About the work
Advances in materials science are fast paced. One man, Chris Lefteri, has carved a niche to get people thinking about materials in new ways.
Chris is editor of Ingredients magazine and delivers materials workshops around the world. He was Visionary in Residence at the Art Centre College of Design in California in 2008.
Sue Evans went to meet him and discuss the future of materials.
As a materials expert with an industrial design background, Chris bridges the gap between design and the science and engineering at the forefront of materials innovation.
“My role is connecting designers with new materials. They might be for a car or a pair of running shoes, a mobile phone or TV. Because I’m working across different industries I can bring that breadth of knowledge.”
Technology is driving materials development, opening up fantastic opportunities that only a few years ago were science fiction. New textiles have sensors that detect body temperature and adjust accordingly. Materials are being developed from by-products of the food industry such as plastic from chicken feathers - a project being explored by researchers at CSIRO in Melbourne, Australia. And TED speaker Fiorenzo Omenetto, champions silk as the material of the future for optics and other high technology applications.
Chris sees a trend in designers becoming more materials focused and collaborating with technologists outside design. Suzanne Lee’s ‘biocouture’, growing a dress in a lab using bacterial cellulose, and Helen Storey’s catalytic clothing are leading fashion design examples. Designers developing new materials include Manel Torres and his spray-on fabric ‘Fabrican’, Irish designer Jane ni Dhulchaointigh’s self setting polymer ‘Sugru’, and Eric de Laurens – who’s made a plastic from fish scales while at the Royal College of Art.
A challenge for materials scientists and engineers is illustrating the capabilities of new materials in a way that people can understand. Chris sees an increasing role in designing three-dimensional objects that illustrate very simply what a material does.
“You can ask for a sample and be told how to use a material properly, but there is no mechanism or model for showing that to anybody. Design is about thinking, re-appropriating and communicating. I believe there is a great opportunity to take these technologies and showcase them through objects and other pieces that tell everybody in a very visual way that this is what it is”.
He gives as example a company using a table tennis ball to demonstrate the strength of a nano-nickel coating. Compared to a normal ping pong ball, the difference in weight is hardly perceptible, but even a hammer can’t break the coated ball. For Chris, models like these can help technology connect with design in more meaningful ways.
As a student at the Royal College, Chris was interested in the idea that materials can completely change the way people experience products. The emergence of materials libraries and databases has been important, but the emphasis is now shifting to new applications for materials instead of cataloguing their particular properties.
“It was curiosity. That’s how I started. Also because I couldn’t find a resource that told me about materials in a way I wanted to be told. No one was writing about how things are made.”
Chris is writing his ninth book, this time considering where materials come from: whether they are grown, mined or made from oil, arguing we will increasingly rely on materials that are grown. He believes the traditional way of classifying materials, such as metal, plastic or ceramic, is outmoded.
“They will be archaic. In the way that we can find a piece of Bakelite in a car boot sale and say ‘oh look it’s Bakelite’. It will be like that with a piece of plastic, every plastic.”
Smart materials, the combination of data and materials in the making of things, is fundamentally changing the way we live and communicate. Despite this, Chris suggests the material world around us won’t look that much different in years ahead.
“Innovation now is to do with technology, smartness and light-weight materials. Things you can’t see, they’re not going to change how the world looks”.
What will completely change is the way we receive information, so watch out for thin film displays, projected images into space and other innovations in lighting.
Chris recommends designers get hold of some of these new materials for themselves to see what they can do. Mindsets, part of Middlesex University is a good place to start.