Materials matter at Material Matters 2023 (STIR World)
Material Matters is a show that feels like a magazine, with a mission to ‘make the world a bit better,’ and it (mostly) succeeds.
Imagine visiting a design show that feels like walking through the pages of a magazine. There is a visually striking installation that doubles as an eye-catching front cover; a ‘news section’ exploring material innovation, bigger exhibitions that mimic in-depth features and a marketplace and talks space that evoke the back pages. That’s exactly what Grant Gibson, former editor of both Blueprint and Crafts, and his co-founder William Knight, have pulled off in the second edition of Material Matters.
First up, the cover story: Walk into the airy, yet industrial atrium of the Bargehouse on London’s Southbank during the London Design Festival. You are met by the usual team of enthusiastic badge-zappers anplad a hotel-worthy reception desk fashioned from recycled plastic by SmilePlastics. But wait, there is more. Suspended from the double-height ceiling, 10 textile pieces—made from hemp and yarn spun from oranges, seaweed and pineapple—sway gently in the breeze, setting the tone for what is to come. Planted, an installation by Danish designer Tanja Kirst invites visitors ‘to experience new degradable and circular materials through experimental processes,’ and encourages them to turn the page by heading upstairs and into the show proper.
The first floor is the ‘news section’, where exhibitors are showcasing experimental material innovation, from Gareth Neal’s collaboration with the New Raw that programmes imperfections into 3D-printed, three-times-recycled polymer vessels to Silklab’s intelligent fabrics that can change colour to indicate anything from pollution to yeast infections.
Gibson describes the second floor as the ‘features section,’ where applied material innovations in the industry are given more space, and in many ways, he’s right. The show’s ‘Designer of the Year,’ Pearson Lloyd, fulfils this brief particularly well with a gently educational exhibition that reflects on their changing use of materials over time. Themes such as ‘design with waste,’ ‘design with data’ and ‘design for circularity’ feel comprehensive and don’t shy away from potentially controversial decisions such as replacing the plywood component with more lightweight recycled expanded polypropylene competent for the furniture which lowers the carbon footprint and increases the recycled and recyclable content. Contributions to this floor such as Norwegian aluminium giant Hydro and British lighting brand Bert Frank are both beautiful and interesting, but perhaps read more like glossy ads than in-depth features.
Moving up the stairs, ever smaller stands recreate the feeling of flipping to the back half of a magazine: the third floor is conceived as a marketplace with commercially ready content. Social enterprise Goldfinger showcases its ‘treecycling’ initiative that sees timber felled due to weather, urban development or disease, saved from the chipper by being turned into furniture—in this case, a collection of tables and benches originally created for London’s Tate Modern. Interior leatherwork studio Bill Amberg exhibits its collaboration with the Knepp Estate, renowned for the ground-breaking ‘wilding’ project. A simple diagram on the wall demonstrates the efficient cutting pattern that enabled the most respectful use of leather from Knepp’s cattle.
Half of the third floor is given over to Isola, the design district more readily associated with Milan Design Week, and the bar, resulting in a slightly more chaotic feel, but no less interesting projects. My favourite was Simon Frend’s ‘ephemeral eco cremation vessels.’ Made from recycled materials such as coffee grounds and newspaper and designed to biodegrade with ‘zero environmental impact’, they are perfectly pot-bellied vessels that honour one of the toughest moments of many of our lives with more respect for the oft-quoted line ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ than the stuff of most end-of-life paraphernalia.
The top floor, within the eaves of the building, holds smaller stands and the talk space. Highlights include Yair Neuman—who makes lighting and spectacles from the display lenses that pop out of Cubitts frames when you have them made up with your prescription—and Solidwool, purchased in 2020 by Roger Oates Design from founders Hannah and Justin Floyd. It is good to see that the Hembury Chair, the seat of which is made from British wool and bio-resin, has kept its soul after a lengthy process of re-engineering, redesign and production development.
Material Matters worked with The Collective and MCM Design Consultancy to create the talks space from waste EchoPanel offcuts. This enabled its construction to walk the circular talk of its content and created a highly functional and inclusive space, even for those with hearing difficulties and auditory-processing issues, for whom the open layout would otherwise simply not have worked.
But it is in the programming that design festivals usually fall short. Epitomising ‘pale, male and stale,’ they are often nothing more than a talking shop for show sponsors and the organisers’ social network, invited to rehash old ideas despite a distinct lack of expertise or fresh perspectives. At Material Matters, nothing could be further from the truth. The panel I see, Scaling Up: Biomaterials Meet AI, ably chaired by STIR’s curatorial director Samta Nadeem, is representative of a programme of diverse speakers tackling the pertinent issues facing the industry, such as decarbonisation, waste and regenerative design. It features a stellar line-up of brilliant women, namely Asli Dirik, research assistant at Silklab; Nancy Diniz, the co-founder of bioMATTERS; Liz Corbin, the director of Fraqter; and Loulou van Ravensteijn, founder of ChangeAutomation—who don’t shy away from flexing their collective intellect to explore the topic with the nuance and complexity required to do it justice.
Like any magazine, there are parts of Material Matters I skim over or flick past, and parts I devour and want to know more about, and that’s what making a magazine—or a show like this one—is all about.
There are a lot of shows around these days, many of them struggling to find their purpose in this ever-changing digital, post-Brexit, ‘living with’ COVID era. This show is not among them. Beyond its perspective-shifting focus on materials, there is one thing that everybody involved in Material Matters has in common. “We are trying to showcase people who are trying to make the world a bit better,” says Gibson, simply. And it shows—from the front cover all the way through to the back page.
London Design Festival is back! In its 21st edition, the faceted fair adorns London with installations, exhibitions, and talks from major design districts including Shoreditch Design Triangle, Greenwich Peninsula, Brompton, Design London, Clerkenwell Design Trail, Mayfair, Bankside, King’s Cross, and more. Click here to explore STIR’s highlights from the London Design Festival 2023.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)
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