Within the creative design community, is ‘material intelligence’ a revolution in the making? Or will things remain the same, despite learnt failures, researched undertakings, and making conscious efforts towards raising awareness?
It is perhaps inconceivably negligent to overestimate (or underestimate) the significance of a well-researched change within the creative community of architecture and design. There is no one-size-fits-all solution in these creative realms, with each project with its own nuanced needs and creative constraints. The versatility and inventiveness found and practised within these challenges are what make the vocations so layered and beautiful, made possible by means of continual inquiries, discoveries, subsequent learnings and applications. A mindfully cultivated ecosystem of sustainable architecture and design is created when architects and designers, as well as manufacturers and consumers, adopt concepts geared towards sustainability. This upsurge in knowledge and use creates a domino effect, impacting not only the appearance and usability of projects but also their environmental impact. It is critical to thoroughly investigate the effects of such decisions made, taking note of the harm that has already been done, and actively looking for ways to lessen them in the future. Overcomplicated and overwhelming as it is, where must creators begin to put into momentum, this much-needed change?
"Questions, questions. It’s a revolution in the making… Or everything could just stay the same," observe Grant Gibson and William Knight, founders of Material Matters, which returns to the London Design Festival 2023 with a renewed focus on 'material intelligence,' with a plethora of exhibitions and allied endeavours. Creating an immersive experience towards witnessing a more sustainable and peaceful coexistence between our built environment and the natural world, the design fair on view from September 20 - 23, 2023, urges in its initiatives, that if we understand materials, we understand how the world works—'and if we understand how the world works, then we have a better chance of averting the climate emergency the planet is currently hurtling towards.'
Gibson is one of the UK’s leading design, craft, and architecture writers, with his works published in various leading publications such as The Guardian and Daily Telegraph. He has been editor of Blueprint and Crafts, deputy editor of FX, and acting executive editor of the RIBA Journal. In 2019, he launched the critically acclaimed podcast series, Material Matters with Grant Gibson, and the rest is history. On the other hand, Knight has worked at the centre of UK design promotion for over 20 years, starting at the Design Council, before becoming the deputy director of the London Design Festival. Subsequently, William led some of the UK’s largest commercial design exhibitions, directing both 100% Design and Clerkenwell Design Week. He spent two years as the director of Dubai Design Week as well.
As event partners with Material Matters 2023, STIR speaks to the founders of Material Matters about the curation of Material Matters 2023, its spatial programme planned as a magazine, as well as the goals behind the design event expanding towards a unified, global circular economy, sustainably and thoughtfully.
STIR: ‘Concerned with the importance of making,’ Material Matters 2023 inhabits five floors of its venue, each level narrating faceted routes to material experimentation and knowledge. What was the idea behind this curation, especially building on your experience and learnings from the first edition in 2022?
William Knight: I guess the first thing to say is that the podcast provides the philosophical framework for everything the platform does. When we realised the pod had an audience then organising a live event was the next natural step. We knew we wanted to find a usual building, somewhere in the centre of London. Now the way the city has gentrified over the past decade or so makes finding one a tricky task. Once we alighted on Bargehouse, an old meat packing factory behind Oxo Tower, we tailored the fair to suit the building.
Also, Grant comes from a magazine background, and the fair reflects this. The entrance hall installation—this year by Danish textile designer Tanja Kirst—is the front cover. The first floor, which has smaller spaces by the likes of Gareth Neal and Material Magic, is the news section. The next two floors have larger spaces and act almost as our features section. They include an exhibition from Milan-based platform Isola, as well as a room dedicated to the British lighting specialist Bert Frank and an installation from British design studio Pearson Lloyd. Finally, the top floor acts as the back section of a magazine. It is full of smaller designers, artists, makers and manufacturers, such as SolidWool, Planq, The Wicker Story and ALAC. We’ve learned quite a lot about audience flow and how to get people around the building from last year. In our view, the whole fair has taken a step forward.
STIR: How do you think design writing, broadcasting, promotion, and event organisation play into the ethos of Material Matters, that of 'material intelligence being important to our collective futures,' vis à vis the realms of global architecture and design?
Grant Gibson and William Knight: Well, we believe clear and effective communication across different media is vital. In the UK and Western Europe, people have forgotten—or simply didn’t know in the first place—how things are made, and where materials come from. We believe if you understand that, you understand more of the world around you, and are less willing to throw stuff away needlessly. The construction industry is responsible for around 40 per cent of carbon emissions. It is vital that the industry finds new—or indeed returns to—old ways to build, and thinks really hard about demolishing existing buildings.
STIR: With expertise and learnings from your acclaimed podcasts and allied collaborations over the years, could you give us an insight into what renewable, biodegradable, up-cycled, and non-toxic materials would look like in tomorrow's spaces? What is the one key and effective factor for creators to remain ‘materially intelligent’?
Grant and William: It is incredibly complicated. It isn’t, for instance, simply a question of replacing our use of concrete with engineered timber. Changing the materials we use (particularly for construction) would mean changes in land use, and therefore, in our diets. It could potentially change our education system. Using materials such as thatch and hemp, for instance, means that buildings would need careful upkeep. Could this mean the return of craft skills? Potentially, the rise of Artificial Intelligence could see the first industrial revolution that takes white-collar, as opposed to blue-collar jobs—does this mean we might return to the land?
STIR: Assumably, being ‘materially intelligent’ would vary to some extent, with changing geographies, nationalities, resources, and more such variables. How does one critically confront this, to remove material prejudices and find effective, adaptable solutions?
Grant and William: It’s about finding a way to work together—something that isn’t straightforward as the world appears to fracture. From a UK perspective, it’s why Brexit was a mistake. We needed to work with our former EU partners as a block to push for realistic change across the world—while always being aware of the damage our own industrialised economies have already caused. It seems we have less influence on the global stage currently.
STIR: How can these solutions become mainstream, in order to shift patterns, in relation to the economies of mass production and consumption?
Grant and William: It’s about legislation from global governments and corporations taking their responsibilities seriously. It’s about the grassroots applying pressure on those in power. It’s about scientists working with designers, architects, engineers and financial companies. It’s a question of education and the ability to take a medium to long-term view rather than simply concentrating on winning the next election. In other words, it isn’t easy.
The exhibition's journey along with Gibson and Knight's observations and learnings from the debut edition of Material Matters last year at LDF 2022, highlight the complexities of material transformation and their influence. A comprehensive understanding of materials, a global viewpoint, and a shared commitment toward circular economy and sustainability are necessary for this much needed shift. The founders remind us that cooperation and teamwork are crucial as we deal with subjective challenges. Although the road to mainstreaming sustainable design is demanding, it remains vital for a future of global architecture and design that is more environmentally conscious, one that wholeheartedly embraces upcycled designs, recycled products, and most importantly, the renewal of old projects instead of complete demolition. In addition to being a design revolution in the making, 'material intelligence' is essential for both, the well-being of our global community and that of the planet we call home.
Text by Ria Jha
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.