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What Led Us Back to Using Natural Materials in Product Design?

February 14, 2018

As designers we’re always looking for inspiration… or rather, we see inspiration wherever we look. An interesting avenue of inspiration where I often tread is that of Natural or Traditional Materials used in product design. It fascinates me when designers use unique uncommon or ultra-traditional materials, in creative and innovative ways, whether it be for aesthetics, for function, or ideally both.

If you’ve been following design trends in recent years, you’ve surely noticed more and more natural materials making their way into consumer product design. Perhaps you’ve seen more natural wood cladding products in the electronics department, or leather and felt mingling within soft-goods, or ceramic, stone and cement implemented into unique consumer goods. Whatever product category you look into, there seems to be a pivot toward more elemental, pure, or raw materials that evoke a more handcrafted, artisan and natural feel. I’ll call these ultra-traditional materials because they came before plastics and are more than just eco-friendly materials. They are natural, pure and even raw at times. This is a positive departure from the products of my childhood when most everything I knew was made of plastic.

In the 80’s I was taught to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” and I, along with the design world, took that to heart. It was an era when plastics were king and, to many, this mantra meant that we should design using recyclable polymers. Designers have gotten creative since then by reusing manufacturing-scrap from foam sandals to make doormats, re-purposing Apple iMac G3s as cat’s beds, and created “newspaper wood” that is wood made from discarded paper… that was ironically made from wood in the first place. Now that we have created seas of floating plastic islands, and consumers are tired of cheap throw-away products, our views have evolved… a bit… through the years. Since then we have seen a Green Products Movement which, among other things, promoted using fewer high-polluting plastics in favor of more sustainable materials and we’ve placed greater value on eco-friendly design. Surely the Maker Movement, which encourages hand-crafted often techy and hand-made inventions, has also led us to this natural-materials-trend simply because “makers” want to use readily available materials to create their works. Additionally, the popularity of Kickstarter has brought crafts people out of the woodwork, revitalizing a consumer mentality favoring handcrafted products often with individual character.  What’s old is new again, and a return to simplicity, authenticity, and use of natural materials in design is growing right now.

Is this really a new trend?

Absolutely not! Throughout the 19th century there was the Arts and Crafts Movement which promoted the construction of simple items made with quality craftsmanship. In the interest of improving labor conditions, Englishman William Morris led the rebellion against mass-manufactured, machine-made products by crafting goods in small batches. The movement was touted as a “return to the traditional.” We see in today’s products that consumers have a recurring longing for that traditional feel, be it in a different and new way, that has manifested by implementing ultra-natural materials into modern products. “History repeats itself,” they say.

“The past is not dead, it is living within us, and we will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.” William Morris

So, now there seems to be a drive to provide the best of both worlds, or meet in the middle, and designers are seeking to mass-manufacture products with a more handcrafted feel by implementing natural and raw materials. As designers we hope to design beautiful and useful products for longevity, however, we do realize that ever-evolving technologies thwart that ideal. We are all too aware that these artifacts will all end up in a landfill, so we tap into that desire-for-the-modern and pull-toward-tradition by implementing ultra-traditional natural materials into new products.  However, troubles arise when designers hope and expect that the same factories that specialize in injection molding plastic can also process and machine very sustainable materials like bamboo or cork, but that’s for a later discussion.

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris