Two years ago on a research trip to the United States, Powerhouse Museum curator, Matthew Connell stumbled across an incredible resource in New York City. It was a library that housed materials rather than books. The Material ConneXions library is home to a range of innovative new materials from across the globe, making them accessible to anyone who takes out a subscription. Materials ConneXions have branches in New York, Bangkok, Beijing, Cologne, Daegu, Istanbul, Milan, Seoul, Shanghai and Sweden and there is discussion about starting a library in Sydney.
Connell has since spoken of his trip as a way of re-conceiving his own practice and material practice within museums as material culture is something he has been interested for some time now.
“It became apparent to me when I came into the museum and became a curator of computers and mathematics … I had to come to terms with the notion of material culture, the museum being an objects-centred culture, and the notion of material culture being at the basis of a lot of what we do. Now that idea is that material culture or objects represent the values of the culture that produced and used these objects and that we can then provide access to those values and beliefs through exhibitions or our interpretation of those objects … we are a museum whose collection is based around the idea of making things … we are a museum that says people are at their most human when they’re making things.”
The Powerhouse Museum now has a subscription to receive a box of innovative new material samples four times a year. Connell decided that he would also host regular talks with museum staff and other design professionals each time a new box is received. That way, a range of professionals, be it designers or engineers, could discuss the contents focusing on their material practice and making process. These informal talks have been named ‘What’s in the Box’.
Our recent box of materials from the Materials ConneXions library was a great stimulus for discussion with a select group of curators, museum staff and design professionals.
The themes contained within the box were displayed on cue cards that you could pass around or retain with each box for quick reference. Themes included: Reclaiming Materials; Active Matter; LEDs; Wood Treatment for Durability; Abrasion Resistance in Textiles; and Geopolymers.
Some of the more interesting samples are pictured below.
Ceraspace – a textile coating that offers high abrasion resistance and that is made up of ceramic particulates and a compliant polymer matrix. Of this material in particular, designer Rina Bernabei commented: “I always have an eye on technological textiles, perhaps having had a fairly traditional female education, and being a [seamstress] it’s where I feel comfortable. But also with this background I think it’s the crossover of industrial design with the textiles that’s one of the most exciting areas in design. So whenever I see materials like this my mind starts thinking of new applications in product design, perhaps what may normally be thought of hard can now be soft.”
This inaugural session was headlined by AIDA 2012 winner Andrew Simpson of Vert Design, and LoveLace exhibitor Rina Bernabei of bernabeifreeman. Andrew and Rina both believe that we are now at a stage in design history where “the artistic routinely becomes the mainstream”, (Bernabei), and where “we’ve come back to a place where it’s ok to play around, to experiment with design”, (Simpson).
Informal in nature, what began as a ‘show and tell’ quickly became a discussion about how specialists could better engage with practitioners. In addition to designers being inspired to create something with the new materials found in the box, the box also presented an opportunity to better understand the materials designers use and the practices they follow.
Bernabei noted that several materials libraries had cropped up at the University of Technology and Sydney University but eventually lost steam when the staff running them moved on. In any case, she believes that practitioners were still enjoying the experimentation and discovery phases of making, to which Simpson agreed saying: “we’ve come back to place in industrial design where it’s ok to build your own 3D printer as this industry is in its infancy.” He went on to explain how this works with building your own printing press, setting up your own warehouse space, and then filling medium-sized orders.
Simpson spoke about some of the materials he creates in his own kiln and produced a array of small plastic discs which he created by blending a various recycled polymers. Bernabei discussed some recent projects where she was embroidering her trademark metal lamps with neon builder’s thread.
What was clear about this first session of ‘What’s in the Box’, at least for these Australian design professionals, was that there was more interest in connecting to local design practice than there was in importing materials from further afield.