Before Ezio Manzini was the sustainable design guy, he was the materials guy. His 1989 book The Material of Invention captures the beginning of materials era that we now take for granted.
Manzini’s book “examines the way in which matter become material i.e how matter becomes capable of being integrated into design and in the end becomes part of a product” through supplying “cognitive tools and cultural reference”. (p 17)
It in effect is a plastics era update to the taxonomy of materials, and uses such words as lightness, elasticity, performance etc, but, like Ashby’s book Material Selection, the interesting material is at the front, with the more mundane taxonomies at the back.
Preface: (François Dogoget)
“The tools of production do not enter the act of production. In this exclusion, we see the sign of a tendency to scorn ways and means marching onward toward immateriality, drawing a line between thinkers and the real labourers.
“[Unlike writers] artists — painters, potters, sculptors — have instead generally managed to sidestep the impasse. They have celebrated, after their fashion, the ingredients, new textures, arrangements, or impasto. Nevertheless, much like a craftsman, they have chosen to devote themselves to creating, rather than to commentary through the world. Once again, materiality has been left without an interloculator”
Barthes lambasts plastics, similar rigid themes fit to wood etc.
Three characteristics from the book that render materiality original:
- It recreates itself in front of our eyes
- It not only covers the old but rejuvenates it.
- We are filling the ancient gap between psyche from externality
“Every object made by main is the embodiment of what is at once thinkable and possible. Something that someone was able to bot think of it and physically create. Every object made by man is situated at and intersection of lines of development of thought (models, cultural structures, forms of knowledge) with lines of technological development (availability of materials, transformation techniques, forecasting and control systems).
“This intersection between what is thinkable and what is possible, which we refer to as design, is neither simple nor straightforward. There is no broad, free-ranging Thinakble that has only to squeeze into the boundaries of the Possible , because the very awareness of those boundaries is a basic element of what can be thought of.”
Machines homogenise materials
“The machine has absorbed many of the technical capabilities of the craftsman, but not his attention to detail, to the singular qualities of the item on which he is working. To a craftsman, a knot in the wood or the grain of the stone are obstacles, but they also prompt variations. To a machine they are merely defects. To a craftsman, in other words, material is not an abstract category. Material is this partciular piece before him. To a machine, and to the designer that established its operation, material is only a set of controlled properties.”
Materials are like replicants: hard to tell the organic from the artificial (also words like bone, skin, flesh in cars), difficult to categorise:
“thus we shall speak of a ‘material’ not by defining ‘what it is’ but describing ‘what it does’”.
“A world of nameless materials is taking shape …. In this new world, we seem to perceive only surface, only local and momentary relationships. In a word, we perceive only appearances.”
Reference system of existing materials:
“once a material was considered to be ‘known’, reference, to that material became a handy abbreviation for the set of relations between considtions of use and performance that typifed that material. The value of ths syntehetic form of expression, that is, its socially accepted and unmistakeable meaning, was based on two conditions:
- There were few materials and they were quite distinct one from another, so that each corresponded to a well-defined field of relations
- materials remained constant over time in terms of qualities and properties, and their variations (or the introduction of new materials) were slow enough to allow the adaptation of the system of meanings
A material’s identity was constructed on the basis of knowledge taken as predictable behavior …. Thus memory deposited upon the material itself a sediment of cultural values, which in turn because part of conventional communication — qualities such as ‘precious’, ‘warm’ and ‘homelike’. “
The history of plastics is one of materials become unrecognisable. These days we have a spectrum with things such as wood (real-but-looks fake, fake, real etc).
Hyperselection of materials: things are so even that selection involves looking at the wider process etc.
Craftsmen are familiar with materials but not why they do it [sigh] (p52)
Engineers are craftsmen denied time, so must be able to compute things:
“unlike craftsmen, engineers use a precise and referential language to describe themselves and their procedures … a material is known when its properties are known, which is to say, codified in numerical form”
The dissocation between knowledge and experience with matter has slowly moved apart:
“The passage to an abstract and codified relationship with matter certainly did not come about overnight. For about two centuries theoretical knowledge and practical experience coexisted. The number of materials and the pace of their development were such that designer could work on a driven material long enough to be able to integrate teir familiarity with its properties, expressed with numerical parameters, which empirical testing of its qualities. Designers learned from books, but they had time and the possibility to pick up the tricks of the trade in the field, as it were. This hybrid knowledge typifies the image of the modern designer, and it is still the most common image.
“Today, the situation has changed. An abstract and theoretical knowledge of materials is no longer just one of the possible approaches, but the only feasible approach.
“There is still room for knowledge and practice similar to the crafts tradition, thank to the multiplicity of current manufacturing and marketing options, but design must take into account the dominant trend — the number of materials available prevents a designer from acquiring experience on each of them. The appearance of made-to-order materials, which do not exist before the design, make that a conceptual impossibility.”
“Today, a designer who intends to work in the field of possibilities made available by technical innovation not only must find an orientation among numerous options, but must especially adapt his intuitive capacity, creativity, and work method to the general trend towards abstraction, immateriality, and multiplicity of the parameters with which he must deal in order to work with matter.”
The rest of the book has ruminations on various qualities (properties?) and new materials (that also date the book).