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Published: September 2008
Author: Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The Materials Experiments workshop took place on Friday 19th September 2008 at the Royal College of Art, London.

Cuttlefish and custard

We’re always being told we live in a material world, so it’s odd how seldom we really work with materials. The Materials Experiments was my chance to put that right – a half-day Cook’s tour round the grimier spaces of the Royal College of Art where we’d get to actually manipulate matter, not in a Large Hadron Collider sort of way, but in the old-fashioned hands-on manner.

The die is cast

Take cuttlebones. Never having owned a budgerigar, my experience of cuttlefish bones was limited – until Martin Conreen of Goldsmiths College presented us with our own one. The bone has a hard shell but a porous interior that the mollusc uses as a buoyancy chamber. This rigid sponge is easily carved in any direction. Small wonder the bones have been used since Roman times to make moulds to cast small metal objects – which is what we were about to do.

The first job was to scrape out the bone in the shape we wanted. Then we each melted a bar or two of pewter in a pan over a Bunsen flame and poured it into the mould. The bone does not burn, so the shape is preserved, while the high thermal resistivity of the material ensures that the molten metal has time to pour into every part of the mould. The cast pieces pop out just as designed, but with the extra embellishment of the natural bone grain marking the surface. I made a trinket in the shape of, er, a cuttlefish. Others made rings and table ornaments. Those who knew a bit about moulding processes were cleverer, creating cleaner shapes using closed moulds, but what was most remarkable was how absurdly pleased we all were with ourselves.

The Philippe Starch chair

Very different was the cornstarch-based packaging material we were shown next by Jakki Dehn of Kingston University. The stuff dissolves in water and then degrades. It comes in big textured sheets in various thicknesses. What was notable was how most of us set to making something that paid no attention whatsoever to the nature of the material. My tetrahedron – was it a lampshade or a cat basket? – was a case in point, ignoring both the directionality of the material and its reluctance to fold. Louis Kahn famously went round asking ‘What does this building want to be?’ Perhaps he had a point. Certainly, this material badly wanted to be something other than what I’d made it be. The designers among us did better, the prize exhibit being a very plausible-looking shoulder bag. At the level of immediate creative response, it seems, a designer can perhaps read some materials’ capabilities intuitively, and may in fact need little technical detail about its properties.

Feeling our way

Next it was on with the Tyvek body suits and blindfolds. We looked like a kinky biohazard investigation team, but it was simply the prelude to an experiment in which we’d use senses other than our sight to describe things, dreamt up by Caroline Till and Ruth Sayers of MADEconnections, a design/materials collaboration of the RCA and nearby Imperial College. The idea was to describe each sensation either in words, or synaesthesia-style, by drawing a doodle representing it in some way – an option, sadly, that most of us avoided.

Spoiler alert. This is what they had lined up for us, along with how we were asked to explore them: custard (feel it), fruit jelly (feel it), mung beans (trample them in socked feet), Haribo sweets (taste them), concentrated lavender essence (smell it), a song by the Raconteurs (listen to it). I found my responses erring towards the analytical – trying to guess what the items were and then writing that down, rather than doing the more interesting and more difficult thing of actually describing sounds and smells. It made you realize how little vocabulary we have for the sensational.

Climate change materials

More dares came from our next guide, Sumeet Bellara of the MADE Resource Centre, who introduced a range of materials engineered to mediate climatic variables such as humidity and temperature. Invited to don various garments before dunking ourselves under a cold tap, it was astonishing to see how effective something as historically difficult to achieve as waterproofing has become. But it was equally obvious how meeting one goal of environmental comfort is at odds with another. A state-of-the-art breathable running shoe was about as waterproof as a colander, definitely only for running on dry days.

The specimens Sumeet had brought reflected current technological preoccupations with materials that do things. But a domestic iron that has a thermochromic temperature indicator in rainbow colours? It may look pretty or novel, but to me it seems to do its job more complicatedly than a standard thermostatic indicator light.

Probing properties and structure

We concluded our tour with a visit to Zoe’s grotto, entered mystically by parting a heavy plastic curtain. Zoe Laughlin had brought along specimens from the King’s College London Materials Library that would offer ‘inspirational encounters with matter’. Armed with a microscope computer plug-in (we instantly all wanted one), she showed us materials close up – the glittering crystal surface of a freshly broken piece of metal, or the carefully engineering microstructure of a plastic designed to be pleasing to the touch, like skin under magnification.

Same-size tuning forks made in different metals and even woods resonated in different ways. Same-size cubes of aluminium (density 2.7) and tungsten (density 19.3) confused the senses too, with vision offering little information to lessen the surprise when the cubes were hefted. Oddly, there was a bit of a clue though. The lighter (weight) metal was also lighter in colour, which seems to be a fairly general rule. Perhaps somebody knows why this is.

By the light of the silvery moon

The whole event was meant to be in the spirit of the Lunar Society, the amazing club of 18th century Birmingham luminaries that included the chemist and Presbyterian minister Joseph Priestley, the chinaware magnate Josiah Wedgwood, the steam engine pioneer James Watt and several others. Shena Mason, a local historian who has written about the society, had introduced the day, explaining that it was the physician Erasmus Darwin who issued the first invitation to ‘dinner and little philosophical laughing’. Formed at a time when the arts and sciences were already beginning to diverge, these ‘Lunaticks’ recognized the importance of maintaining a dialogue between them. The Materials Experiments kept that spirit alive. Today, of course, we don’t need moonlight to arrange a meeting. We just need an internet connection. You can join the new Lunaticks right here ...

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The Materials Experiments was organised by InnovationRCA at the RoyalCollege of Art for MADE, the Government-backed programme which connects the UK's materials science and design communities. This event formed part of the London Design Festival 2008.