This post originated in an exercise to define words with particular currency in art and design. A strong engagement with material and process is a recurrent theme in contemporary practice, perhaps in reaction to more conceptual approaches which previously dominated. I could have tackled Materiality in a number of ways, but chose to focus on the changing conceptions of the material in a design context, with an emphasis on the impact of modernity.
Materiality is a term I first came across in conversation with architects. Its meaning seemed to be a close relationship between the physical fabric of a space or structure and its ambience and form. In their usage, materiality was a shorthand to describe the rapport between textural, light absorbing, and chromatic qualities of a material, and its structural or protective functions. This expression of the word struck me as rich in a variety of ways: as a useful and meaningful concept in design; but also as an implicit ideal which situated architecture as a discipline in which the aesthetic, experiential, and functional are brought seamlessly together
Denys Lasdun, National Theatre 1976, Concrete Shuttering cast in situ asserts a strong sense of materiality.
Peter Zumthor, Luzi House 2002, A structure of solid wood enlivens the geometry of this custom built house.
The notion that good design represents a synthesis of the material, formal, functional and aesthetic is shared by many design disciplines, and is hardly new. But despite this common understanding, examples of poorly conceived products abound: forks that appear to have metal handles until the foil separates from the plastic, “wooden” desks who’s inner chipboard reveals itself after the slightest knock, smart shoes that revert to papier-mâché at the a drop of rain. Of course, inexpensive materials can serve their function beautifully, as plastic stacking chairs, flip-flops, and canvas bags demonstrate, but there is something that strikes us as fundamentally dishonest about a design form that suggests one usage but completely fails to deliver. In this context the relationship between materiality as a design methodology, and the less edifying reality that confronts us in the “real world” is perhaps worth exploring.
The centrality of material to modernist design is already evident in the Arts and Crafts movement, with its insistence on truth to materials and sense of social mission. These ideas were further elaborated through the Deutscher Werkbund, Wiener Werkstätte and in the seminal modernist fulcrums of the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas. As the practice of design grew and separated itself from the realm of applied arts and traditional crafts, new theories and approaches that emphasised the importance of material and mechanical processes emerged as a response to technological, social and political change.
While designers in the 20th Century became increasingly engaged with industrial materials and processes, theorists have often had an ambivalent relationship with the materiality of the design object, lacking the methodological and analytical skills to “read” objects with the rigour that they would apply to a text. An absence of understanding of the processes by which design objects are conceived, refined and manufactured not only inhibits the ability to interpret these features, but tempts the writer to overlook them altogether. For example, in Roland Barthes ‘The Fashion System’ the author completely avoids engaging in the analysis of real garments and outfits, preferring to conduct his interpretation of the fashion system, through syntactical deconstruction of the descriptive text beneath fashion photographs. It is hard to imagine a more singularly useless way of interpreting fashion, or understanding how garments actually communicate their identity.
In response to the inadequacies of existing philosophical, sociological and art historical readings of design objects, a new discipline of design history sought to develop a model of object analysis which would account for materiality in design as well as the subjectivity of the consumer/user or designer. The first courses in design history (for which I can find evidence) were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s at The Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design in the USA and at Hornsey School of Art/Middlesex Polytechnic and the RCA in the UK. The teaching of design history as a valid intellectual and academic pursuit (with its own concerns and methodologies) was highly contested, threatening as it did the hegemony of established art history.
‘Muriel Pemberton, Head of Fashion at St Martin’s, invited me to teach fashion history for four days a term. I soon realized that she was fighting an ideological battle with the Art History Department to be allowed to employ a dress historian at all. All students were required to take a generalised art history programme and none were taught any specialist histories, except for the fashion students.’ Lou Taylor, Fashion textiles and dress history a personal perspective.
Today, a renewed concern for materiality in contemporary design practice suggests a reflection of the anxieties that first lead Arts and Crafts practitioners to assert the primacy of truth to materials. New technologies employing digital imaging allow designers to create previously unimaginable products at a cottage industry scale. At the same time, designers are increasingly concerned with the degradation of the environment, and with their wider responsibilities to society. These concerns connect to discourses around an increasingly contested model of consumption prevalent in the “developed world” and the exploitative nature of contemporary outsourced mass-production. In this context designers are engaging with notions of sustainability, reuse, and small-scale domestic manufacture: new uses of materials including recycled materials, organic and inorganic waste enlist both high technology and hand-craft in response to social and environmental problems.
Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky’s ‘Nido’ product uses shells and grape stalks (both the result of food industry waste) to create a low-cost, modular insulating system for low-income homes in north Mexico. The manufacturing method is linked to the education system, providing paid working opportunities which encourage young people to stay in school.
A hunger for authenticity and quality is reflected in resurgence of craft, as designers reassess the possibilities of combining traditional materials with innovative processes. New materials and modes of production offer an opportunity to reassess and reconfigure contemporary design, reconnecting it to the social and political contexts from which (in the practice of bad design) it has sometimes become deracinated. As new technological, theoretical and economic models for design are developed, materiality becomes an increasingly dominant theme in debates on the discipline.