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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.


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There are as many ways to write about design as there are ways to practice it. We can describe, analyze, compare, judge and classify; propose theories about creativity, form and social function. We can characterize design as a language or a way of thinking. Or, we can consider one key aspect of design, the detail. For while a detail may be small in scale—a button, a stitch, a latch, a molding—the subject is not a trivial one. The design detail carries larger concepts no matter its size. It may be less encompassing than the whole, but its meaning is not less deep. Detail makes design not only intelligible, but also memorable and meaningful. Download No Detail Is Small and explore it in detail.

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