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Transformed: Uncommon Materials in Contemporary Design

April 23 - October 9, 2005

This installation from the museum’s collection includes furniture, lighting, textiles and utilitarian objects, many of them recent acquisitions, which reflect contemporary designers’ interest in varying materials.

The quest for truth in materials in the production of household objects was born in the nineteenth century when critics, fearing the excesses of factory production, urged manufacturers to be true to the materials they were employing. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the cry for honesty in materials was taken up by designers and architects, most notably those working at the Bauhaus in Germany. By the late 1940s, designers—the Americans Ray and Charles Eames among them—began to use materials and technology borrowed from other industries, specifically the aerospace industry, and a change in the attitude of many industrial designers took place. In the succeeding decades, most notably the 1960s and early 1970s, many designers explored the endless possibilities inherent in plastics, and in those decades everything from furniture to flatware was made from this material. Beginning with the environmental movement of the 1970s, however, the use of plastics became increasingly politically incorrect, and it wasn’t until the advent of recycling that designers once again looked to plastic as a medium. Today, recycled plastic, along with recycled metal and glass, are only some of the materials whose use designers are exploring. Traditional materials such as wood, glass, and ceramics now appear in unrecognizable forms, and the application of materials heretofore unknown in the production of household goods, such as rubber and metals like magnesium, has greatly expanded the range of resources available to designers. An interest in sustainability—the creation of environmentally sound products made from renewable resources—on the part of socially conscious designers has led not only to the use of recycled materials but also to the expanded use of natural materials such as bamboo.

In addition, through the application of technology designers are now able to alter the physical characteristics of many materials. Designers such as those working for the Dutch cooperative Droog (the word means ’dry’ in Dutch) Design have pushed the limits of materials like synthetic fibers and plastic resins, with the result that preconceived expectations of these materials are called into question. Designers worldwide, including the Japanese designer, Tokujin Yoshioka, and the Brazilian design team of Fernando and Humberto Camapana, openly acknowledge the important role that the exploration of materials takes in their designs. In his book The Material of Invention, Enzio Manzini wrote that materials are “increasingly difficult to define in simple categories that we can say have been acquired once and for all. The only way to describe the material is to consider it as a system capable of performance; thus we [must] speak of a ’material,’ not by defining ’what it is’ but describing ’what it does.’“

Main Building


Donna Corbin, Associate Curator of European Decorative Arts

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