There is nobility in the products of nature. From bright, round, wild berries to majestic, sharp, soaring mountains, our world is full of incredible examples of delicate precision and robust power. As designers we can see and admire the natural world around us, but we can also employ it. To quote interior designer and lifestyle philosopher, Alexandra Stoddard, “If we have authentic, honest earthy materials in our houses, we’ll be more authentic, honest and natural” (1). With the introduction of new chemically produced poly blend materials every day, there are a lot of options to choose from. Despite the myriad choices, simple materials continue to yield the most iconic and classic designs.
The use of natural materials in design produces an element of timelessness and steadfastness. Natural materials stand the test of time, physically and aesthetically.
For thousands of years humans have used natural materials in their day-to-day lives. Due to limitations in safe travel and widespread commerce, materials typically remained specific to local geography. Using what was available, humans survived and created what they needed within their immediate environment; hunters fractured obsidian to make arrowheads, gatherers used reeds to weave baskets. Our history and entire existence as a species has a deep rooted partnership with these materials. This meaningful and ancient relationship continues to have an impact on us even today.
This relationship between the natural environment and humankind is an endless field of study within scientific communities. According to the German research organization Fraunhofer, “a natural material is any product or physical matter that comes from plants, animals, or the ground. Minerals and the metals that can be extracted from them (without further modification) are also considered to belong into this category” (2). Materials like wood, stone and cotton are typically easy to think of as natural, yet other natural materials, such as aluminum, which is the most abundant metallic element in the earth’s crust (3), involves refinement by humans before it is practical for use. These natural materials, and many more, play an essential role within human history and in turn, design.
As technology has progressed, the number of materials mankind has created have risen exponentially. Manmade materials include plastics, carbon fibers, synthetic fabrics and more- all of which are the results of chemical concoctions and heavy manipulation, with no previous instance of existence in the universe. Today there are more than 160,000 materials available for use (4), “the continuing appearance of new materials with novel and exploitable properties expands the options [for design] further” (4). However, these refined materials do not have the context or depth that natural materials do as they have only ever existed outside of a natural environment. Material Experience: fundamentals of materials and design states, “sensory interaction with materials is a system and process where inputs from both objective properties and subjective responses from people are integrated together with the influence of environmental context” (5). Human response to natural material has a rich history in utility and survival.
The legacy of natural materials, when set in a context of new design, produces an element of timelessness for the product itself. That is not to say that synthetic materials have no place in design, rather, their existence is a testimony to the future, and the possibility of man’s ingenuity. These poly materials fit well within the spectrum of technology and demonstrating sleek progress. However, un-natural materials fall short in their ability to exist outside the environment that man creates for them. Unlike natural materials, the relationship between man and synthetic material lacks depth.
Natural materials have an unspoken narrative – a narrative of origin and environmental context. Within design, material can be utilized to represent or emphasize design characteristics. As noted in Design, Materials Selection and Marketing of Successful Products, “all products have a certain degree of existence beyond the physical appearance, a metaphysical existence. The metaphysical value of a product is related to how our senses, including imagination, knowledge, experiences and preconceived ideas apprehend the product. To simplify it, it is how we ‘feel’ about a certain product” (7). For example, if a designer intends to convey an element of their design as sturdy and resolute, they may use stone, which has a rich history, full of its own meaning and existence. If they want to make their product have a sense of comfort or warmth to it, they may use leather or wool. These inherent relationships are a tremendous way to give a design some pre-existing meaning. By staying true to the material’s natural characteristics, the design evokes a sense of honesty.
In addition to symbolizing characteristics within design, natural materials also tend to extend the life of a design, aesthetically and physically. Aesthetically, “the image of a product is related to the history behind it…Marketing itself is not enough; an image and a history must be generated for a product. With regard to materials selection, natural materials are popular for many products. A natural material such as wood or wool can give a certain degree of history to a product” (7). The origins of wood will always be trees, stone - the earth, and leather – beasts; some things don’t change. These materials are consistently used throughout generations and cultures as they are durable, stable, and long-lasting, leaving their footprint in all areas of art and design along the way.
Some of the oldest artifacts known to man are made from natural materials like wood, ivory, and stone. Consider examples of natural materials in design across history in architecture, furniture, and technology: some of the most ancient architectural feats known to man used natural stone as the core of construction (8). Three of the most notorious constructs to this day are the great pyramids at Giza. The region was rich in natural materials like limestone, granite, sandstone, and alabaster (6). The pyramids were constructed out of limestone more than 4,500 years ago and remained the tallest structure on earth until the 19th century (6). These monuments continue to serve their intended purpose as tombs, and maintain their formidable presence to this day. Even though they are old and scarred, their power is not disputed. This goes back to the material it’s made out of. By using stone, which by nature is permanent and steadfast, they have given it timeless impact.
Not quite as old, yet still as impressive, is the Eames Lounge Chair, first released in 1956. Comprised primarily of two natural materials - wood and leather, these simple and elegant materials assist the chair’s aesthetic. Seventy years later, this chair is still coveted and relevant. In fact, the design has endured time so well that it was inducted into the New York MOMA’s exclusive permanent collection. Known to nearly all cultures around the world, these two materials extend beyond any one design era or cultural location. The Eames chair has such incredible versatility that is fits alongside nearly any design, be it vintage Asian, or modern European. Around the same time as the lounge chair, Charles and Ray Eames designed another piece, the Dining DAW Armchair. While this chair is also iconic and still produced today, it's primarily plastic body does not fit within nearly as many design settings, and is instead resigned to usage in mostly modern environments. The great divide between these products are the use of synthetic and natural materials. The wood and leather of the Eames lounge chair have significantly aided in the establishment of the fixture as a pillar within design history.
Another example, though metal and contemporary, is the MacBook Pro designed by Apple. Machined out of aluminum, this laptop body does not seek to hide the natural material, but rather to emphasize it. So while the shape might change with technology, the material remains the same – unaffected by color trends, like Pantone swatches or patterns. Across all these examples, we get a clear picture of how the design of something can be emphasized and assisted by the use of natural materials.
As technology, materials innovation, and the prevalence of design continue to grow, the use of natural materials will not cease. As we have used natural materials for thousands of years, we will continue to use them, hopefully with a more careful eye towards sustainability. Moving forward in design, there will still be the opportunity to reference the context behind natural materials and rely on their honesty and natural characteristics to bolster our designs in the present. As the world changes the consistency of natural materials in design will remain timeless and steadfast.
Wood will be wood. The only thing that changes will be the form you give it.
1 – Stoddard, Alexandra. Style for Living; How to Make Where You Live You. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
2 – Fraunhofer. "Natural Materials." TramStore 21. April 7, 2009. Accessed May 1, 2016.
3 – "Aluminum Statistics and Information." USGS Minerals Information: Aluminum. Accessed May 02, 2016.
4 – Ashby, Michael F., Materials Selection in Mechanical Design. Oxford, UK: Elsvier Ltd., 2011.
5 – Karana, Elvin, Pedgley, Owain, and Rognoli, Valentina. Material Experience: Fundamentals of Material and Design. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Ltd., 2014
6 – Weston, Richard, Materials, Form, and Architecture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
7 – Ljungberg, Lennart Y., and Kevin L. Edwards. "Design, materials selection and marketing of successful products." Materials & design 24, no. 7 (2003): 519-529.
8 – Winkler, Erhard. Stone in architecture: properties, durability. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.