Design historian Grace Jeffers tells the ‘truth to materials’ at ICFF

(Photo: Jim Bessman)

Last week’s ICFF trade show at the Javits Center featured an American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) educational program of talks by industry experts, with none more jarringly thought-provoking than eminent independent design historian/materials specialist Grace Jeffers’ Man Made Natural: Insights Into the Authenticity of Materials.

Jeffers’ thesis was that there is a bias in the design trade toward natural materials in design, but that “the truth is that synthetic material is a better solution—and a more environmental solution.”

“I’ve been giving this talk all over the country the last year-and-a-half,” Jeffers said later, “and it really rattles their cages. It frames the whole ‘real vs. fake’ issues in a different way.”

Indeed, Jeffers uses a dramatic illustration of her point in her talks: breast implants.

“There’s the attitude that the real thing is better that the fake, that breast enhancement is vanity,” she said. “But if you had a cancer mastectomy, it’s a blessing. It’s still the same implant, but the context—and attitude–is different. The material doesn’t change—what changes is us.”

She noted that while we tend to think of “fake” objects being “cheap” and “shoddy,” “in history, they’re more durable and desirable,” and turned to the history of billiard balls as an example.

In the 19th Century, she said, the British billiard industry was using ivory for billiard balls, but realized that the African elephant was approaching extinction because of it, and offered a huge reward for a synthetic billiard ball substitute. That substitute was celluloid.

“Celluloid was developed in the mid-1800s as the first plastic invented as a solution for the problem of endangered nature,” said Jeffers.

Another natural material cited in Jeffers’ talks is the hard tropical timber species Afromosia, which is found in Democratic Republic of the Congo and used in flooring and furniture.

“It’s being deforested, which is why pygmy elephants and bonobos are becoming extinct in the wild,” she said. “They’re losing their habitat, and selling the wood funds warlords in the Congo. I realized that people had no idea about any of this and didn’t understand using such materials in a bigger context.”

She noted how the “truth to materials” philosophy that the innate qualities of the materials should influence the projects created from them “is one of the guiding principles of design and architecture, but in my talk I question, Is it valid, accurate, or useful today? Ultimately my argument is that we should understand what truly is wild and embrace how synthetics can actually keep the world in the wild—that sometimes using synthetics can preserve nature, that sometimes synthetics are the solution to the problems in nature and not the cause.”

Jeffers acknowledges that hers is “a very, very different way of thinking and looking at materials [that] flips how people in design traditionally look at these things.

In addition to her ASID talk, Jeffers was present throughout ICFF at the Wilsonart Challenges/Appalachian State University exhibition hall booth. Jeffers teaches as part of laminate manufacturer Wilsonart’s annual Wilsonart Challenge student design scholarship program to foster the careers of emerging furniture designers in North America, which challenges students at a designated design school–a different one each year–to create a unique chair using Wilsonart Laminate.

“When we started with Appalachian State, the school said, ‘We will not work with wood grain laminate,’ because it was ‘fake and awful.’ And I said, ‘Okay, you feel that way today, but sit in on my talk and then tell me your opinion’–and they agreed and completely changed their tune. Of all my students in the booth, only one out of seven did not use wood grain laminate in their chairs, and he used linen print [laminate].”

All the students therefore “embraced imitation,” concluded Jeffers. “It framed the way they looked at material.”

Next up for Jeffers is a lecture next month at Chicago’s NeoCon commercial interiors trade show, a preview, she says, of the wood chapter of her forthcoming encyclopedia of design materials, The New Materials Handbook, due out next year through Thames and Hudson, London. And in September commences the next chair competition, this year at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies—the winners to exhibit at ICFF 2016.

[This article originally appeared in on 5/25/2015.]

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