A radical new approach to architectural materials

“We want people to think ‘I can use this’ or ‘This is worth overcoming any resistance; I can do something special with it,’” says Purva Chawla, founder of design consultants MaterialDriven. The agency brokers contacts between architects and interior decorators, and a generation of designers creating new materials from unexpected sources. Its latest showcase was at the recent Architect@work show at London’s former Truman Brewery.

Off to the side of the trade exhibitors’ booths, where suppliers earnestly discussed the specs of facade cladding and shower drains, MaterialDriven offered visitors the modern equivalent of a 17th-century cabinet of curiosities. A tightly-packed display of 48 novel products and prototypes ranged from a stool fashioned from recycled chewing gum to an iridescent timber coating that uses reflective nanostructures similar to those in butterflies’ wings.

“It’s meant to contrast with some of the more commercial, more expected materials on show,” says Chawla of the selection. “It’s designed to inspire people and to show them what they can expect to use in years to come.”

Iridescent timber coating by Noora Yau, using reflective nanostructures similar to those in butterflies’ wings
Iridescent timber coating by Noora Yau, using reflective nanostructures similar to those in butterflies’ wings

The portfolio’s emphasis on renewable and diverted waste products, from eggshells to palm leaves, should attract architects and interior designers under pressure to do more than just pay lip service to sustainability.

Some of the innovations are highly practical. Architects UNStudio have developed a paint called The Coolest White, which maximises heat reflection when applied to building facades and roofs, reducing the need for artificial cooling in the summer. Others are unlikely to be specified in construction projects: speckled tiles of edible chocolate terrazzo by Danish designer Kia Utzon-Frank, for instance, or scratch-and-sniff cannabis-scented wallpaper by Brooklyn-based Jon Sherman (flavorpaper.com).

Brik - chocolate terazzo
Edible chocolate terrazzo tiles by Kia Utzon-Frank
Cannabis-scented wallpaper by Jon Sherman
Cannabis-scented wallpaper by Jon Sherman

“We wanted to make it playful,” says MaterialDriven partner Adele Orcajada, “not just about the technical aspects.” Much of architects’ and designers’ work prioritises visual qualities, says Chawla, so MaterialDriven was keen to show materials that engage other senses, such as touch and smell. It provides a sensory richness that is missing from our increasingly screen-dependent lives.

“The materials offer digital respite in the short term here in the exhibition,” Chawla says, “but if they were put on the wall in a hospital they would do the same there.” Here are some of the exhibit’s highlights:

Beeswax tiles by Penelope Stewart Studio

Penelope Stewart’s beeswax tiles
Penelope Stewart’s beeswax tiles

The Canadian sculptor specialises in what she calls “sensory architecture”. She casts these 10cm square beeswax tiles in silicon moulds but their leaves and curlicues appear hand carved, like the decorative woodwork in 17th-century churches.

The tiles’ colour variations, from yellow to gold to rich brown, are a natural result of the flower-foraging preferences of different bee colonies. The tiles have been displayed in their thousands, lining the walls and ceilings of small chambers in museum exhibits — there is a permanent installation at the Musée Barthète, Boussan, in south-west France. The effect is both immersive and heavily scented, like being inside a giant rococo hive.

The Sun Show by A+N

Alissa + Nienke The Sun Show
The Sun Show, blinds with light sensors by A+N

Alissa van Asseldonk and Nienke Bongers run a design practice in the Netherlands specialising in furnishings that react to their surroundings. Their work includes a mirror made of 2cm squares of polished steel that shimmer with any air movement.

Their latest commission is The Sun Show, a set of blinds for the full-height windows of a meeting room in the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science in The Hague. The ministry’s coastal location means there can be sudden variations in light intensity throughout the day. Working with fabric researchers TextielLab, A+N devised a woven material incorporating flaps that can be pulled by threads to open or close. In the finished blinds, the threads are attached to a motor and a light sensor so that when the sky clouds over, the flaps automatically curve open, like massed caterpillars arching their backs, letting more light in.

Taktil by Paula Lorence

Paula Lorence’s Taktil objects for autistic children
Paula Lorence’s Taktil objects for autistic children © AIGARS_HIBNERIS

Conversations with a friend who has a child with autism led Paula Lorence — then studying product design at Riga School of Design and Art in Latvia — to devise sets of objects that could be used to aid tactile stimulation. “I talked to therapists and parents with autistic children,” says Lorence. “The therapists use a lot of materials, but they are not always meant for children with autism. Some of the toys have very bright colours and can overstimulate them.”

She made a polished metal cube, a cork pyramid, a clear plastic ring twisted into a Möbius strip and a flattened ovoid pebble — their smooth surfaces designed to present minimal challenge to a child with tactile hypersensitivity. A second set, for those able to cope with more stimulation, includes a brush and a finned flower shape made of felt. A third has soft silicone forms in soothing pastel colours that can be stretched and squeezed by an anxious child.

Lorence says the prototypes have proven popular with children with autism as well as therapists and parents. The fact that the objects could pass for contemporary artworks is incidental: “It wasn’t my intention at all; I was just thinking about forms and textures to interest children.”

Ceramic textile by Claything

Unglazed black porcelain by Claything
Unglazed black porcelain by Claything

“Ceramics on the move” is the tagline of Claything, a practice founded by Berlin-based designers Justina Monceviciute and Regina Fischer. Their hand-fired ceramic shapes — balls, hemispheres and tubes — are strung together like giant beads to make hangings. One of these, Graphit Weave, uses unglazed black porcelain in a triangular section, threaded on wires to build a highly tactile light-absorbing surface that resembles a hillside slate scree.

Bricknic by Leif Czakai, Timm Donke and Nathan Fordy

Bricknic cooking vessels
Bricknic cooking vessels © Ronald Smits Photography

Bricknic is a small brick-shaped terracotta cooking vessel with a lid. It is a stackable version of the chicken bricks introduced to the UK by Terence Conran in the 1960s. Inspired by communal dining in villages in the Pyrenees, its designers were more interested in its social than culinary potential. “If the whole street has bricks you can meet for a community bricknic,” says Timm Donke. Everyone fills their bricks — made by German manufacturer Römertopf, who made the original chicken bricks 60 years ago — with whatever they want to eat and then they are tessellated to form an oven and a fire lit inside.

“After an hour everything’s cooked and you get your brick back and you can eat,” says Donke, showing me photos of stacking configurations from previous alfresco events.

What if you don’t have enough bricks to form an enclosure? “If you only have a few you can put them on the barbecue,” he suggests.

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