Perception et matériaux


The ability to move across scale is therefore important in the design of smart materials. Yet, while scientist and engineers are primarily designing the technical performance of these materials at the microscale, designers traditionally operate at the other end of the scale, designing how they can be appropriated in daily life. The dialogue between these scales of design is often limited, each actor of the material creation tending to appropriate these materials at their respective scale of interest (Addington & Schodek, 2005, p.218). This means that the multiplicity of scales involved in smart materials design is rarely addressed simultaneously and that designers’ range of actions is in part framed by the choices made upstream in the development of the material.

This disjuncture can be partly explained because the different actors of material creation apprehend materials in different ways. Material scientists understand them as a product, an outcome of their research process. For designers, materials usually represent an essential ingredient of the design process. If materials play different roles in each discipline; these professions also conceptualise materials quite distinctively. This is perceptible in the way each discipline traditionally classify materials. In short: the material science model is hierarchical and focused on material composition, the engineering model is pragmatic and focused on the optimisation of physical behaviours for a given situation and regardless of the material composition ‘while the design one is essentially generic and primarily concerned with issues of expression and context of applications (Addington & Schodek, 2005, pp.21-45).

While material science focuses on molecular structures as to distinguish why a material is different from another, engineering is preoccupied with the performance of the material at the scale of the object within a specific environmental context. As for the designer, the knowledge of materials is oriented by their sensorial properties and their relation to a specific context of use, which is to say at the scale of the everyday environment. The problem with smart materials is that they do not suitably fit one or the other category as their design characteristics span across performance, substance and product. Ultimately this means that smart materials can only be apprehended by a multi-layered classification and their design through multiple scales.

titre de l’oeuvre: Reef
auteur: Aurélie Mosse
date: 2011
lieu: CITA, KADK, Danemark
légende: appropriation de polymères électro-actifs dans un contexte de design, Aurélie Mosse, 2011
photographie: Anders Ingvartsen

To further complicate this multi-layer comprehension, smart technologies are manufactured under very different materials or forms. The ambiguity resides in that they are often made out of multiple types of individual materials. A smart technology can therefore equally refer to a raw matter: a constituent material such as a molecule, a fibre determining the active phenomenon; a processed material: thread, film, ink in which the active phenomenon is embedded in; a composite or a mixed-materials system connecting together individuated components such as sensors, actuators or controllers in which the smart behaviour is the result of the coordination of various material and computing performances. As such a same function can be achieved by very different means, both in terms of scale and material even phenomenon. Similarly, the same technology can be developed under a variety of shapes or products that directly affect the material presence of the technology. For instance, photovoltaic technologies are traditionally associated with hard panel because they have been primarily developed out of glass substrates. They are now available under more flexible forms due to the development of thin film substrates based on plastic materials5. Mary O’Mahony reflects on this material ambiguity by highlighting that ‘in most instances, the materials act as the conduit or carrier of the smart technology’, which is to say that the perceived material rarely determine the artefact’s smart behaviour (O’Mahony, 2008, p.54).

This is particularly true for most smart textiles that represent a specific family in the area of smart materials. They can be defined as textile-based materials integrating smart technologies as lightweight and pliable surfaces. This encompasses both the implementation of smart technologies into a pre-existing cloth or their direct development as fibres or yarns in order to be shaped through the traditional processes of textile production such as weaving or knitting. These latter techniques require very soft and pliable materials that most smart technologies haven’t reached yet in their product development form without losing their smart behaviour. To give a sense of the field, most smart textiles products having reached commercialisation concern primarily light-emitting, colour-changing and phase-change fabrics. This success can be explained by the relative ease to integrate their supporting technologies into cloth. Pioneering developments in the area have been for instance the development of light-emitting fabrics based on the integration of fibre-optic, electroluminescent wire into woven fabrics, contributing together with the integration of conductive thread and micro-electronic components to the shaping of the electronic textiles family. Similarly chromogenic materials such as thermochromic and photochromic pigments and inks have favoured the development of colour-changing cloths before these technologies became available as fibres or yarns. Another important area have been the development of phase-change fabric based on the micro-encapsulation of thermo-regulating substances, helping to cool down or insulate the body thermal environment due to their ability to store and release heat at specific temperature peaks by changing from solid to liquid state and vice-versa. Outlast® -that originally developed these materials for NASA- remains the leading company commercialising these materials in a variety of sectors from apparel to housing. Today, research, whether concerning the development of new materials or applications, is rapidly expanding the scope of possibilities for smart textiles. In the past decade, designers have increasingly taken part in this process, progressively acquiring specific knowledge both in terms of smart materials’ technical and perceptible behaviour.

Extrait de Mosse, A., 2014, Gossamer Timescapes: Designing with self-actuated textiles, thèse doctorale, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture: Copenhague, DK, pp.245-248
+ Addington, M., Schodek., D., 2005, Smart materials and technologies for the architecture and design professions. Ed.2007. Oxford, UK: Architectural Press
+ O’Mahony, M. 2008, Smartex In: C.David, ed. Futurotextiel: surprising textiles, design & art. Ostkamp: Stitching Kunstboek, pp.50-55