The vice president of library and research at Material ConneXion talks about his work in materials development, which landed him Hong Kong Design Centre’s Design for Asia Design Leadership award
Words: Anna Cummins
Image: Amanda Kho
Dr Andrew Dent is an expert on how the modern world is assembled. Working closely with the world’s biggest companies – including Google, BMW, Nike and Ikea – the VP of library and research at Material ConneXion is responsible for sourcing cutting-edge materials for companies to construct the furniture we lounge on, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and more.
“We believe material is the most important part of any design,” Dent explains of the company’s philosophy. “How do some of the most iconic products differ [from others]? One of the main ways is material.”
Material ConneXion offers the most extensive library of innovative and sustainable materials in the world. The library, which is headquartered in New York but has outposts in seven other cities including Bangkok and Tokyo, is frequented by product and fashion designers, and other creatives. They come to examine and interact with samples of materials that are displayed on informative wall panels – from the softest foam to the densest cement.
“We have about 8,000 materials [in the library], ranging from those used in products from TVs to phones, the chairs we sit on – any designed material in our waking lives,” Dent explains.
The ability to experience materials physically has a profound effect. “You can talk to designers all you like, but when you put a sample in front of them, it changes the conversation,” he says. “They love things that are new; things that are bright and shiny.”
Material ConneXion maintains a focus on featuring materials it deems “innovative and sustainable”, sourcing 40 to 50 new materials per month from around the world, with a jury panel deciding which are worthy of inclusion.
But what exactly is an innovative material? There are, Dent explains, four categories. “First, is it a totally new material that has never been seen before? Graphene, a thin yet ultra-strong material, is a good example of this – it immediately got into the library,” he explains. “Second, has it improved on an existing material? If it can be used for improving a design in terms of sustainability and functionality, then it’s innovative. Third, we love cross-pollination. For example, a material used in the space shuttle that can cross over into bedding, such as Tempur memory foam – that to me is interesting. And fourth, sustainability. Is the material reducing the impact on the planet? There, we’re looking for things like lower toxicity or lower water use.”
Material ConneXion bridges the gap between designers’ knowledge of the properties of a material and the science involved in its manufacture to help companies make informed material decisions. “Our job is to show [clients] different ways of manufacturing,” he continues. “Science is quantifiable numbers, whereas design evokes an emotion. Our job is to take the science and translate it into words and values.”
Dent’s work championing research into the development of sustainable materials contributed to him winning Hong Kong Design Centre’s prestigious Design for Asia Design Leadership Award in December 2018, an accolade given annually to a forward-thinking business leader for pioneering “strategic and innovative design solutions”.
A recent partnership with electronics company Logitech is one of his favourite success stories. “We wanted to blur the line between lifestyle products found as part of our lived experience – things like couches, beds, clothing, backpacks – and consumer electronics,” he says. “We wanted to take Logitech’s electronics into that space, so we put fabrics onto their products to make them more touchable, more like lifestyle products.”
Later this year, Material ConneXion will launch a new library in Shenzhen. “It’s an incredible manufacturing hub,” Dent says of the city. “As it coalesces with the Greater Bay Area it will have 75 million people. It’s important for us to have an outpost in such a vibrant place.”
When Material ConneXion founder George Beylerian launched his library in 1997, it was assumed architects would be the primary patrons, Dent recalls. “But our first customers were Victoria’s Secret, Coach and a motel. In every area of consumer-facing design, the challenge is always to find new sustainable and innovative materials.”
With companies and consumers placing more importance on products that can be returned to the earth, or repurposed after their intended use, the properties and provenance of materials will prove increasingly important – and Dent and his team will be leading the global conversation, one interactive sample at a time.
Find out more about Material ConneXion at materialconnexion.com.
Three intriguing entries in Material ConneXion’s library
Scientists edited the DNA of non-animal cells to produce collagen, which is grown and treated to produce animal-free biofabricated material, which looks, smells and feels just like leather.
The world’s darkest man-made substance absorbs 99.7% of all light. The coating is made from an array of tiny nano-tubes, which absorb and deflect light before dissipating it away as heat.
This “semi-metal” is a sheet of a single layer of tightly bound carbon atoms. At one atom thick, it’s the thinnest and lightest material known to man and is 200 times stronger than steel.