Smart Materials

High Tech meets Low Tech

form special issue
Autumn 2008


Birkhäuser (Basel)

In designing products today one should not limit oneself to the newest high tech materials. Many designers today avail themselves of simple ideas and conventional materials, extract these from the original contexts or combine them with highly complex innovations. We demonstrate how high tech and low tech can complement one another.

Smart solutions with conventional material

It looks like a perfectly normal paper airplane, the type that children make in kindergarten. Takuma Toda makes a few folds in a piece of paper and turns it into a functional flying object. Only its name – Orispace – and its shape (reminiscent of a US space shuttle) somehow suggest it might be something special. The president of the Origami Airplane Association has a vision, which at first consideration seems totally absurd. Takuma Toda wants to throw his paper airplanes from the ISS space station and have them land safely on earth. But as every child knows, when material enters the atmosphere it is burnt by the high temperatures. The Japanese, however, can explain quite simply what at first seems incredible. When the speed of descent is that slow the friction is so minimal that much less heat develops than with a space shuttle. Also, the plan is to use a special paper made of long sugar cane fibers which is much heavier and stronger than the normal office paper and which, once chemically treated, should withstand the thermal strain.

It is not surprising that we have never dared to send a paper plane through outer space … and the same applies to many other projects. What we see here is a trend which can currently be discerned in many product areas: On the one hand, high tech innovations in the fields of robotics or bionics are being advanced, while, on the other hand, proven constructions and materials are being used to develop new applications outside the usual fields. Simple but intelligent solutions can keep step with highly complex technical products. While Festo has announced the development of jelly fish-like robots with autonomous swarm intelligence (Aqua Jelly) the use of a sail to power freight ships is being heralded as a revolutionary in novation (Sky Sails). Experts met at the professional conference on clay in 2008 to discuss the sustain ability of the natural construction material, and one known to and used by the first humans, while at the same time, biologically degradable plastics you can throw on the compost heap along with your vegetable scraps are be coming a reality. Composite materials such as Hylite and Hybrix are being used in aircraft construction, but can also be used to make suitcases or to mount pictures. In the future, recyclable cellulose plates will be used by the electronics industry. The difference between high tech and low tech is no longer a sign of quality. This appears to be being recognized across all segments.

What designers and architects are currently developing also seems to be extremely ambivalent – these are very simple concepts and highly complex products. A prime example of the new simplicity is the 100-dollar laptop designed by Yves Béhar. Driven by a cable-tension generator and a hand crank this laptop should also be able to deliver knowledge to children in the remotest parts of the world. “One laptop per child” is the catchytitle of the project. It was only to be expected that children would first mostly toy with the computer but this does not change the principle. Simple and understandable solutions have once again found their place in a society which – after whole industrial branches were transferred to low-wage countries – lost the feeling of how the creative processes of productstake place and what possibilities there are for individually determiningform, materiality and color. In the neocraft movement, long-forgotten manufacturing techniques are experiencing a renaissance. And by using conventional materials in completely new contexts our environment is changing into a vast realm of new possibilities. Plasters become jewelry, lanterns get fluffy textile coverings and hotels look like monolithic ice cubes.

Yet often there are many years of development behind seemingly simple solutions. This can be seen, for example, in the self-adhesive textiles(Gecko Multifi x) which have been on the market now for some months. And this will no doubt also be the case with “smart materials” in particular,whose functional complexity cannot be seen on the outside: Textiles that conduct electricity enable you to enjoy mobile media (wear your computer, as it were) and thermo-chromed coatings supply optimal climatic conditions by reflecting sun rays that fall on glass facades. Today materiality means high tech and simplicity at the same time. And anything evidently goes in an age of massive upheaval and great challenges. Low tech meets high tech. The next decade belongs to innovations in materials and technologies – and the designers and architects who understand how to use materials intelligently.

image source: Festo