Material ConneXion has libraries in New York, Bangkok, Cologne and Milan.
Running late on a project and short on inspiration? At Material ConneXion, designers can jump onto the Internet or visit one of four international libraries showcasing 3,000 of the most intriguing substances on Earth. “People have been more interested in innovation,” says Andrew Dent, who is the firm’s vice president in charge of the “physical” library of materials.
Founded in 1997 by George M. Beylerian, a furniture designer, Material ConneXion is now a busy clearinghouse that reviews about 50 new products every month and works with designers to find the right stuff for projects ranging from clock radios to buildings. Manufacturers are invited to submit new products, but not every sample gets through the door. Each is scrutinized by a panel of architects and designers who judge its level of innovation.
Dent says the panelists “know a fair amount” about which materials should be featured in the company library. As chief coordinator of this effort, he has a Ph.D. in materials science from the University of Cambridge. Prior to joining the company in 2001, he provided private consulting to designers at Rolls Royce, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “We know what’s new and interesting,” he says confidently.
The library, which can be accessed on the Internet at www.materialconnexion.com for $200 per year, is located in New York, Bangkok, Cologne and Milan. It serves about 2,000 members who pay at least $450 for a basic subscription fee and $15,000 or more for large corporations. Its staff also performs private consulting work for an extra fee. Dent won’t disclose who in the construction industry uses the service but notes that some of the library’s largest clients include Nike, Target and Aveda. “We haven’t worked with a lot of construction companies,” he says. “Mostly, it comes through the architect.”
New research and development over the last 10 years has produced many dazzling products that have found their way into everyday life, from polypropylene-foam acoustical panels in upscale hotel rooms to silicone oven mitts in mom’s kitchen. But designers seldom have time to sort out the old from the new. “In the last 10 years, our company has rode the crest of that wave,” Dent explains.
Material ConneXion’s “reading room” includes many innovative construction materials, including self-cleaning glass, cement and paint. Dent says these new materials typically employ titanium dioxide, whose technology “has been around for years.” It catalyzes surface particles using air and sunlight. Then, it allows water to wash away smudges during a rainstorm. It works, but its level of efficacy is debatable. “You don’t have to clean it so many times, but you still have to clean it,” Dent says.
Other exotics on Dent’s radar are ceramic paints that insulate walls and bendable concrete that resists cracking. The barrier to market is high. “For every 1,000 inventions, you probably end up with 10 for use in the construction industry,” he says.