Düsseldorf, Germany — Designers and materials suppliers are already on the same page — even if they don't know it.
That sometimes beautiful but sometimes difficult intersection of materials and design brings together two worlds that have more in common than they might think. That was the message from the collection of materials experts and designers gathered at Design Chain @ K conference at K 2016 in Düsseldorf, organized by Plastics News Europe.
“With designers and manufacturers … the material is the language, the central piece that brings them together,” said Aart van Bezooijen, professor of materials and technology transfer at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, Germany. “I might pick this up and think of artistic things, things I can do with it; a scientist might pick it up and think about the numbers, the properties, the tensile strength. … In the end, the product made out of this plastic, the consumer will have it in their hands and think of completely different things.”
As a trained engineer, Erik Haastrup Muller, the founder of Futation, a Denmark-based company that helps engineers and designers discover new materials, technologies and processes, said he feels manufacturing could do a better job of showing products and materials in a way that gets the conversation started.
“There has to be a way to make it easier [for designers and non-materials experts] to more directly compare different types of plastics, head to head, in your hands,” he said.
Part of the problem may be a little fear on both sides, said Doreen Becker, global color strategist and A. Schulman Inc.
“I think suppliers are a little afraid of designers,” she said. Materials companies thinking of plastic in terms of numbers and hard science can shut down a little when faced with more nebulous questions about the possibilities for a finished product that does not even exist.
A supplier might not understand what can be done with its material, she said, and a designer might not know what is available materials-wise that can push ideas even farther. Product development needs to be a close collaboration and there has to be patience and understanding on both sides.
“Designers and materials people come from very different directions,” Becker said. “The exciting part is that it can really drive innovation on both sides.”
Andreas Maegerlein, team leader with designfabrik at German plastics maker BASF SE, is working to drive such innovation. Most companies in the materials world, he said, have a list of what they make and salespeople and engineers armed with a pile of samples, ready to present their various straights and virtues. And the industry long ago found out that businesses are not interested in the materials themselves but their own end market, so the pitch has to come framed in the automotive, consumer, industrial or other context for an OEM.
“But that's not the way designers think, they are looking to solve problems,” Maegerlein said, which is why at BASF's designfabrik centers, “we try to interconnect all industries and all materials” in an interwoven system of both the technical, end-market and problem-solving approaches.
Most recently, designfabrik brought together materials and design minds with ITO Design and Interstuhl to create the TeamUP Chair, an adaptable, multifunction ergonomic office chair made of nearly 20 different BASF materials and designed to fit the flexible needs of modern offices.
“In the end it turned out to really be a one-of-a-kind product and an exciting collaboration,” Maegerlein said. “A company like BASF, we are selling material and not office chairs. We are fostering a better relationship between customers, designers and us.”