, stiffness, porosity and model through space. The entire piece is customizable, in form and style, through the App Kinematics Cloth.


[1] – Literal translation by author from Santulli, C., Biomimetica: la lezione della Natura: Ecosostenibilità, design e cicli produttivi nel Terzo Millennio, Milani (a cura di), Ciesse Edizioni, 2012.


Programmable materials
Angela Giambattista

Another digital logic that is transforming the contemporary material scenario is the “programming”. In fact today it is possible to infuse the matter with planned properties responding to external conditions or user needs.

Increasingly we talk about “programmable materials”, referring to the possibility of attributing to them controllable and changeable properties thanks to new technologies of computational design, generative and parametric processes based on biological principles and developments in materials science and biotechnology.

Research at the Stuttgart ICD explores an alternative, morphogenetic, approach to design, that explicit the morphological complexity and performance capacity of materials without distinguishing between the processes of formation and materialization.

The computational process allows to analyze material, shape and environment as if they were a single system and to predict behaviors, responses and formation of matter associated with a certain shape and inserted in a given context. In this way it is literally possible to program desired material transformations in a given environment and under certain inputs.

The project Hygroscope, in 2012, explores a new mode of reactive architecture based on a combination of the intrinsic behaviour of the material and computational morphogenesis. Dimensional instability of wood in relation to moisture content is used to create an architectural morphology responsive to climatic conditions. Suspended inside a glass case with controlled humidity, the model opens and closes in response to climate changes without need for any technical equipment or energy.

There are examples of materials whose behaviour is determined by the introduction of living organisms inside themselves. This is the case of self-healing Concrete, created by the research group of the Delft University of Technology, led by Henk Jonkers. It is a concrete with inside inactive bacteria and starch for feeding them to their awakening. When cracks generate in the concrete, water infiltration will activate bacteria that, by feeding, begin to produce calcite, which will provide for the repair of fractures. The designer and researcher Shamees Aden used procellule to create self-reparing soles for shoes, the Amoeba running shoes.


Neri Oxman is a eloquent representative of the intersection between computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology and she applies this knowledge to design from the micro to the scale of the building.

Wanderers, An Astrobiological Exploration is a collection of wearable bodily extensions where the material component is engineered and printed in wearable devices to support the man in hostile environments, such as on a voyage beyond the planet Earth. She imagines the extreme conditions in which the human being could be and design appropriate material behaviors in response to them. Materials, printed simultaneously in a synthetic skin, are programmed to transform the elements they encounter along the journey into livelihoods for humans: some engineered organisms activate a photosynthesis that converts sunlight into energy, other bio-mineralize to strengthen human bones and some become fluorescent to illuminate the road in the dark.

During the I/O Conference 2015 Google unveiled some new projects including “Project Jacquard“, in collaboration with Levi’s, which is to put sensors within the tissues that connect to our devices. The project consists of conductive yarns covered with cotton or other tissues that are connected to a chip, hidden in the labels or collars, so that they interact with each other creating a zone of our body able to pick up any movement.

The project Starling Table, commissioned to Michal Piasecki by Studio Joris Laarman and exhibited at Friedman Benda gallery in New York in 2010, is based on developing a generative process through which a table is assembled by handling the composition and aggregation of 25,000 small units through a 3d animation software. Particles float and combine; the designer can decide when to stop and restart the aggregate status until he sees the finished piece according to the desired composition. This work appears to be investigating the mechanisms of materialization, on a physical level. And he can program, indeed, the state of aggregation.



As written by Mark Andrew Miodownik in his “Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our man-made World” (2014), the importance of materials in the evolution of society is evident when we think about how all the milestones of civilization are called through a discovery or an advancement in the use or technological implementation of a material: the Stone age, Bronze age, Iron age , to our 21st century, the Silicon age.

This name is related to the advent of the computer revolution, by the invention of the silicon chips. It is clear that the digital evolution has been possible only through new discoveries and inventions related to materials. At some point, however, the digital, with the proliferation of new software for programming, managing and controlling material properties and supported by developments in biotechnology filed seems to prevaricate the material and disengaging from it.

The digital seems to dominate and transform the matter according to “robotic” logics, which, on the one hand, make it alive and responsive and on the other hand, purify his “indomitability” and distinctive character that, for designers, have always been a challenge and an inspiration.


So what is the new role of the designer in respect of the choice and material processing in a scenario where limits and unknowns vanish; if the matter becomes predictable and then programmable through codes; if you can print it via software and devices suitable for all?

It is important to consider that digital languages, nanotechnology and computer softwares are “tools” and not “responses” and therefore they can not exclude the human ability to interpret, filter and culturally connect all the factors involved to achieve a project that has an effective social, aesthetic, cultural and functional value.

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