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21 May 21

History in the Making


An understanding of materials, how to source them, use them and even create them is a defining characteristic of the human species. Indeed, the evolution of culture itself is inextricably bound within the material world. Materials are the foundations of craft, architecture, design, agriculture, industry and trade.

The beginnings of human material culture were at first modest and localised. People sourced materials from their immediate environments and shaped them into utilitarian or ceremonial objects and artefacts. From the humblest origins, consistent acts of making by humans over long periods of time resulted in an increasingly sophisticated understanding of materials and their properties – what materials were good for, how they could be used and how they could be combined to enhance their individual properties.

Since the Stone Age, the qualities of materials – such as durability, versatility or beauty – made them valuable and hence tradeable between social groups and across geographies.1Smithsonian, ‘Scientists discover evidence of early human innovation, pushing back evolutionary timeline’, Science Daily, <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180315140733.htm>, accessed 21 May 2021. This was the beginning of demand and supply. In some societies, increasingly complex materials were being created – ceramics, metal alloys, glass. In tandem, there was also the development of new processes of extraction, refinement and processing underscored ongoing material diversification – something that is still underway today.

Thousands of years of human craft and material innovation created the foundations for formative periods, including the Bronze Age (3300 BC), the first industrial revolution (1760) and the Digital Revolution (1950), which have gradually allowed us to push far beyond the material limitations of the natural world – to create materials, objects, industries and habitats that define the twenty-first century world we live in.

Through the examination of contemporary design objects, History in the Making provides insight into the physical properties and origins of materials, and explores the design histories and narratives that emerge to better understand the implications of the ongoing trajectories of material production.

Presenting experimental, one-off and limited-edition craft and design, as well as mass-produced goods and fashion, the selected works highlight relationships between natural and synthetic materials, supply chains and markets, underpinned by approaches to design production, which are making history.

Through a simple set of classifications, animal, plant, mineral and synthetic, the works in History in the Making offer dialogues between the past, present and future of materials. Broad perspectives are presented on social, ethical, environmental, economic and technological issues that are driving present-day innovation, debate and change.

Animal

Looking to the relationship between humans and other animal species, whether founded in traditional cultural practices or facilitated by factory farming, History in the Making examines how the complex, and often unbalanced, relationship between human and animal has shaped material culture and continues to do so.

Highlighting contemporary Western attitudes to animals as a source of material, attention is drawn to the division of the animal kingdom into classes – mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects and worms, as determined by Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. In the 1700s Linnaeus classified nature in an attempt to bring rigour, order and logic to his perceived chaos of biological life. However Linnaeus’s system must now be understood as a constructed hierarchy closely tied to European colonial expansion and power. It placed ‘man’ at the pinnacle, and in control of the biological pyramid. The legacy of this view underpins the modern industrial system inherited today.

Of course, the hunting and domestication of animal species is fundamental to many human societies, but the impact of intensive animal farming on animal welfare and the environment is still very much being questioned. International treaties now exist for the conservation and protection of some animal species, yet these are persistently at threat from poaching, habitat destruction and climate change. The collection of works in History in the Making reveal examples of this paradigm through objects made from some of the materials commonly obtained from animals, including hides, skins, bones, feathers, shells and corals. As illustration of this, Russian-born, Sol Shapiro’s Armchair, 1973, is upholstered in sealskin from his homeland. This chair seeks to draw attention to the signing of the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention in 1911, which was the first international treaty for the preservation of wildlife. Similarly, comprising a material by-product from the meat industry, Marc Newson’s Dinner set, 2007, is mass produced in bone china, which is a composition of cow bone ash, kaolin and feldspar.

Plant

Alongside animals as a primary source for human materials, History in the Making reveals the even greater importance of plants. Deeply enmeshed within human life, society, culture and economies, there is perhaps no more important natural foundation for human civilisation than our relationships with plants. The unique physical and mechanical properties of different plant species have given rise to countless applications. A diversity of craft practices, technological inventions and industries have developed alongside agriculture and forestry, leading to a vast marketplace of plant-based materials, including textiles, timber, rubber latex and biopolymers.

Referencing one of the oldest utensils made by humans, Martin Corbin’s Set of spoons, 1984, celebrates the unique attributes of twenty-five different timber species in the hand-carving of small functional objects, while Julia Manheim’s Bangle, 1977, is carved in ebony, one of the most critically endangered plant species on the planet. Lathed from lumps of coal formed hundreds of million years ago from deeply buried plant matter, Kyoko Hashimoto’s Coal musubi neckpiece, 2019, invites us to ponder the many ways coal underpins our consumption patterns, providing fuel to generate electricity, coke for steel, and petrochemicals for plastic.


