It's a Material World

Design, performance
and craft

our postmodernist digital era is an interesting moment in time, as we experience profound cultural shifts to which we must, as designers, pay critical attention. advances in technology and science, the provocations of architecture and art, challenge preconceptions and suggest opportunities for creating healthy and humane environments that can improve and even transform people's lives.

 

Happily, the workplace is no longer tied to prescriptive ideas of how it should look or function. Corporations and start-ups alike are creating multi-purpose spaces in which people do lots of different things. Given the mobility and diversity of the people at work, we see a need for universal design and materials that allow everyone to function, to do what they do, whoever they are. Today, materials are not applied as specifically as before, rather we look for textiles that can be used across the office and on both the horizontal and vertical plane.

As an example, furniture designers are creating new kinds of furniture like freestanding semi-private work enclosures, as well as all manner of high-back sofas and chairs designed to offer a sense of privacy. These products require fabrics that work in all directions; that can be applied to the seat and the back or to wrap the surround. To add visual interest, we can embellish the back of a high back sofa and not the seat. We can also address acoustics by using thick wool felting or other fabrics that help to absorb sound.

At the same time, many companies have moved out of the high rise or the office park and into the city. Vacant warehouses and abandoned factories are being repurposed as offices, as are derelict train stations and even old churches. Adaptive reuse, often a radical change in the function of a building, has created a trend towards workplaces housed in an envelope characterized by exposed structures and raw materials—an architectural context that inspires a softening of upholstery and panel fabrics, floor coverings and wall coverings. As textile designers, we are creating richer, more textural, fabrics that have a warmth to them as a counterpoint to raw wood, burnt wood and tinted wood, as well as unpainted brick and galvanized metal. In work environments, we are using metals like brass and copper, rather than chrome; ceramics with a matte finish, rather than a lustrous glaze. Wool is very popular, not only for wool’s comfort and breathability, but also because it suggests pre-digital, analog processes, i.e., the art of handweaving.

Office design used to make liberal use of pattern, but textural fabrics are much more versatile. You can use the same fabric to upholster the sofa and to wrap the walls. And, in most cases, textural fabrics are better suited to contemporary contract furniture that is less formal, more relaxed and more amorphous in shape. We add visual interest to these types of fabrics through embellishments like embroidery and embossing, distinctive details that refer to artisan techniques and domestic settings.

From what I have observed, people crave the visual and tactile richness of fabrics—especially natural materials as an antidote to the hard, flat surfaces of our computers, laptops and phones. We love the look and feel of wool and linen, of unvarnished wood or etched stone, for the same reason that many people still prefer bound books, words printed in ink on paper. I think it is a matter of instinct, as well as a reaction to the proliferation of technology.

Whether texture is perceived or real, it does create a more relaxed and comforting space. Layers of color and texture, or the collaging of different materials, creates a more organic feeling, echoing the tactile and visual complexity of the natural world, which can be very reassuring in the face of rapid and radical change. For many of us, technology is exciting, but also exhausting. One can quickly become fatigued or agitated vibrating between Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, emails and newsfeeds. We crave things that look handmade and materials that invite us to touch, objects that speak to the time and care taken to make them.

The advent and popularity of co-working spaces around the world has strongly influenced corporate design and the types of materials and fabrics that are now being used even in  relatively conservative environments. People seem to thrive in co-working spaces. Beyond WeWorks, which is almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks, boutique co-working spaces have been especially influential—and in many of these spaces one sees a very eclectic mix of materials. The effect is rather like a collage.

Part of the intention in using a collage of materials is to create a gender-neutral space, one that is global and inclusive—not based on a narrow cultural or sexual orientation. Leather is mixed with a wool flannel, a nubby boucle or another loosely woven fabric with a big, bumpy texture. This androgynous environment might also include plush velvet and plywood, burlap and ceramic tiles. Synthetic fibers or a mix of natural and synthetic fibers—cotton and acrylic with a polyurethane finish—can add interesting texture, as well. The creative and unorthodox mix of fabrics and finishes offers a more inclusive approach to interior design.

