Much to their liking! Little by little, the apéritifs in Beylerian’s New York home turned into group creativity sessions with materials playing the inspirational part. 

And this is how it all started... Material ConneXionTM (MC), founded in 1997 by Beylerian, is the world’s most complete resource on innovative materials. 

Its libraries, located in New York and Milan, are huge collections of samples of highly innovative materials, conveniently displayed on removable A4 hardboards, available to all subscribers. 

In providing materials information, MC’s approach is very different from that of other academic and research institutes.

Rather than focusing on a ‘vertical’ type of information – highly technical specification – MC offers a bird’s eye view on what is happening in the world of materials, selecting for its clients the most cutting edge materials, and allowing them to get in touch with the producer. 

MC is, in essence, an inspirational hub. Antonio Schiano, materials engineer, and Emma Clerici, architect and designer, are responsible for Research & Development at the newly opened Material ConneXion branch in Milan.

It seems that passion is truly what is behind the creation of Material ConneXion...

Material ConneXion was born from an intuition that George Beylerian had a long time ago. 

In traditional product development processes, the designer first creates a concept and only afterwards concentrates on the materials to realise it. In this type of approach, materials are taken into consideration for their aesthetic and technical qualities and for their capacity to answer specific requirements dictated by the form and by the function of the object.

Beylerian thought that a sensorial approach to materials – being able to physically touch, feel, smell, experience a material – could provide designers with a new type of stimuli and might eventually bring them to the development of ideas for new, alternative solutions. 

This intuition was based on Beylerian’s personal experience. He knew how creative people reacted when he would show them his own collection of materials. He simply applied his private approach to materials on a large scale, and turned it into a commercial proposition. 

Working in close relationship with Michele Caniato (now General Manager of Material ConneXion) in 1997, Beylerian founded the Material ConneXion in New York.

We were the first to take materials out of the academic, highly technical environment. Through this move, we also pioneered a new approach towards creativity. 

Material ConneXion’s heart is in its library. What is the wealth of knowledge that the library contains?

The library is our ‘conneXion’ tool. Far from being just an aesthetic graphic solution, the X in our brand clarifies our mission: to connect the different players in the materials game and to act as a crossroad of influences. 

First of all, we foster a link between product developers and materials. The materials that we store are often unknown to the creative community. The library allows them to experience the material at first hand, and to receive advice from our experts about its use and capabilities.

Some clients come here because they are looking for something specific – aesthetic or functional characteristics. Others just come to browse and get inspired through the actual contact.

For this reason, our library is, primarily, a very physical space. Of course, we also have an online database, but we consider it a mere accessory, a post-visit consultation tool.

The second connection that occurs through the library is between the creative developer and materials’ producers. These two very important players in the product development process live in very different worlds, and often their ways of doing business are far apart.

Technical literature – which is the producers’ pride – sometimes scares designers. And, when you are in an exploratory, creative phase and you do not really know what you are after, searching for a materials producer could be rather tricky... and certainly very time consuming.

If you come to our library, you can select your material in peace and quiet, have the opportunity to physically compare it with others. Once you have selected what you want, you will feel much more comfortable about contacting the producer. The value we sell to our clients is inspiration, time, and effectiveness.

There are other libraries on materials available, even on the Web. What is different about yours?

Other information resources work mainly academically; they have an extremely scientific approach that targets labs.

Unlike other materials services and libraries, we do not provide in-depth information. For instance, we would not be able to advise an engineer on whether to use a certain type of steel over another. 

Our approach is horizontal, rather than vertical. We address our services to the whole creative community: interior designers, architects, fashion designers, apparel creators, but also technologists, development engineers etc.

Basically, whoever works in the concept phase of a creative project. We help them at the ‘fuzzy front end’, without going into the engineering or industrialisation of the final solutions.

The physical element is what really differentiates us from other online resources. If your task is to provide all possible information on steel, for instance, you cannot possibly store all numerous types of steel in a physical library.

It would have to be enormous, and nobody would notice the difference between the various typologies. If you want to go vertical, you cannot go physical.

Our aim is to provide the possibility to designers, engineers, and concept creators with an environment that continuously provides stimuli, and that environment can only be physical.

A list – on the Internet or elsewhere – will not provide you with inspiration. The in-depth information that those specialised institutes offer is important, but is not much use at the early stages of development. 

You store only highly innovative materials. Who defines whether a material is innovative and what is the selection process for the samples to enter the library?

The first screening of the materials takes place in our Research & Development centres, in Milan and New York, where the research is continuous, and is carried out through a series of channels that are extremely flexible.

We select materials that are technologically, aesthetically, ecologically or sensorially different from anything we have seen so far.

