The world of design flourishes on technology transfer. Innovative breakthroughs in design occur when different disciplines borrow materials, techniques, and applications from others. This “sideways” approach enables architects to find new sources of inspiration by looking beyond their standard material palettes.
Apparel design has been of particular interest in architecture, which has a long tradition in textiles. As the Torino, Italy–based design firm Yet/Matilde demonstrates, furniture design can also benefit from the realm of textiles. Yet/Matilde’s Continuous Function furniture line explores the latent, multidimensional possibilities of structural fabrics.
The project features a novel use of jute fiber, a vegetable material that is the world’s second most utilized fiber after cotton. The designers drape multiple layers of the jute fiber fabric over rectilinear molds and add epoxy resin to create a rigid frame. Additional layers of fabric in the framework provide further support and storage.
The transformation of a soft material from the fashion world into a rigid substance for the interiors realm demonstrates the potential of technology transfer. Although the indivisible marriage of epoxy resin and natural fiber results in an environmentally questionable hybrid, the use of biobased resins could result in a biocompatible and recyclable product.
Textile designer Reiko Sudo frequently turns to a variety of industries for ideas. As the cofounder and artistic director of Tokyo-based Nuno Corp., Sudo keeps tabs on nascent material developments in arenas such as automotive and product design.
In one textile series, Sudo employed the auto industry’s sputter plating process, which is used to finish door handles and trim in chrome. Although the method was never intended for use on large, flexible surfaces, Nuno modified the application to coat polyester and other textiles with different metals.
“We developed a large wall hanging called Deep Roots out of stainless steel and cotton for Mandarin Oriental [Hotel in] Tokyo,” Sudo told me for my book Matter in the Floating World (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). “The back is red and the front is gray. We made a stainless-steel mesh that we then burned by hand using a gas torch. The fiber was originally developed to strengthen radial tires, yet the knitted fabric structure makes it look soft.”
In SOL Grotto, a pavilion in UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, in Oakland, Calif., designer Rael San Fratello arrayed 1,368 glass tubes to project from both sides of the small shelter. The tubes are just a tiny fraction of the cylinders discarded by renewable power company Solyndra when it declared bankruptcy in 2011. By salvaging the glassware, the architects made a significant visual statement on a minimal budget, while paying homage to the Solyndra legacy.
The technology transfer that these firms carried out required an investment in research and development, but the payback has been remarkable. One industry’s waste—or one discipline’s convention—can be transformed into another’s treasure.