Heralding the acceleration of a biomaterial revolution, where industry no longer uses fossil fuel–based plastic polymers, Jean Louis Iratzoki’s, Kuskoa bi, armchair, 2014, is the first commercial chair thermoformed in a bioplastic derived from beet, cornstarch and sugarcane. As we shift away from non-degradable and unsustainable resources, demand for plants will continue to soar. The downside is that some plant species continue to be logged to the point of extinction, while others have been cultivated at the expense of other species in vast industrial monocultures. Today, for better or worse, the make-up of plant life is being redesigned by humans through genetic modification, agribusiness and selective breeding.

Mineral

The extraction, refinement and use of minerals is fundamental to the development of material culture, technology, industry, supply chains and economic systems. Prized for their natural chemical properties – as the basis for metals or resources for energy production – minerals have long been searched for, mined, traded, refined and put to work in the service of everyday life.

Most minerals integral to modern economies formed over vast spans of time. Gold was created in neutron star collisions and supernovae before the solar system formed. Copper travelled through the veins of magma chambers deep under the earth’s crust and silica comes from sand eroded from rocks over many millions of years.

For thousands of years, mineral extraction to produce metals, alloys and glass was relatively small in scale. Modern systems of commodity extraction and trade, propelled by developments in metallurgy, engineering and the industrial revolution, have enabled vast industries to emerge. Through their efficient extraction of minerals, such as iron ore, bauxite and coal, these industries have fundamentally reshaped human civilisation.

Michael Gittings’s Standing cabinet, 2019, is fabricated in the groundbreaking alloy, corrosion-resistant stainless steel, invented in the early twentieth century. Joris Laarman’s Microstructures, aluminium gradient chair, prototype, 2014, is 3D-printed in an infinitely recyclable alloy comprising bauxite ore. Cini Boeri and Tomu Katayanagi’s glass Ghost, armchair, 1997, sits in a continuum of material innovation using molten quartz sand.

As we extract minerals at great scale, we are learning of the environmental consequences – and while coal and iron ore may be the minerals that enabled industrialisation, minerals such as silica for solar panels and petalite for lithium batteries may come to define the twenty-first century.

Synthetic

Formulated in chemical laboratories, synthetic materials were developed in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Cheaper and more reliable to produce, the invention of synthetics was stimulated by the scarcity and high cost of natural materials, such as ivory, silk and natural latex rubber. Accelerating since the 1930s, industrial use of petrochemical-based acrylics, polyesters, silicones and polyurethanes has dramatically transformed the material world – and we now live in what is called the ‘plastic age’.

Recognising the useful role synthetic materials have performed in modern society, their impacts, both positive and negative, come with costs. This new synthetic kingdom comprises non-degradable materials. Put to use in vast quantities in contexts not supported by adequate recycling and disposal, huge amounts of waste and pollution are having unanticipated effects on human health and the earth’s natural systems.

Dirk Vander Kooij’s Endless chair, 2010, is 3D-printed using polycarbonate reclaimed from the interiors of old refrigerators. Revealing what is nearly always hidden, Xu Zhen’s Sofa – Turbulent, 2015, elevates and emphasises polyurethane – the flexible foam that is used in furniture, mattresses and carpet underlay. Dutch couture house Viktor&Rolf Look 4, F* this I am going to Paris, coat and dress, 2019, achieves its exaggerated silhouette using tulle netting and a crinoline underlayer of polypropylene, the world’s second most commonly produced plastic. Cast using technopolymers – plastics with high mechanical properties, Balenciaga’s high-heeled Sandals, 2007, by designer Nicolas Ghesquière reveal the enduring relationship between fashion, materials and technology.


Driven by enhanced consumption and urban development, humanity’s use of materials in the twenty-first century is purportedly exceeding all the materials used throughout history. The amount of human-made mass, including concrete, metals, plastics and more, now exceeds the overall living biomass on earth.2Emily Elhacham et al., ‘Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass’, Nature, vol. 588, <doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5>, accessed 19 May 2021.

Predisposed to issues of sustainability, ethics and politics – materials are not neutral. Because of this, designing and making today carries with it responsibility, as demonstrated by the exhibition History in the Making.

Both synthetic and natural materials, when employed in a system of design and making, represent a constellation of ideas, choices, values and principles configuring in a moral culture. This is a complex and confronting reality not only for designers, makers and manufacturers – but for all of us.

Notes

1

Smithsonian, ‘Scientists discover evidence of early human innovation, pushing back evolutionary timeline, Science Daily, <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180315140733.htm>, accessed 21 May 2021.

2

Emily Elhacham et al., ‘Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass’, Nature, vol. 588, <doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5>, accessed 19 May 2021.