The project “A Matter of Time” by Stefano Parisi shows us how materials are redefining design and the role of designers.
It’s impossible not to be curious about the beauty and mystery of “A Matter of Time”, a research and experimentation project on a composite material based on mycelium and agricultural waste, developed by the designer and researcher focused on materials innovation Stefano Parisi. The project was developed as graduation project in Product Design for Innovation Master degree at Politecnico di Milano, under the supervision of Dr. Valentina Rognoli.
However, the implications of the material design and biofabrication (i.e. the creation of materials from biological organisms) make us also rethink design and the role of the designer. Much of this is due to the methodology applied, Material Driven Design (Karana, Barati, Rognoli, Zeeuw van der Laan, 2015).
Working with living organisms involves unusual tasks for a designer, such as feeding their work. In the case of “A Matter of Time”, Stefano had to feed the mycelium with water and flour to activate its growth and to acquire a solid state and a characteristic white color.
The designer must therefore become a biologist, farmer, scientist and chef, while using techniques ranging from craftsmanship to 3D printing. Design not only needs to collaborate with other disciplines, but must include them, transforming itself.
The material used for the project comes mainly from the Grow it Yourself material kit by Ecovative Design, a USA company that is producing, developing and selling this material. This kit contains small particles of mycelium in a dry situation surrounded by agricultural waste.
As Ezio Manzini would say, everybody designs. But what is really surprising is how the collaboration culture, the open source and DIY are also reaching areas of design unaccustomed to interference from “amateurs”. In turn, this allows designers “to be independent of the materials industry, controlling the whole process”, Stefano explains. Thus, a new practice of designing own materials is emerging, which is named by scholars DIY materials (Rognoli, Bianchini, Maffei, Karana, 2015; Rognoli, Ayala, Parisi, 2016).
MATERIALS AS INTERMEDIARIES BETWEEN PRODUCTS AND USERS
Material Driven Design (MDD) is primarily an experience-oriented method that draws attention to the blindness of companies regarding the importance of materials in the attribution of meaning to products.
Companies only consider the functional properties of the materials while, in fact, they are a source of experience. Stefano regrets the prevailing tendency to hide the expressive properties of the materials, present in their imperfections. Precisely, this is what the user values.
People attribute meanings to materials and if materials are meaningful, products are more meaningful.
One of the phases of the project consisted of showing the samples of semi-developed material to people in order to know their impressions. Users underlined its tactual richness and the connection with tradition and handcrafting. They perceived it as ephemeral, inconstant and changing.
THE MATERIAL AS AN USER…
The design process in “A Matter of Time” and, in general, in any project based on the MDD, begins with the understanding of the material we are working with. The designer needs to analyze its technical properties, how it reacts in different environments and under different conditions, and how the different elements interact with each other.
We can say that the designer observes, interviews the material. The designer analyzes how the material behaves in extreme situations and, from here, obtains insights to understand and discover its connection with people and the product: “The material suggests you what to do. You have to listen to the material, be inspired by it”.
In a certain way, the material becomes a user, and the process becomes a material-centered design.
…AND THE MATERIAL AS A CO-DESIGNER
However, when working with organic materials, designers need to be humble and be aware that they cannot control everything. The material is a living organism and, as such, has an active role in the design process. The material has a degree of autonomy and spontaneity that cannot be anticipated, becoming a co-designer.
Materials are collaborators in the craft process (Rosner, 2012).
In the case of “A Matter of Time,” Stefano experienced firsthand the spontaneous character of the material during its growth. During the research, he included flax seeds to shape the mycelium without the use of mold. What he didn’t expect is that the seeds would germinate during this process.
THE ROLE OF THE DESIGNER
Given this semi-autonomous nature of the material, the traditional role of the designer is redefined: to establish a vision of the relationship between the user and the material and decide which meanings are retained and which new meanings will be included.
Stefano gathered, clusterized and organized in a map the people’s insights from which his vision to direct further development emerged in the form of a statement: “I want that the user is involved in an authentic emotional bonding with the material because it is recognized as a matter of time and of memories, filled with history and experience, like an artifact modeled by an artisan and subjected to the marks of time.”
Then, he tried to transfer or emphasize in the material those qualities present in his vision. He used molds to obtain the desired shape and controlled factors such as environment, temperature or humidity. He decided when the material should be dehydrated to stabilize it and added psyllium, chia and flax seeds to strengthen its spontaneous character.
Furthermore these seeds release a gel that feeds mycelium during its growing, allows to shape the material without the use of mold, similarly to clay or argil, and at last make it more resistant and velvety.
One of the most interesting points of the interview was the reflection of how far it is possible for designers to create their own materials.
Undoubtedly, the project “A Matter of Time” shows us the utility of designing our own material due to its ability to create meanings. However, this process requires an amount of time that designers rarely have.
Given this, two possible scenarios arise. On the one hand, a first one where the product designer needs to collaborate with a material designer, each specializing in their own field. But on the other hand, designers often combine commercial projects with research projects that eventually will give them greater long-term visibility. It would be here where the materials design would take place.
In short, new methodologies, approaches and disciplines are redefining the role of the designer and the very concept of “design”. Stefano Parisi and “A Matter of Time” allow us to glimpse some of these trends.