“I thought: well, how can I make that slightly furry quality of a flannel suit? And then I suddenly thought: well, I’ll get some dust. And you can see how near it is to a decent flannel suit.”(From The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, by David Sylvester, Thames and Hudson, 1990.)
Creative talents have always been great inventors of materials. When of all raw materials the one that corresponds to their idea does not exist, they have to invent it. Many materials are the results of conversions, transformations, mixtures, transpositions from one context to another. In these metamorphoses there is always a trace of the starting point, and the outcomes are special because they carry with them the whole story that lies behind them. In this ‘materials library’ we will try not just to tell some of their stories, but also to analyze the shared modes that can become chapters of a manual or, more precisely, samples for a catalogue.
Making a virtue of necessity
Scarcity of raw material can become an extraordinary stimulus for the invention of new substances. One of the most interesting cases in the history of the 20th century is that of autarkic’ materials. Starting in 1935, as a result of the war in Ethiopia, Italy was deprived of many imported resources and had to invent alternative solutions. At the 6th Milan Triennale in 1936 competitions and projects were launched to focus on materials like Securit glass, Faesite (a composite of wood fibers), Linoleum (made of linseed oil, wood flour and cork, with pigments on natural jute fabric) or Anticorodal (a set of aluminium alloys). Another area of research was that of textile fibers, such as Raion (Rayon), derived from regenerated cellulose from wood pulp and resembling silk, and Lanital, a yarn created with casein proteins found in milk, for which the Futurist Marinetti, in 1937, wrote The Poem of the Milk Dress, with graphics by the young Bruno Munari.
The food industry can be a source of many new materials. Crockery made with orange peels and coffee grounds, or fish skins used as coverings: these are just two examples of the way waste derived from high-volume processes such as those of the food sector have been seen by designers as opportunities for recycling, with great potential in terms of sustainability. These proposals based on research have not always effectively entered the universe of currently used raw materials; but their experimentation sheds new light on the potential for reuse, certainly with trailblazing impact. Especially in the world of bio-plastics (just consider Mater-Bi), there are many cases in which the organic sourcing of elements has reconfigured the ties with organic chemistry, which had often been interrupted with the advent of petroleum by-products, but now seem to offer valid alternatives.
The change of context is one of the most common design methods, above all in Italian postwar design. Many history making cases involve the shifting of materials from other contexts into the field of products and furnishings: the Nastrocord made from tires (Arflex), or the Lycra of the women’s hosiery of the Falkland model by Munari (Danese). The Blow chair by De Pas, D’Urbino and Lomazzi, thanks to the intuition of Aurelio Zanotta, owes much to the inflatable PVC of the ‘Mucca Carolina.’ Often these contextual transfers are the result of a lucky encounter, the curiosity of the designer/entrepreneur or in-depth knowledge of different production methods and techniques. Examples can be found in many of the projects of Alberto Meda, who relying on his training as an engineer and his technical experience inside companies like Alfa Romeo has often transferred high-performance materials from the automotive world into domestic items. Thanks to its characteristics of heat accumulation and slow release, the ceramic material of the Space Shuttle was used for the Kalura food warmer by Alessi, taking the material from outer space onto the dining table.
Recovery by metamorphosis
Contemporary designers are making increasing use of materials derived from the specific recovery of other depleted raw substances. This is not mere recycling, where material is recovered and regenerated through fusion. Here the idea is to use a given material in such a way as to trigger a metamorphosis. One example is the polystyrene of the packaging of bufala mozzarella from the Campania region, which Gaetano Avitabile, a/k/a Tana Design Studio, has transformed into a seat with multicolored layers. In another case, the British designer Tom Robinson has created a new plastic using the keys from computer keyboards, available in white or black, depending on the unit’s original color.
In his famous essay Fantasia, Bruno Munari theorizes the “relations thought makes with what it knows,” and cites the example of the association between glass and rubber, imagining the invention of an elastic glass or a transparent rubber. At times, in fact, materials are imagined by designers by activating relations between apparently distant qualities. By studying the intrinsic properties of already familiar materials, almost like scientists, they reveal characteristics that have otherwise not been exploited. The results are materials with ‘super-powers’: marble that becomes elastic (as in the Foglio chair by Lorenzo Damiani), lace that becomes structural (the Crochet chair by Marcel Wanders). But also common copper that is boosted to emphasize one of the most sought-after qualities of the moment: antibacterial action (De Castelli). In this case the material becomes our friend and helps us to purify our skin precisely through physical contact, taking us back to the pleasure of tactile sensation without fear.