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Our Love of Materials

May 31, 2017

While aesthetics and function are top priority in a project, the materials selected embody the true essence of interior design.

As a commercial interior designer who is constantly explaining to friends and family what I do, I admit I tend to emphasize the technical nature of our profession over the artistic: knowing building codes, coordinating with engineers, understanding acoustics and ergonomics, etc. In an attempt to convey the difference between decoration and interior design, I find myself de-emphasizing materials and color, but lately I realize I’ve been misguided. After all, bringing beauty and delight to a space is a key part of what we do, and materials are crucial to conveying that beauty. How many times have we seen a client’s eyes light up when they spy a tray of finish materials? And don’t we pride ourselves on pulling together wonderful palettes with materials that balance performance and budget with aesthetics?

We know that a great design is more than its finishes, but ultimately, it’s the materials of the space that our clients see and touch, and often what they connect with the most. In fact, scientists have even found that our haptic memories—those created via feeling or touching—can rival our visual memories, albeit at a more visceral level. So, our impressions of a space may indeed be a combined response to its spatial qualities, lighting, temperature, etc., but we end up describing the materials, colors, and furniture that our senses actively perceive.

Furthermore, material selection is as much a technical exercise as it is artistic. Today, more than ever, we need to be aware of a product’s chemical
makeup, sustainability footprint, and performance. We must consider how it is installed, maintained, and ultimately disposed. Thanks to a greater understanding of biophilic design, we’re also aware of how materials affect our psychology, energy levels, psychological well-being, and productivity. Of course, we have to know how much they cost—both the raw materials as well as installed product. And these days, materials are being called upon to do much more than simply clad surfaces: We’re seeing sensor-embedded carpets that can detect changes in gait, non-toxic paint that conducts electricity, textiles that generate power, even “programmable” cement with particles that can be adjusted to geometric shapes to create greater tensile strength than random aggregate.

At the new LEED Platinum ASID headquarters (see Product in Placement on page 104), we placed a heavy emphasis on healthy materials. Every product in the space has met the requirements of Declare, BIFMA Level, Healthy Products Declaration, or Cradle to Cradle. The office also contains a 1,000-square-foot Material ConneXion library that showcases more than 300 samples of innovative materials and products. Among the amazing innovations on display are a thick, leather-like, vegan cellulose grown in petri dishes; dimensional custom-patterned “flocked” rubber that would make a fabulous wallcovering; and soft, candy-like polyurethane “jewels” that would be perfect in a pediatric dentist’s waiting room.

This is materiality at its best: sustainability, performance, technology, and beauty. As the universe of materials continues to grow, users will need the expertise of professional interior designers more than ever, and in turn, designers will rely on resources such as interiors+sources to help us navigate the myriad options out there. So next time someone asks what I do, I’ll mention daylighting and the WELL Building Standard—but I’ll also talk about wood, stone, fabrics, and vegan leather.

Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA, is the Chair of the Board of Directors of ASID and a principal and the firm-wide interior design practice leader at Steinberg Architects. Learn more about ASID at ASID.org.

Photography courtesy of Eric Laignel

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