Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Dr Andrew Dent of Material ConneXion


Jessica Hemmings speaks to Dr. Andrew Dent, Vice President and Director of Library and Materials Research at Material ConneXion.

JH: What is the background to Material ConneXion? How did it all start?

AD: We opened our doors nine years ago. Material ConneXion is the vision of George Beylerian, President and founder of the company. He was working for Steelcase, one of the largest office furniture manufacturers in the world, as Creative Director. They had asked him as part of being Creative Director to put together a library of materials that they could utilise as a way of bringing innovation into their products. He said he would do that, but only as an independent company from Steelcase. So he left and started Material ConneXion. One of our first major clients was Steelcase. The idea behind the vision is still the same: we want to be able to provide access for all creative professionals to innovative materials and processes sourced globally that will provide inspiration and direct solutions to a lot of their material problems. We now have licensees in Cologne, Germany, Bangkok, Thailand and Milan, Italy. Each one of these is a duplicate of what we have here in New York.

JH: And are the libraries identical?

AD: They are, but they do not have as many materials. Each licensee starts off with between six hundred and one thousand materials and then we supply them with five hundred materials every year, to the tune of forty-two a month. Those materials are the same materials we have here in our library. Material ConneXion New York now has over three thousand materials; Bangkok, which only opened its doors at the end of last year, has about eight hundred.

JH: So it is not a case of being able to observe a national style or aesthetic through the libraries?

AD: It is not. They do have their own national flavour because they are businesses. They are supposed to make money and to that end they will have their own exhibitions. They do their own consulting work and display their own materials that are outside the library. The library itself will remain the same but as part of the business plan they need a separate space in which to exhibit and show applications of materials, perhaps have product launches, and these will often reflect the national flavour whereas the library itself will always reflect the Material Connexion brand.

JH: Can you briefly explain how you source new materials for the collection? I picture that you must be inundated with up-and-coming designers sending you samples.

AD: We do have designers and manufacturers who send us samples. Unfortunately that is the least valuable source of materials. Our main routes are through the Internet and trade shows, but not the trade shows that the designers are going to. We go to the trade shows that they may not normally go to: engineering trade shows, the materials science trade shows, medical packaging, gift shows, automotive shows. We try and go to the shows that are materials based rather than design based. We will have booths at some of the design events, but that is more to showcase Material ConneXion than source new materials. We also do a lot of research in journals and magazines. And we get clients saying, “I’ve heard of this material” and if I haven’t heard of it then we go and find that material. George Beylerian, our president and founder, is an excellent researcher. He travels regularly and will pick up materials from everywhere and anywhere and send them back. And to make sure that we have a truly global flavour we require that our licensees send me ten new materials every month. So I get ten from Thailand, ten from Germany, ten from Italy. It works well for them because it then means their character is represented in the collection. I certainly did not have many Thai materials before the Bangkok location opened! It is not an easy process finding materials, especially when you have to find fifty every month. We now have a critical mass of three thousand innovative materials, which means we have covered most of the bases. Now it is a case of smaller improvements, although once in a while you find a fabulous new material.

JH: Is the selection process then a balance of aesthetics and performance?

AD: Never aesthetics. With the initial selection it is nothing to do with how the material looks, it is all to do with innovation in process, innovation in material, and innovation sustainable approach to manufacturing. We are not interested in aesthetics because aesthetics becomes an opinion. The way we get materials into our library is through a jury review process. The library collects prospective materials and I then present, every month, to a review panel of between eight and twelve creative professionals who either use the library or work with materials regularly and its up to them. I need them to tell me if they think it is new, if they think it is truly innovative for their industry or if they have used it in the past. We need to work out whether it really is a new material or if it is an old material repackaged. The process gives us objectivity. Certainly it is easier to get a material past the review panel if it is bright orange and spiky than if it is clear and flat! They are designers; we all like bright shiny things. I have learnt that. A material can have the most technologically advanced coating, but if it is clear and we can’t see it then you have to convince them through words and that relies of my ability to convince someone that something is innovative. So aesthetics do play a role, I accept that. But we would never put something in front of the jury based on “it looks pretty” because that is subjective and dependent upon what I like and what you like and that is not what we are about.

