They may be what make us human. They protect us, comfort us, build us, identify us, and provide us with a face to show the world. Material science, in the guises of high-tech techniques, smart substances, intelligent interfaces and sensory surfaces, are radically redefining the world we live in. As today’s generation of materials breaks new ground, many are able to anticipate and respond to changes in the environment. Now dynamic and interactive, materials have the power to change how the human body is experienced and how the urban environment is built. Combined with the new potentials they create for industrial design and medical science, they have the capacity to transform our way of life more radically now than ever before.

The worlds of materials and design are merging. At the dawn of the 21st century, materials advanced to become more adaptable, tactile and empathic, and the demand for objects with sculptural, aesthetic and multi-functional qualities rocketed. As high-performance materials were reconceived as immersive webs, structural networks and technological interfaces, their ability to engage with the built environment resulted in a whole new paradigm of design. Today, the carbon-fibre matrices, woven wooden panels and metallic meshes of contemporary architecture have more in common with the high-tech filaments of techno fashion than they do with modernist monoliths. Membrane skins and pneumatic structures are as common in furniture design as they are in interior design and textiles, while tactile fibres and triaxial weaves are aligning vehicle design with public artworks. From the traditional to the intangible, from the technical to the tectonic, the exchanges taking place between materials and design are forging a uniquely multidisciplinary area.

Many advanced materials have fluid properties that engineers can synchronise to suit a product or environment. Interactive materials, such as photochromatic pigments that change colour when subjected to daylight, light-emitting electroluminescent films, shape-changing polymeric gels and shape-memory alloys, eliminate the need for technological triggers. The discovery of polymers, the invention of nanotechnology and recent developments in biomimicy have created the most technologically-advanced materials imaginable, yet, few new materials have proved their worth, because relatively few practitioners have been able to put them to the test.

Right now, materials are regarded as one of the richest sources of innovation. No longer intended for practical use alone, materials are playing an important role in taking aesthetics forward. As they imbue design with extravagance, imagination and symbolism, they also make space for brilliant colours, rich textures, unexpected finishes and lavish motifs. Whereas twentieth-century materials evolved as high-tech solutions, the materials of the twenty-first century have emerged as the most significant style statement of the lifestyle generation.

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