Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design

Today, adherence to the "truth" of a material is no longer an absolute for design. New technologies are being used to customize, extend, and modify the physical properties of materials, and to invent new ones endowed with the power of change. Plastics can be as transparent as glass, as flexible as fiber, as metallic as aluminum; wood can be as soft as upholstery. Solid metals are being replaced by ceramics, and sheet metal by carbon and glass fibers. No longer adjuncts in passive roles, materials have been transformed into active interpreters of the goals of engineers and designers.

The creation of a mutant material begins with design, with the first act of transforming a material into a more useful and usable one--earth powders into glass and ceramics, oil into thermoplastic pellets. The ideal advanced material is lasting, flexible, resistant to corrosion or wear, noninvasive, and reusable. Its sensible application may incorporate the old within the new, making good use of past conceptual and technical achievements. For example, sintering, a new manufacturing process, takes advantage of high temperatures and pressure to directly transform conventional ceramic powder into a solid--the process behind the development of superconducting ceramic materials that conduct electricity without dissipation at very low temperatures. Steel becomes superplastic with the addition of carbon fibers, and can be stretched to ten times its original length without structural failure. Such breakthrough technologies, although still very expensive, have already been embraced by industrial designers.

By its nature, glass, which is completely noncrystalline, has always invited hybridization. Through experimentation with additives, modern engineers have perfected photochromic glass, which changes color on exposure to light; fiber optics, today's information carriers; and a glass ceramic that is machinable with conventional steel or carbide tools. A newly developed sandwich of glass sheets and liquid-crystal film becomes opaque for privacy when the crystals are agitated by the flick of an electrical switch.

"Plastics"--a label as all-encompassing as "species"--are defined either by composition (e.g., polyurethanes and silicones) or by technology (e.g., thermoplastics). Initially developed in the nineteenth century--and exploited in the first half of the twentieth century to imitate natural materials--plastics exploded in a burst of emancipation in the late 1950s, with a profusion of flashy, exuberant materials. In the 1960s, the plastic object became a political symbol--serially produced, uniformly inexpensive, and available to all social classes equally. With the refinement of existing technologies--blow-molding, extrusion, and injection-molding, among others--plastics can now assume virtually any shape, and have infinite applications in the design of objects. Polyurethane foams possess memory--perhaps the most desirable quality in a contemporary material--that enables them to "remember" the shape of our feet in ski boots and the contours of our backs in the lumbar supports of chairs.

The best example of this revolution in design materials is the experimentation with composites, one of the more significant advances in twentieth-century technology. Composites are combinations of materials and of their individual properties. The most frequently used are compounds of thermosetting resins, which are lightweight and corrosion-resistant, and glass or carbon fibers, which are strong as well as flexible. Such hybrid materials have revolutionized the manufacture of a wide range of objects, particularly sports and medical equipment and automobile and airplane components.

Design can be described as the attempt to achieve a goal (an ideal object) using the available means (materials and techniques). The new, mutable character of materials, as expressive as it is functional, has generated new forms as well as a more experimental approach toward design. The goal of this exhibition is to offer insight into this new approach--a redefinition of the relationship between designers and the materials they use. The selected objects are diverse and express the technical and formal possibilities of both new materials and new technologies, through an evolving, rather than codified, contemporary language. Each possesses a logical beauty. Collectively, they portray an aesthetic centered on economy and continuing research.

Paola Antonelli
Associate Curator
Department of Architecture and Design
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Fibers and Composites
Rubber and Foam
Other Materials


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