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Oct 23, 2008

A team of experts’ inventive library is changing the face of products worldwide.

By Donna Sapolin

The world’s most innovative materials are on display at the Material Connexion library, and it’s difficult to resist reaching for them.
Whether the material is a luminescent panel embedded with white LEDs, a shimmering textile made of recycled cassette tapes or a countertop fabricated from counterfeit dollar bills, it simply begs to be handled. Fortunately, there’s not a “Do Not Touch” sign in sight.
With 15 new materials voted in by an expert independent jury every month and 4,500 samples already in the collection, there’s a lot of allure to contend with. Categorized according to their chemical compositions (polymers, glass, metal, natural materials, carbon-based and cement), and, in some cases, to the processes by which they are made, the materials here are fueling unparalleled innovation in the manufacturing arena.
More than an exhibition of visually striking wares, Material Connexion serves as a repository of vital solutions. The library is a cutting-edge research facility and consultancy intended to advance product development.
It is also a bastion of inspiration—a ground zero for designers, product development professionals and students in search of substances that can form more economical, better-performing and better-looking products. Those who come here without a concept for a product often leave with an idea for one that can have a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace.
Looking at the tabulas—the small gray boards on which each sample is mounted—it is easy to imagine that a material conceived to serve one particular purpose might be used for an entirely different one.
“We focus on cross-pollinization of materials from one industry to another,” says Dr. Andrew Dent, vice president of the library and research.
He points to Plynyl, a material originally intended for use in outdoor furniture that later formed a successful handbag line for Chilewich, and to a fibrous decking substance that recently found its way into an Aveda container.     

Launched in 1997, the facility is the brainchild of the former vice president of marketing and creative director of Steelcase Furniture, George Beylerian, now Material Connexion’s chief executive officer.
While employed at Steelcase, Beylerian was asked to create a small exhibition of vanguard materials, yet found no easy way of discovering or accessing them.
Thus was born the concept for a membership-based materials library with a tiered fee structure pegged to the number of persons granted access.

Take a tour with FLYP: Watch a video on Material Connexion, complete with an interview with Dr. Andrew Dent, vice president of the library and research.

Over time, the operation burgeoned into a vigorous consultancy whose services and fees, says director of sales Maidur Irastorza, are structured according to the complexity of the project. Library members have access to a comprehensive online database of materials and pertinent information about them, including the contact details of each manufacturer.   
Due to the business world’s understanding that centralized access to material solutions is core to progress, clones of the New York operation have sprouted up in locations around the world—in Cologne, Bangkok, Milan and Daegu, South Korea.
Apart from its library and global consulting enterprise, Material Connexion is also sowing seeds for on-site research and education at business headquarters via smaller product displays that offer the touch-and-feel character of the larger Material Connexion facilities.
The first such installation—The Material Connexion Innovation Lab—recently took shape at the Haworth corporate offices near Grand Rapids, Mich. The Lab is actively fostering new product development by highlighting topics of particular interest to the company, namely eco-conscious ones.

No area is as relevant to the ambitions and, indeed, successes of Material Connexion as that of sustainable product development. According to Sarah Natkins, director of marketing and communications: “About two years ago, the number one question we received about materials was ‘how much does it cost?’ Now, the number one question is ‘how sustainable is it?’”

These materials are revolutionizing the product landscape. In FLYP Media’s interactive feature, find out about a selection of Material Connexion’s most innovative materials.

The growing consensus regarding our environmental crisis is necessitating a rapid overhaul of the world’s products—from their composition to the methods underlying their manufacture, transportation and disposal.
A logical starting point for launching this process of transformation is with materials that have achieved the highest level of sustainability certification. Dent cites the example of Shaw Carpet: “The company’s new carpeting is made almost exclusively of recycled old carpeting.”
Material Connexion is often asked to consult on solutions for packaging, and this is the area, Dent says, in which the greatest strides toward sustainability have been made.
One example of a packaging material in the library that is pushing the eco-envelope is a paper based on the calcium carbonate and glue makeup of an eggshell. Like its role model, the paper carries a container that is thin, hard and biodegradable.
If finding an ideal material for a product makes for good business, finding one that is eco-conscious makes for survival.
Now that the health of the planet is at stake, Material Connexion’s expertise is more than helpful—it is indispensible.

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