Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design

Fibers and Composites

The idea of composite materials is an ancient one, as old as the huts made of mud and straw that are the precursors of contemporary carbon-fiber applications. In today's composites, thermosetting resins like epoxy or polyethylene are the updated versions of mud, while aramid, carbon, and glass fibers have replaced straw. As with the age-old hut, the resin coheres and gives shape to the object, while the carbon fiber reinforces it. The result of such composites is a light, flexible, strong object, well represented in the exhibition by the "Light Light" lamp, a sleek, calligraphic lighting fixture topped by a feather, designed by Takeshi Ishiguro.

Composites that include reinforcing fibers embedded in a thermosetting resin matrix have found extensive use in such objects as tennis rackets, knee braces, boats, and airplanes. The fibers are laid in the matrix according to the strain they will have to bear. They can be spun to create an isotropic material (as in the "Sea Lion" kayak), oriented in one or two directions or superimposed in layers (as in the samples of fiberglass by Vetrotex). The soft sheet, formed in a mold or partially hand-sculpted, is then cured by heat.

The other principal type of composite is a sandwich of thin sheets of carbon fibers, fiberglass, or even wood laid around an inner core, generally made of a porous yet rigid material, such as an aluminum or synthetic honeycomb, or a foam. Alberto Meda's "SoftLight" and "Light Light" chairs were manufactured using this process.

Because of their nature, many composites invite hands-on experimentation. They are often flexible and easy to customize, and many of the techniques used in their manufacture require only very basic tooling and normal temperatures. For these reasons, engineers and designers are working continuously to develop new composites and new applications.

BioMechanical Composites
(a division of Medical Materials Corporation)
Composite Materials. 1990-95 (1990-95)
Acrylic-resin-impregnated carbon fibers
Manufactured by BioMechanical Composites, United States
Lent by BioMechanical Composites, Camarillo, Calif.

The Christian Brothers, Inc.
"Christian Carbon Composite GX3" Hockey Stick. 1995 (1995)
CNC (computer-numerical-control) transfer-molded filament-wound graphite in a resin matrix
"Christian Puck Master" Composite Replacement Hockey Stick Blade. 1995 (1995)
Graphite fibers in a resin matrix
Manufactured by The Christian Brothers, Inc., United States
Lent by The Christian Brothers, Inc., Warroad, Minn.

"Ultratech" Orthopedic Knee Brace. 1992 (1991)
Injection-molded pressed ATP (adenosine-triphosphate) carbon-fiber composites, neoprene padding, titanium, aluminum hinges, and steel bolts
Manufactured by Biedermann Motech GmbH, Germany
Lent by frogdesign, Sunnyvale, Calif.,
and Biedermann Motech GmbH, Schweningen, Germany
(photo courtesy frogdesign)

IBM Corporate Strategic Design
Richard Sapper. German, b. 1932
Samuel Lucente. American, b. 1958
"Leapfrog" Computer. 1993 (1989)
Carbon-fiber reinforced-plastic top cover, magnesium-alloy bottom cover,
ABS keyboard housing, and other materials
Manufactured by IBM Corporation, United States
Lent by IBM Corporation, Armonk, N.Y.
(photo courtesy Samuel Lucente)

Takeshi Ishiguro. Japanese, b. 1969
"Light Light" Lighting Fixture. (1994)
Carbon-fiber body, cast-aluminum pedestal, slip-cast porcelain bottom reflector,
and bird's-feather upper reflector
Lent by Takeshi Ishiguro, Tokyo
(photos courtesy Takeshi Ishiguro)

Alberto Meda. Italian, b. 1945
"Light Light" Chair. 1987 (1987)
Molded carbon fibers in an epoxy-resin matrix and Nomex honeycomb

"SoftLight" Chair. 1989 (1988)
Molded carbon fibers in an epoxy-resin matrix, aluminum honeycomb, and Dymetrol elastic fiber
Manufactured by Alias S.r.l., Italy
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gifts of the manufacturer
(photos courtesy Alberto Meda)

Alberto Meda began his professional career in engineering in 1970. He has applied his knowledge of advanced technology to the reinvention of traditional objects and furniture, which in his hands become sleek and minimal through the use of unconventional materials. Meda's "Light Light" chair and its companion, the "SoftLight," continue the universal search for lightness in furniture initiated by designers such as Gio Ponti, whose featherweight "Superleggera" chair was introduced in 1952. The "Light Light" is constructed of lightweight Nomex.

