The Future of Smart Materials

Innovations for a new future

form special issue
spring 2009


Birkhäuser (Basel)

B.Lab smart Interaktionspanel

The world of products seems to have lost its material properties. Music, for example, was once pressed onto records and inserted into sleeves and is now experiencing almost no materiality between sale and playback. It is sold to us on the Internet in digital form. And even mp3 players are now so small you can easily lose them in your breast pocket.

Many different areas of our lives have long since become virtual, stripped of materials. In them, there is a perceptible distance to objects which our grandparents’ generation could never have imagined. With new electronic media, digital financial cash flows and the omnipresent availability of information the good old mechanized, tactile world would appear to have come to an end – something trend researchers have been predicting for years.

But if you look at the diversity of new materials which were or will be presented at events this year such as Material Xperience by Materia in Utrecht, the Caméléon exhibition by Innovathéque in Paris (until September2009), Material Vision in Frankfurt (16 – 18 June, 2009) and not least of all in innumerable material libraries and data bases, material appears to be returning in full force.

A paradox? Or perhaps the next step in the development of our product worlds? In addition to material components in the traditional sense, what material laboratories are currently churning out also has a virtual, intelligent side to it:

Textiles respond to temperatures and change shape, stone becomes permeable allowing light to pass through, electro- active polymers expand in an electric field and will influence the characteristics of flying objects in the future, as morphing materials. This new material, let’s call it reactive material, has functions which first become apparent when actually used.

Impressive future visions already have designers’ hearts beating faster as both the mechanized, long since outmoded understanding of materials and the virtual nature of our product world are being revolutionized by a new culture of materials.

In this revolution, the creative agents of our world, designers and architects, are at the forefront. Who else should give a sensible application to an invisible function so it can be perceived by the user? Yvonne Chan Vili, for example, examined the use of textiles with interwoven wires made of shape memory alloys, for room dividers and wall hangings.

Shape memory alloy materials record form information in their molecular structure. At low temperatures they can be sculpturally formed but when warmed, resume their original shape and determine the alignment of the material weave. Shape memory alloy textiles can be used in strong sunshine for example, to automatically darken rooms.

The Dutch designers Frederik Molenschot and Susanne Happle are changing the urban image with an intelligent material: With a special surface coating they turn sober concrete stepping stones into a floral pattern when it rains. The hidden decoration only becomes apparent in public places and footpaths when it is wet, establishing a new urban sign language.

The new development named “Solid Poetry” was presented by Droog Design back in 2006 at the Milan Furniture Fair, and now the first construction with flower concrete has been completed in Eindhoven.

That said, all of this seems to be just the beginning: The Innovathèque materials innovation center in Paris is now presenting a whole range of new creative materials at the Caméléon exhibition. Through September it will be presenting, among other things, plastics that change color according to ambient temperature (Magicolor von IPS), artificial leather which changescolor when stretched (Dines), panels which light up footstep s (B.LAB Italia) and plastics which absorb water and expand (Industrial Polymers).

Of particular interest to the fashion industry are heat-sensitive suit materials (Sommers Plastic Products), which change color slightly when warm. The material was recently used by Calvin Klein for his men’s collection. In architecture on the other hand, glass facades are playing an increasingly important role. In winter we benefit from more light and warmth but in summer the radiation which passes through glass can become unpleasant.

Composite glass with thermotropical properties which can change its transparency and re flection properties depending on the light radiation offers help here. The Fraunhofer IAP in Potsdam is working on thermotropical, highly reactive cast resin for windows which reflects solar rays – invisibly and without complex controls no less! The material revolution has only just started.

Designers and architects are called upon to make use of the new and to convert technical potential into sensible product worlds – in a demonstration against the immateriality of our lives.

image source: B.LAB Italy