And we do not only consider new materials. An existing material that is traditionally used in one sector but that has the potential to be applied in another would also get through the first selection process. 

The first screening is extremely flexible, and we want to keep it that way to guarantee the freshness of the results. George Beylerian likes to talk about ‘exciting materials’ – these are materials that, for whatever reason, stimulate our imagination. Our job as researchers is to find ‘exciting’ materials. 

Our prime source is the producers and we participate in a number of ‘fairs’ that provide us with increased visibility every year. 

The second source is actual desk research. We monitor publications, browse the internet, use our network of contacts in the creative world, and follow up on the leads that we get. It is a bit like an investigation... 

The third source is our clients. They sometimes search for something specific, which we do not have in-house. And we look for it on their behalf.

Each month the materials that we have selected are sent to New York where a jury – composed of professionals from a variety of fields – is gathered. In a rather informal manner, which recalls the original apéritifs at Beylerian’s, the jury votes on the materials according to a set of criteria.

George is always present at these jury meetings, and so is the Director of MC New York, who is actually the person who introduces the materials.

It seems then that a material does not necessarily need to be new to be considered innovative...

A material that has always been used in a very specific field of application and starts to be applied in other areas is also innovative for us.

Take honeycombs... They are composite panels that were specifically used in the aeronautic sector only. These materials consist of one soul and two external skins that were, in the aeronautic field, kept opaque, so that you could not see the internal part.

The reason for covering the inner soul was technical: the forces that occurred during the use of the airplane required for the materials to be covered to sustain compression on one side and traction on the other. 

Recently, the aesthetic trend that pushes towards transparency has also contributed to liberate the honeycomb from its external caging. This material is now appreciated as a decorative element thanks to the effects that it allows.

You can see through it when you are in front of it, for instance, but when you move, it becomes like a solid wall. Aesthetic appreciation from the creative world has further stimulated research on these materials that are now developed in several variations.

But even a traditional material can be innovative when it is processed in an alternative way. During Fall/Winter 2002-3 Material ConneXion New York hosted a very interesting exhibition called Immaterial/Ultramaterial.

Co-ordinated by Toshiko Mori, the exhibition featured the result of a series of workshops conducted with leading architects at Harvard.

From the series of studies that made up the exhibit, it emerged that materials can be worked with different approaches than the ones that are traditionally related to them.

For instance: what happens to wood if I work it with an approach that is traditionally applied to textiles? This type of experimentation is considered innovative and it would be stored in our library.

Do you also store materials that are at research stage?

All the materials we store in our library have to be commercially available. It would be no use for our clients if we triggered them with a sample of a material that they would never be able to obtain.

Of course, we work quite closely with research labs. When a material – developed in a research lab – becomes available to the public, we store it in our library.

Take the textile, for instance, that releases vitamins on the skin through a process that occurs through the material. The textiles embed some polymer microspheres that, through the rubbing of the textiles on the skin, release a desired substance – vitamins or whatever.

This process, developed by NASA for astronauts, is now commercially available and is raising interest from the fashion and the sport systems industry, as you can well imagine.

Do ecological matters play a key role in the acceptance of a material in your library?

Not necessarily. We store what is innovative, following (and anticipating) market trends. On the other hand, ecological characteristics are becoming more and more important and, increasingly, producers focus on these issues. Our library certainly reflects that.

If a material is highly innovative from an ecologic point of view, then it is accepted in the library. Take Ingeo, for instance. It is a manmade fibre that is entirely derived from renewable resources but it possesses the advantages of resistance, longlasting durability and versatility that until now were the province of synthetic fibres.

It can be used in home furnishing, in clothing and in numerous other applications. 

Do materials producers pay to be inserted in your library?

No. All samples are stored for free. This gives us the freedom to replace the material whenever we wish to do so, in order to maintain the cutting edge character of our library.

We get our economic return from the subscriptions to the library. 

What do you think is at the root of the great interest in materials that characterises design research today?

Research on materials has always been really important in the design world. But in recent years, materials have become a real focus for creative professionals. There is an aesthetic trend that pushes towards the sensual and sensory – hence the return of focus on tactile values rather than formal ones.

And there is also the influence of the market, especially in the field of mass manufactured products. There is a lot out there, and when the market requires a new solution every year and you simply do not have the technology to provide an exciting innovation, materials can help you make the difference. 

If an Australian product developer wanted to get inspired through materials, for the time being he or she would necessarily have to come to either Milan or New York...

After the visit there is always the opportunity to talk to our experts and to follow up on the virtual library. But at least one visit would be required to get the most out of our service.

Of course, someone in Australia might be so keen on materials and so entrepreneurial to want to start up an Australian branch of Material ConneXion... That would be a wonderful solution!    

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