Lance Neibauer. American, b. 1949
"Lancair 320 MKII" Airplane. 1988 (1987)
Molded carbon fibers and E-glass fibers in an epoxy-resin matrix
Manufactured by Lancair International, Inc., United States
Lent by Lancair International, Inc., and Neico Aviation, Inc., Redmond, Ore.
(photo courtesy Neico Aviation, Inc.)

Doug Olson. American, b. 1961
Kirk Jones. American, b. 1960
"SPIN" (Single Piece INnovation) Bicycle Wheel. 1993 (1989)
Lost-core injection-molded carbon fibers and reinforced nylon with aluminum rim
Manufactured by Innovations in Composites, Inc., United States
Lent by Innovations in Composites, Inc., Oceanside, Calif.

Riedell Skating Shoes, Inc.
Scott Riegelman. American, b. 1957
In-line Skate Boot Inner Shell. 1994 (1994)
Molded acrylic-resin-impregnated carbon-graphite
Manufactured by BioMechanical Composites
(a division of Medical Materials Corporation), United States
Lent by BioMechanical Composites, Camarillo, Calif.
(photo Paola Antonelli)

David Schwartz. American, b. 1948
Sailboat Mast Sections. 1994 (1994)
Heat- and pressure-cured carbon fibers and pre-impregnated carbon laminate
Spinnaker Pole Section. 1994 (1994)
Heat- and pressure-cured carbon fibers
"Pressure Vessel" Dished Container Head. 1994 (1994)
Heat- and pressure-cured carbon fibers
Sofa Side Panel. 1994 (1994)
Heat- and pressure-cured carbon-fiber over balsawood
Manufactured by Goetz Marine Technology (GMT), Inc., United States
Lent by Goetz Marine Technology (GMT), Bristol, R.I.

C4 Design Laboratories
Aaron Lown. American, b. 1968
"Hi Ho" Stool. (1994)
Fiberglass, urethane foam, aluminum, and leather
Lent by Aaron Lown, New York
(photo courtesy Aaron Lown)

Delphi Automotive Systems
John E. Muntzner. American, b. 1943
"Liteflex" Trailer Spring. 1991 (1989)
Fiberglass: modified filament-wound and compression-molded E-glass fibers and epoxy resin
Manufactured by Delphi Automotive Systems, United States
Lent by Delphi Automotive Systems, Dayton, Ohio

Mark Kaiser. American, b. 1965
"C-Bar ReRod" Concrete-reinforcement Rods. 1993 (1993)
Modified pultruded fiberglass-reinforced polymer
Manufactured by Marshall Industries Composites, Inc., United States
Lent by Vetrotex CertainTeed Corporation, Valley Forge, Penn.

Stefan Lindfors. Finnish, b. 1962
"Kemper Museum Chair." 1994 (1994)
Double-molded gel-coated fiberglass and polished sand-cast aluminum
Manufactured by Kansas City Art Institute, United States
Lent by The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design of the Kansas City Art Institute,
Kansas City, Mo.
(photo E.G. Schempf, courtesy Stefan Lindfors)

William Masters. American, b. 1950
Allen Stancil. American, b. 1951
Gary Barton. British, b. 1958
"Sea Lion" Kayak. 1994 (1987)
Carbon fibers, Kevlar fibers, S-glass, and Spheretex fiberglass in an epoxy-resin matrix
Manufactured by Upstream Edge/Rockwood Outfitters, Canada, for Perception, Inc., United States
Lent by Perception, Inc., Easley, S.C.
(photo courtesy Perception, Inc.)

