Q: Founded in 1997, Material ConneXion is a materials consultancy firm offering a range of services, including access to an extensive materials library containing more than 7 500 entries. Which came first, the library or the consultancy? Can you perhaps expand a bit on both and how they play off each other?
A: The library came first, and will always be the core of our business. It is also the most visual and exciting to experience. The consulting came as a result of our clients wanting research of materials that were outside of the library, whether they needed ‘in development’ solutions (all the library materials are commercially available) or they needed additional assistance in the application of the material into a product. The ThinkLAB team works with clients from the initial concept all the way to commercialisation of the product, ensuring that the material innovation is maintained through to the point at which it hits the shelves.
Q: The library exists as an online database, but you also have a number of physical libraries around the world, including a flagship library in New York. If all the information is contained in the online database (e.g. material category, physical properties and manufacturing information), why is it important for designers to be able to see the materials up close and touch them?
A: The library is an ESSENTIAL tool for anyone who wants to know what a material actually looks like. Few designers will specify from a website – they need to see it in person, especially if it is new and unknown. They are able to access samples here to touch and feel, but we recommend that they contact the supplier directly (comprehensive contact information is available on our online database for every material in the library) to obtain samples for themselves.
Q: As part of the library service, subscribers receive a box every quarter containing 15 carefully curated materials recently admitted to the library. Can you tell us a little bit more about the box and how the materials are selected?
A: The box is available for our higher-level subscribers who have multiple library users within their company. It is a selection of recently juried in materials from our library that we curate around specific themes such as wearable electronics, grown materials, 3D printing, etc. There are trend cards that give information on material trends we are seeing in these areas, as well as information on each material sample provided.
Q: Every month 40 new materials are considered for inclusion in the library. Can you tell us a bit more about that process? Where do all these new materials come from?
A: We source the materials globally. We have a team in New York who spend their time searching for the latest innovations. Our global offices also conduct research in their regions to ensure we get the best from around the world. Everything needs to be commercially available, and relevant to the design industries. We probably review 200 materials before we get to the 40-50 we review monthly in our jury sessions. The jury sessions are held in New York, and we invite 12 designers, architects, professors, members of the press and/or design professionals each time to sit and assess the innovation of the materials we have sourced.
Q: Out of all the new materials being added to the library, how many of these would you say address designers’ sustainability concerns? How important is it for manufacturers to consider having their materials certified compliant by organisations such as LEED, bluesign, Cradle to Cradle?
A: There are no sustainable materials, only sustainable usage of those materials. Put a great recycled material in a terrible product that is inefficient and poorly designed and any advantage you have from the material is lost. Having said that, we provide sustainability information on every material we show that includes attributes such as ‘easy to recycle’, ‘biopolymer’, ‘recycled content’, ‘compostable’, ‘waste material’, etc. Thus we can state these attributes unequivocally rather than just making a vague claim about ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’. Also, we specify certifications such as LEED, blue sign and C2C in the information about each material.
Q: In the past, you worked with BMW on a “fabric-skinned” concept car made with a polyurethane-coated Lycra fabric. Are we likely to see these types of applications hitting the market any time soon?
A: I certainly hope so! I am sure that BMW has some new developments in this area, though I can’t estimate any kind of timeline. The use of fabrics where we are used to seeing rigid parts is an exciting new area, especially with the surge in materials and products in the e-textiles and smart fabrics world. My belief is we will see some interesting products in this field in the near future.
Q: What are the newest and most exciting prospects to come from materials science in the last few years?
A: 3D printing and all the new materials we can now print that include ceramics, metals, natural fibres and glass provide interesting prospects. Some of the new natural materials are also very promising. These include mycelium (mushroom), nano cellulose, skin-like fabrics grown from tea and bacteria as well as high-strength natural fibres such as flax.