JH: Then Material ConneXion does not aspire in anyway to be a brand or style in and of itself?

AD: No. We are purely about technological innovation and let the designers make the beautiful things. We will help them by showing them what materials might be suitable.

JH: The online library subscription, do you feel that this is a substitute for visiting the collection in person?

AD: There are plenty of databases out there with materials. We are not different from anyone else in that respect. In some ways we are not as good, because in some ways are database is limited because we have always relied upon the physical library to really convey the materials’ message. The online database is essential for people that can’t make it here, but it’s a very poor substitute. Designers are tactile, visual people. I’m not going to want to source a material based on an image on a screen. So we accept that people use it but it is definitely a poor second to the library itself, which is why we are trying to build physical libraries in as many locations as possible.

JH: I would assume that a resource like this might be capable of impacting the future of materials research because you are in a position to stop engineers and designers from reinventing the wheel. Do you feel this is one of the impacts Material ConneXion been able to foster, there is less redundancy in the industry in general?

AD: I think that during the period we have been open there has been a focusing on materials as an essential part of the creative process, more so than we have seen in the past. Whether that is the result of Material ConneXion or whether George Beylerian had the forethought to see this happening and want to be part of it, I’m not sure. We educate as well as provide resources. We allow people to make more informed choices about materials. I’m sure to a certain extent we do influence, but I think this is happening anyway. We see it in architecture and industrial design schools were they are now interested in having a separate materials course rather than it just being tacked on to something else. It has been a trend within the creative fields to be more interested and influenced by materials.

JH: I noticed that your client list has some very large names: Aveda, Nike, Urban Outfitters. Is this a resource that is used by individuals? Or does the scale and subscription fees mean that larger companies rather than up-and-coming individuals access it?

AD: We have both. We have individuals, small design firms and all the way up to large organizations. The fees structure is not so much that someone working independently couldn’t use it, but different people certainly get different things from it. We appeal to a very broad range of organizations, where as Nike will be here predominantly for inspiration and materials outside their purview, we are not going to be able to source new sneaker uppers for Nike because they have their own team that does that. What we can do is source some less well known materials that come from different industries that they may be able to use in their design. That is very different from an individual coming in specifically, lets say they are designing a watch, and they know what polymer they need for the strap. We are able to help both, mainly because we have not only the library but also material specialists who know the library, the materials and the issues that designers may be coming up against.

JH: You mentioned that the size of the library is now around three thousand material samples in New York. Does that mean that with the new materials introduced on a regular basis you are also editing out materials that may have been introduced years before and may have lost their edge or have been superseded?

AD: The physical display library only shows around twelve hundred materials. We have not yet run out of storage space for the, not obsolete, but less current materials. The database can grow infinitely so that is no problem. What we do have is an editing out of the twelve hundred that are on display and the materials that do get edited out end up in storage bins and rolling racks in other areas of the library. If a client wants to see those materials I will happily show them. We do have materials that are twenty and thirty years old, but they have come from an entirely different industry so they are new to our industry. The agricultural ground cover, which you may have seen, has been around for years, but for us it is new.

JH: There are plans afoot to expand beyond the four locations you have at the moment?

AD: Yes, we see Asia as an important place and, of course, we see the UK as almost essential. We have had a number of interested parties whom we have talked with and it just hasn’t happened yet because we need to partner with the right people, who not only understand what Material ConneXion is about but are also business people. We are a private business, we never had any investment money and each licensee needs to stand on its own two feet, which requires them to be business people as well as creative. It is a tough thing because the library is a perfect non-profit place, a resource, and we ought to have it available for everyone. But unfortunately we need to make money and the licensee does so it is important that we partner with the right people. We are still in discussions with people in the UK and it has been so close several times. It will happen eventually, it is just finding the right people to partner with and grow the business properly so that it continues to be a good business rather than something that ends up as a stagnant library.

JH: Thank you.

Future Materials (issue 2, 2006: 16-18)