Maunsell Structural Plastics., Ltd., International Consulting Civil and Structural Engineers, Maunsell Group
"ACCS" (Advanced Composite Construction System) Bridge Section. 1987 (1982)
Pultruded glass-reinforced polyester
Manufactured by Designer Composites Technology, Ltd., Great Britain
Lent by Vetrotex CertainTeed Corporation, Valley Forge, Penn.
(photo courtesy Maunsell Structural Plastics, Ltd.)

Vetrotex CertainTeed Corporation
"Stitchmat." 1990 (1990)
Woven E-glass fibers and polyester thread
Chopped-strand Reinforcement Matting. 1993 (1993)
Shredded E-glass fibers and polyester binder
Woven Roving. 1992 (1992)
Woven E-glass fibers
Manufactured by Vetrotex CertainTeed Corporation, United States
Lent by Vetrotex CertainTeed Corporation, Valley Forge, Penn.

Vetrotex International Research and Development
"Unifilo" Continuous Strand Mat. 1993 (1993)
Continuous-melt E-glass fibers and polymer binder
Manufactured by Vetrotex Italia, Italy
Lent by Vetrotex CertainTeed Corporation, Valley Forge, Penn.

Yamaha Motor Corporation Research and Development
Toshi Yamada. Japanese
"Yamaha Water Spyder" Pontoon. (1989)
Vacuum-bagged polyurethane foam and
E-glass fibers in an epoxy-resin matrix
Prototype by Foam Matrix, Inc., United States
Lent by Ciba-Geigy Corporation, Hawthorne, N.Y

Donald Chadwick. American, b. 1936
William Stumpf. American, b. 1936
"Aeron" Office Chair. 1994 (1992)
Die-cast glass-reinforced polyester, aluminum, Hytrel polymer, polyester, and Lycra
Manufactured by Herman Miller, Inc., United States
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of the employees of Herman Miller
(photo courtesy Herman Miller)

In sports and automotive jargon, the "Aeron" is a high-performance object. Its aesthetics celebrate the power of technology; its comfort is exceptional. The body rests on little more than a fiber net supported by a skeletal frame, "like a Thonet chair," the inspiration acknowledged by codesigner Donald Chadwick. The Pellicle mesh fabric is woven using a Du Pont polyester elastomer originally used as an inner-support material for car seats. It relieves sitter strain by changing its shape and responding only in localized areas. Once the sitter stands up, the fiber's almost perfect elastic memory cancels the deformation. The highly articulable chair features seat-height adjustment in a much wider range than other chairs; it can be made to recline for relaxation or to incline to accommodate those who, for example, work with microscopes, and the tilt action can be regulated to varying degrees of tautness. The armrests can be swung into different stationary positions depending on worker tasks, converging for computer keyboard operation or diverging for more restful repose. The "Aeron" is available in three sizes, in deference to the variety of the human body.

Eric Goetz. American, b. 1949
Composite Fiber-based Materials
Plastic-honeycomb core and mahogany-laminated-plywood skin. 1983 (1983)
Aluminum-honeycomb core and pre-impregnated-carbon-fiber skin. 1994 (1994)
I-beam Section. 1994 (1994)
Pre-impregnated carbon fibers
Toggle Cutout. 1994 (1994)
Stainless-steel ferrule and carbon-fiber skin
Manufactured by Eric Goetz Custom Sailboats, United States
Lent by Eric Goetz Custom Sailboats, Bristol, R.I.

Super Lattice/Kilt Planning Office
Shozo Toyohisa. Japanese, b. 1960
"Mylight" Lighting System. 1994 (1994)
Flexible glass-core optical fiber and 150-watt metal-halide light bulb
Manufactured by Asahi Glass Co., Ltd., Japan
Lent by Asahi Glass Co., Ltd., Tokyo

Rubber and Foam
Other Materials


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