The new materials for design are born in multidisciplinary experimental gyms where, following a DIY approach, design research mixes with chemistry and biology

The word tinkering indicates those didactic approaches in which experimentation, creativity and group investigation lead to the construction of something analogical. For many, this is the last frontier of informal, multi-disciplinary education which, if applied in the area of experimentation with materials, can lead to decidedly interesting results.

Like those obtained from the Politecnico di Milano which, for some years now, has had a research area dedicated to DIY-Materials: the Materials Design for Transitions Lab founded and coordinated by Valentina Rognoli.

Curious experimenters work there, inventors of DIY materials, who use almost homemade ingredients and tools for their exploration.

They are young people who do research on the infinite ways of transforming waste and organic compounds to arrive at formulating new proposals for materials to be used in design contexts, with ideas and objectives linked to sustainability.

The results, it was said, are promising, especially from the point of view of the working model.

On the one hand because it supports the designer taking charge of research on materials, an innovative practice which brings new energy into the dialogue between material and design. And, on the other, because it is interdisciplinary at 360°, including engineering, biological and chemical skills in the process.

Material experience: awareness of the material

Valentina Rognoli, associate professor in the Design Department of the Milan Polytechnic, was one of the initiators of the change of course and the incursion into an area that until a few years ago was purely engineering.

Together with Elvin Karana, a professor at TU Delft in the Netherlands, he spread the concept of material experience thanks to Materials Experience Lab, a research group shared between the two universities and a platform for sharing knowledge, inside and outside the universities.

The starting point is the material, considered for its technical but also sensorial properties, as well as for its meanings, for the emotions it is able to transmit and to evoke as well as for its evident and implied performance.

“The material can become the privileged access door to a different design awareness that considers it as the starting point of the design process”, explains Valentina Rognoli. “Thanks to its disruptive expressive force that dialogues with the artefact, the material is a fundamental element, as is repeatedly demonstrated by some examples of Italian design”.

Companies have often been a mediation tool in the introduction of technological innovations. Companies and laboratories are the spaces where design and engineering research met for the first time and began to dialogue.

Tinkering innovation: no waste starting from the home kitchen

With the advent of maker culture, even the more experimental aspects of materials research returned to the focus of designers, favoring a hybridization between design, biology, materials science and engineering.

It is no coincidence that one of the few companies that has transformed a mycelium-based material into a product distributed on the market was born from the stubbornness of Maurizio Montalti (his story here and the latest news on his tech holding here), an engineer who studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven.

“Recently” explains Valentina Rognoli, “designers have begun to design and modify materials, above all starting from a thought of sustainability.

Those who were simple users have become creators and central players in the design and industrial progress of new materials that could contribute to the sustainable transition that mankind must make in order to survive".

Tinkering for research and experimentation

The Tinkering part carried out in an academic context has an important empowerment function.

The designer who approaches the idea of being able to 'manage' methods of experimentation and collaborative action with an active attitude with an elementary chemistry and common ingredients, is the designer who observes the relationship with the matter.

This is how research and experimentation converge, merging different knowledge to generate new materials and new ways of thinking.

The taxonomy of DIY Materials

Material Tinkering starts from an individual or collective creative search for new materials, using formulas similar to culinary recipes, thus creating DIY materials.

Professor Rognoli's research group at the Milan Polytechnic used these approaches and generated, thanks to the research of Camilo Ayala Garcia, a taxonomy inspired by the nineteenth-century one of Linnaeus strong>, dividing them by origin: animal, mineral, vegetable.

As well as two new categories: salvage and hybridization with technology.

The biological matrix of new materials

The catalog is surprising: each material is described for its perceptive and sensory characteristics, its ingredients, the manufacturing process.

Valentina Rognoli explains: “The resources from which material experiments are born today have a biological matrix. Materials science converges in botany, biology, microbiology”.

The materials are called Residual, Recitex, Hexapa.

Reading their datasheets, it turns out that egg carton is an excellent catalyst for shell residues and, if properly mixed, it gives life to a fireproof surface. For example.

Beyond DIY materials

Professor Rognoli's research group at the Milan Polytechnic is design-oriented, but she also collaborates with other departments of the University, such as Materials Engineering.

In turn, researchers do not only study in the academic environment, but also in materials research and development laboratories or in companies where the practice becomes more tangible.

Starting from the last few years and from the current general context, the research of this group has put sustainability issues at the center and is today characterized not only by the development of new and alternative materials, but also by the ability to propose paths towards sustainability through the research and practice of materials design.