Material Matters: New Materials in Design

Reviewed by Alix Vollum

I want so badly to sink my hands into the soft contours of puffed-up nylon, to trace my fingertips over the coolly silken surfaces of jet engines in nickel superalloys, to shift the color of a cube of thermochromatic glass with the heat of my body. Material Matters is lush and textural, and I am disappointed that I cannot touch it. I am mollified, however, by its suggestion that these materials will soon find application in the sphere of everyday life, that heat-fusible yarn, self-healing concrete, and magnetic steel thread—while too specialized, now, or still in manufacturing nascence—may soon become ubiquitous.
Material Matters divides itself along the lines of glass, metal, polymers, ceramics, composites, and the bewitching “futures.” Pithy text enumerates properties, applications, and further information for each material, catalogue-like, though the true appeal lies in the accompanying images. The images are large and enticing, and often produce the material in both its micro- and macroscopic dimensions.
Liquid plastic infused with magnetic iron filings and shaped as it cools finds a fungal, architectural form, and a close-up of the same presents a serrated and almost lunar terrain. Unfired ceramics are magnified until they take on somatic contours, and make me blush. The smudgy, chilly blue of aerogel has an astral appearance that mirrors its purpose: to capture and store stardust, tiny flecks of cosmic detritus.
And more: outsize faceted glass crystals; cobwebby aerosolized fabric; eerie silhouettes behind transparent concrete; nuclear waste rendered an iridescent, amber-colored glass candy by way of vitrification. The materials edge into the sinister on occasion, as with soft circuits, flexible electronic patches that adhere to the skin. The circuits resemble a perverse hybrid between wiry hair and decorative gold, a space-age filigree with capacity for surveillance. Despite the dystopian implications, I am still intrigued—I would like to know the sensation of a soft circuit on my forearm, to see what information it transmits.
Solar Sand Sintering 1
So Material Matters is an exercise in imagined tactile experiences. Now, though, I am thinking about my tactile relation to the materials of quotidian life, to the contexts and connotations of the things I touch out of necessity, pleasure, curiosity.
Materials I engage with everyday: plastics hard and soft, metals (steel, titanium, brass, silver, gold), silicon, glass, concrete, and many more I overlook, unaware. In other contexts, these selfsame materials are medical, or architectural, dental, culinary, automotive, sexual, educational, their surfaces smooth, rough, velvety, hot, cool, grainy, silky, pockmarked, pebbled, soft. In this way Material Matters succeeds in estranging the materials of the everyday, the dimensions, properties, and textures of which I assumed I knew. It brings me to the utter strangeness of tactility, to how much of life is mediated by touch, how subtle the perceived distinctions between materials.
This recalls an estranging game to be played with known materials: run a familiar texture across your cheek or the back of your arm or your tongue to produce an alien experience,  a new relation between your sense of touch and this material, its details suddenly effaced, or magnified, or your perception of it otherwise altered. Many of the substances in Material Matters play to what I imagine would be a novel and pleasurable disparity in a similar vein: looks like silly string, feels like cement; looks weighty, feels light. The book is a catalogue of seductive tactile futures, a map of material thrills.
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Phil Howes and Zoe Laughlin, Material Matters: New Materials in Design, (Black Dog Publishing, 2012) 
Images: interior images from Material Matters: New Materials in Design, courtesy of Black Dog Publishing