People connect with the collaging of materials because the process suggests human agency, the presence of the human hand and the idea of craft, which is closely tied to the Maker culture. Along with the Maker aesthetic, current design trends also refer somewhat nostalgically to the art and design of the 1970s and to a Brutalist architecture or ethic, with its predilection for raw, unfinished concrete. Ultimately, this wide-ranging approach gives textile designers permission to explore a wealth of new ideas, structures and embellishments. We are creating new patterns or manipulating classic patterns. Our studio, as an example, has developed a large-scale houndstooth pattern that we then reinterpreted by creating unexpected distortions in the graphic. It’s traditional, but with a twist.

In the same way, we are seeing a new chromatic language in the workplace with richer, deeper colors used to lend an intimate feeling in semi-private spaces like alcoves, pods and the other nooks and crannies of the office. These darker colors help to create a perception of privacy, even where the space is not entirely enclosed. There’s definitely a shift from the usual variations on white, cream and pale gray to mid-value colors, darker hues and ombres, plus accents like blueberry blues and blush tones. These deep, loungy colors create a certain mood and make a wonderful backdrop for wood and the glimmer of metal. The metals really pop.

"Design is about the betterment of our lives poetically, aesthetically, experientially, sensorially, and emotionally"
- Karim Rashid

Color is enormously important in today’s sprawling, open plan offices. We are using a palette of analogous colors as a means to soften these spaces, layering color and texture to create visual dimension and warmth. Analogous colors are predominant in nature. The natural world is made up of countless shades of green: warm and cool greens, lime green and olive green, moss green and apple green. The multitude of color so abundant in nature, in every landscape, gives designers a wonderful palette with which to define a mood and evoke a positive emotional and visceral response.

There are no hard and fast rules about which colors are appropriate or effective. What matters, is the application of the color and the context of the space. We do use vibrant stripes and color on the vertical plane, but we also use very matte vertical materials that are appropriate for law firms and financial groups—a look that conveys substance and integrity. The atmosphere in a law firm is already quite intense and does not need to be energized by using brilliant color or a high luster fiber. When you add reflective finishes or create assertive contrast in color, you are activating a space in which more stimulation is unwarranted. What may be needed is calm.

As a textile designer, my work is greatly influenced by what is happening in the art world and in architecture. I study architecture and respond to the surfaces, materials and structural features of architecture in the weave structures of our fabrics. Architectural patterns in textiles make a connection between the interior space and the building envelope, creating a more integrated environment.

Painting, sculpture and the other arts offer designers such a rich visual language and techniques that we can borrow for our own uses. Within my studio, I create 3D woven sculptures as works of art, but even in the textiles I develop for commercial environments, I may use a palette based on graphite and charcoal, or a pattern with natural variations as if created in the act of drawing or painting with palette knife. Really, everything in art is about the hand. I am inspired by Agnes Martin’s weave structures, Donald Judd’s geometry and art that’s about social responsibility, gender equality and sustainability.

 

How can we represent sustainability through textiles? As a textile artist, I use all sorts of salvaged and repurposed materials. As a studio, we use only chrome-free leather. We create high-performance fabrics using post-consumer and post-industrial recycled fibers and we eschew treated fibers and off-gassing finishes that bring toxic chemicals into the work environment.  VOCs certainly have a negative effect on physical well-being, and over time, an emotional effect as well.

Materiality has an enormous impact on the identity and sensory quality of a space—and on the people who occupy that space. I hope that by riffing off traditional concepts, natural structures, architectural concepts and art, that we create original and inspiring textiles that help to inspire others who live with those materials in their place of work. No designer works in a vacuum. We have to pay attention to social and cultural shifts, to our personal and collective past and to our imagined future, if we are to create beautiful spaces where everyone feels safe, comfortable and valued.

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The True Measure Of A Space Is
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