Materiality and Design

Blogger: Matt Cunha-Rigby, Senior Sustainable Consultant | San Francisco, CA, USA
September 01, 2011

Materiality is an important piece of design, both in quality and in sustainability. Materiality can regionalize and contextualize an object; it can represent cultural aspects; and it can highlight sensory qualities. Each material has its own physical and structural properties that can influence design, form, and construction.

When the need arose for me to get another bookshelf, I determined that I would craft one myself, using materiality as a central theme in the design. Initially, I wondered, what materials would I use? What qualities would I emphasize? And how could I make this object as sustainable as possible?

To answer these questions, I looked at how this object could represent ME. As an individual, I am very environmentally conscious; I have an affinity for the natural world and am interested in connecting culture with the regional environment. This led me to outline my intentions for the project. I decided that the materials would be salvaged and reused to extend their useful life and eliminate the need for virgin materials. Since the materials would be reused, I would emphasize their past use and wear, if possible. I would also try to find materials that would be “natural,” in my own meaning of the word, and craft them so that there would be zero waste at the end of the project.

While searching for materials, I came across a stack of old redwood fencing in my parent’s backyard. In my mind, this type of material was exactly what I was looking for. Not only was it discarded, but it exhibited the weathering and aging associated with its past use. The fencing was also a remnant of the vast redwood forests that used to surround the region, connecting me to this place, and reflecting the ecology of the central and northern California coasts.

I decided to emphasize the fencing in the bookshelf’s craft, and selected other reused materials to serve as a frame and backdrop. I picked these up from the local rebuilding center, and selected a no-VOC paint to reduce their focus. Finally, I dimensioned the shelf and material to my specific collection of books, and built it by my own hands. I am extremely pleased with how the bookshelf turned out, and each time I use it, I’m reminded of the process I took to design and build it, as well as the sensory and ecological qualities inherent in the materials I used.

All too often the material qualities of an object (or building) are overlooked; and they shouldn’t be. This results in projects that are void of meaning, place or inspiration. It is when all aspects of design are genuinely considered that we can create those truly special projects; and, in the case of architecture, complete buildings that improve our built environment and support a healthier human realm.

Images courtesy of Matthew-Cunha Rigby

Reader Comments (1)

a very insightful piece. materiality is simply going out of fashion in india where i live.

it used to be ingrained in our culture, but sadly, not any more.

Post a New Comment