Process and Materiality
Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Bookbinding is a craft rich in process and materials, grounded in ancient techniques done with the hands. The great bookbinder Douglas Cockerell emphasised that the time investment in bookbinding is so high that good materials should always be used. Using poor materials only mars good work. It seems tha artisans develop a particular reverence for materials, and this is a mindset that often grows to be a major part of their design decisions.
A number of conversations keyed me onto common pattern in artisans: they gravitate towards the simplest manifestations of their own work. It does not necessarily take decoration to produce a good object, or even a particularly clever design. Rather, many good objects arise from careful making, embodying marveloysly simple core ideals, through the shaping of quality materials. Things like balance, articulation, and durability become paramount, yet few of these traits are outwardly noticeable to the unfamiliar.
The approach of artisans clearly priorities knowledge of materials. Someone once mentioned the term 'materiality' to me, in reference to a design decision. It was an innocuous decision: to keep using denim fabric rather than using a refined linen weave. Denim is a twill weave fabric, so there is a doubling-up of threads and the dimenDione through which they are entwined. Denim is a bit like a mat, not just a weave, and it acts like it. The linen alternative I had was a precise mesh of neat cross-weaving threads. This hard, tasteless mesh of pre-made bookcloth was unsatisfacory for tactile handmade objects. It took me a while to find supplies of linen that I was happy with, and I ultimately used clothing linen which has a tendency to be tactile and fluff slightly. The use of denim, all that time ago, was a superficially uninformed decision, but it was a raw one, driven by tactile sense.
The term 'materiality' resurfaced in my mind years later. I realised it had come to influence just about every design decision I make. It is difficult to define a new term, but I will try, having never come across a distinct definition of materiality in making. Everything has properties that we can sense and feel in some way. Even non-physical things like stories have a certain 'sense' to them. Physical materials have core properties that we can define scientifically, but scaling upwards slightly we talk about fibre lengths and porosity - things we can actually feel directly. Working over materials with the hands changes how we interpret them. The more interaction there is, the more understanding of the material there is. I define materiality as the philosophy of sensing materials, and allowing that the be a major factor in design decisions.
Materiality is the natural purview of the artisan. But most objects today have at least some component of industrial design as well. Good designers of any kind will always know materials, a trend reflected in both new innovations and classic objects. But contrast the artisan to the industrial designer: where the former handles a material at every stage and must work it while allowing imprecision, the latter's approach is more truncated to the pre-production design and the end-product, and the interactions are limited by the machinery at hand. In the hand-made approach, materials often end up being a little weightier than theoretically expected in the design, or they may end up being softer or more tactile. The materials are reflecting the way the object is made, and vice-versa. My greatest failures have stemmed from borrowing too much from industrial design approaches, likely because this was out-of sync with my actual process.
Thinking deeply about a material's origins unlocks yet another sense. The ecological essence of materials is something very few of us know, yet it is one of the most vital properties of materials. The ecology essence is not limited to wild-growing things, but is a property of everything and anything interacting with the biosophere. It is the life-story of materials, from their germination and growth to the very end of our interaction with them. For people who delve into this, the idea of materiality can expand to include the ecological essence. It is like running hands over timber, where the sensation seems somehow altered if one contemplates the years of growth within. That experience is enhanced the more one considers it, and the more one lets it influence their making.
There are natural artisans who work with materials drawn directly from the environment. This is both primary production and an art of interaction. In my opinion, the very best natural artists also gravitate towards minimal embodiments of their work, allowing space for the natural materials to find functional forms that are timeless and practical. I also believe such an approach is a key difference between working with nature and simply drawing on nature. I have a particular maker in mind when saying this, whose process I have been able to observe for a long time.
The way someone works, the process they engage in, influences where they are going. Working with the hands leads to appreciating materials, which can lead to minimal, nuanced approaches; slow ways of making allows interaction with a material's origins, which can lead down a path of ecologically sensitive making. Certain modes of thinking are not always discovered if one only engages in industrialised processes. Likewise, remaining rigidly devout to traditional handcraft practices will limit one's view. This is a call for designers of all kinds to keep broad horizons. This requires an appreciation of process, and not just business-orientated production.
It is rarely acknowledged by society at at large that process and results are inexorably related. When process is not appreciated it is generally a syndrome of consumerism and it's sibling, short-form entrepreneurship. However, I find that at an individual level people are actually very eager to engage in a deeper mode of thinking. There is a deeper narrative at play within us, where we are creatures of process and materiality.