In the vocabulary of design, materiality is a concept proposing
that materials shape our perception of space and form. A 4- x 4-foot
cube of plywood is not equal to one of polished steel. An office with
glass walls feels quite different from an enclosure built of drywall or
brick. In terms of physical properties like density and texture, tensile
strength and malleability, wood is clearly and essentially different from
steel or glass or brick. But wood and steel also differ in terms of cultural
associations and their historical uses and meanings.
Materials represent concepts and values as well as physical qualities.
Tubular steel and plastic both have stood as symbols of modernity.
From a 21st century perspective, wood often represents tradition,
although molded plywood was once a hallmark of progressive design
and manufacturing, a natural material transformed by technology to
make it lighter, more suitable for mass production and adaptable to the
human form. Creating new forms with molded wood was at the heart of
the work of mid-century designers like Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen
and Arne Jacobsen, all of whom experimented with the single plywood
shell and brought it to a high level of visual sophistication in the 1950s.
When fiberglass and other plastics became feasible for use in furniture
design, the molded plywood chair was displaced by innovative new
designs in these materials.
The mesh textiles that seem ubiquitous in the 21st century office
are simultaneously a symbol of innovation and humanistic values. In
appearance, mesh is both organic and technical. In terms of function,
mesh is strong, yet flexible. When used as a component of a work chair, mesh serves both aesthetics and function, fulfilling the need for support
and comfort over an extended workday, as well as a contemporary taste
for lightness and transparency.
Certainly much of the history of design has also been a history of
materials, of exploring limitations and possibilities and of translating
materials into new forms to meet new needs. Designers today have
use of an extraordinary range of materials—wood and steel, glass
and plastic, organic textiles and woven synthetic fibers—along with
new technologies and methods of production that allow materials to
be used in new ways to improve function and to put more beauty into
the everyday environment.