Some say material is only the solid and shapeable matter, others define it plainly as everything. How can we meaningfully discuss and learn about this all-encompassing term?

In our previous blogpost ”Cards for Creativity” we gave insight into our process of developing ideas through prototyping and working with cards. Our approach clearly benefits from the encounter with the real world, hence the corona lockdown was quite a challenge for us. To escape the uneventful home-office and get new inspiration, we exchanged ideas with people from various material archives as well as material experts and researchers. In that process we came to realize that the term “material” is not at all clearly defined. While “material” can basically describe everything surrounding and including us, each actor had a subjective definition based on their own work and perspective. We began to understand that discussing materials is only meaningfully possible if we narrow the field at which we look. We have to focus and filter in order to make materials accessible and interesting for specific audience groups.

One of a kind

Thus, after exploring the whole material archive in a playful way, we directed our focus to one single material: sand. We followed our protagonist sand all the way from resource to consumption to the end-of-life question and recorded the most pressing topics on cards.

The sand cards we used for storytelling. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

The card set helped us with a relevant question: Why should we care about sand? To gain perspective, we aligned the cards to tell stories about what role sand plays in different people’s lives. One particularly relevant perspective is the one of architects, since they have a great impact on how concrete – for which sand is a key ingredient – is applied. Our story starts with the creation of sand and shows the temporality all the way to the extraction of sand and the building industry. We visualized the different stages in interactive prototypes. Each one pictures a small scene along the extraction and value chain of sand and shows how everything is connected in terms of scale.

Storyboard for the interactive prototype © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

Interactive scene about the creation of sand. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

Gaining architect’s attention for sand issues with a building game. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

There also was another thing we wanted to transport – namely what happens behind the scenes. How did we arrive in a state when sand mining has become a mafia affair? To bet-ter understand the mechanics behind the ecosystem of sand, we took a closer look at the economic incentives that drive the system. Since games are great at giving insights about the inner workings of a system, we created another game prototype that purely focuses on these mechanics. In our “Sand Clicker” game, the player slips into the role of a sand mining company to help you understand how the money flows in this huge business. While the main goal is to grow your business, you see more and more how your expansion creates conflicts, which in turn you can try to “solve” by throwing money at it through lobbying.

A prototype of the clicker game. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

Zooming out

After tracking the material sand in all its detail, we wanted to step back and look at the bigger picture of the material archive again. We started to experiment how to navigate the material archive database visually. With the support of Barry Sunderland, Technical Engineer at ETH Library Lab, we applied a machine learning algorithm to sorting the pictures of different materials by visual similarity. The algorithm puts similar pictures next to each other and arranges them accordingly.

Visual material archive alternative view. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya SuvorovaVisual material archive navigation. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

Visual material archive navigation. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya SuvorovaVisual material archive alternative view. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

We found it interesting how the color and the texture evolves across the spectrum of pictures and started inventing materials that would fit in between. How would such a new material look like that is a mixture of two materials? What color and texture does it have? How would it behave? To generate structures of new and very hypothetical materials, we generated “new” materials with Neural Cellular Automata – an algorithm that is able to learn the rules to “grow” images and textures. The invented material thus resembles a virtual organism that moves and grows.

What would be a material in between two others? Hypothetical structures based on existing materials of the material archive. Made with Cellular Neural Automata (Mordvintsev, Randazzo, Niklasson, Levin, 2020)

Collecting as an activity

Not only can we focus on one specific material or a collection, also the very act of collecting itself can help us better talk about materials. When being confronted with the act of collecting materials for the material archive, we thought about existing methods of learning by collecting. Our observation was that you may not feel inclined to invest time to look through an existing collection made by somebody else, but if you would have collected it all yourself instead, you would most likely engage more with the collection. Many collection activities, for example in games, work with this motivation. We wanted to understand how it would feel to create your own material collection, in form of a sticker collector book. In our “Laubhölzer Sammelalbum”, we feature a group of wood species from Material-Archiv.

Laubhölzer Sammelalbum prototype © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

Augmented Materials

Similar to the view through the archivist’s and collector’s eyes, we started to experiment with the perspective from specialists. Our trip to the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur inspired us to travel much more deeply into a material. The Gewerbemuseum displays a great selection of material samples that visitors can examine and watch closely with magnifying glasses. Unfortunately, there was not much more to see – no microscopic structures, no indications for the material properties’ origins.

Material sample at Gewerbemuseum Winterthur. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

We thought: “This is where digital technology would make sense.” The vital spark was quickly transformed into a prototype named Augmented Materials. It enables you to study the microscopic structure of a material by hovering your phone over the sample. In fact, it is a layering of photos in different magnifications. The phone recognises the specific material through its features. Currently, it works with specific samples of one material which would be perfect for an exhibition. However, in a future version it could be possible that an algorithm is searching for the closest known material, thus making it possible to detect more material samples.

“Augmented Materials” prototype © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

From Intuition to Prototype Testing

The frequent change of perspective on our subject was also insightful in understanding and talking about our own approach and how we work. When we presented this colourful bundle of ideas and prototypes to get feedback, we noticed a certain confusion about our project. For example, a feedback we received from somebody with an engineering background, was that they found it rather unusual that we didn’t focus searching for the “best” solution for a singular problem. Since our approach is process-oriented, we explore different topics and ideas by developing small prototypes, with the goal to find interesting perspectives on a topic.

The “Materiality Lab” represents our methodology and holds together our explorations, making it easier for people to follow. We would describe our approach as initially intuitive. We often start from an observation that inspires us and then shape it immediately into a rapid prototype or a small project. This first moment is very subjective. It also is helpful for our collaboration that we both enjoy similar thinking patterns.

The moment we have a successful first prototype is when the hard work begins. We have to test it, hear what other people think about it and associate with it, let them play and see how they react to it. It is at this point that we switch from the subjective exploration to objective criteria to assess the prototype. We start to structure our thoughts and derive explanations for what we did. Having carried out several projects in this manner, it seems that our work comprises the switching between subjective and objective phases and finding a balance between them.

To collect all our findings and prototypes we made over the last months, we are in the process of creating a website for the Materiality Lab. It will be a collection in itself with various results in different stages: sketches, early prototypes, interactive tests and a documentation of our innovation process. We imagine this website as a treasure chest and inspiration for material archivists and other interested parties.

What’s next?

After having taken a closer look at the ordinary materials surrounding us, we became curious about the materials in the future: Which materials will make up our environment in 10, 50 or 100 years? Is technology taking over? Who are the people shaping the materials of our future? To explore these and other questions, make sure to come back for our next blogpost about the Future of Materials.


We would like to thank Stéphanie Hegelbach (master student Architecture, ETH Zurich) for her support in writing this blog post.

Article related tags

Nadya Suvorova

Interactive Media Artist and Designer

Mario von Rickenbach

Game Designer and Artist

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