New Material Award 
New Material Award

Gert Staal

Now it has been decided to discontinue the New Material Award, it is worthwhile looking back on the history of how it came to exist. Between 2014 and the final edition in 2018, the organisations which sponsored the award – Fonds Kwadraat, DOEN Foundation and Het Nieuwe Instituut – named a winner on three occasions, each time offering a fellowship to a promising project worthy of further development. None of these cases concerned truly new materials, and this is not surprising given the exceptional nature of fundamental material innovation. The description of the award placed the emphasis not so much on the actual development of materials as on their innovative use. The New Material Award, said the organisers, ‘challenges visual artists, designers and architects to use new materials and innovative techniques. The resulting designs will contribute to a better and more sustainable society’.

On the one hand, this description reflects the origins of this incentive award, and on the other, it echoes the specific interests of the three participating partners, which are clearly recognisable in the wording.
For the DOEN Foundation, the key aspect was the ecological and social sustainability agenda. For Het Nieuwe Instituut, the award was a means to connect with a community of makers and researchers who initiate or support social innovation through design. And for Fonds Kwadraat – established 50 years ago as the Material Fund Foundation – this partnership made it possible in a new form to continue the Material Fund Prize, which had been awarded since 1996, with designer Claudy Jongstra as its first winner. In 2009, the foundation partnered with DOEN and the prize was renamed DOEN | Material Prize; five years later, Het Nieuwe Instituut joined them as co-organiser, and the award was reborn in its third incarnation.

Even before its first edition, the New Material Award therefore had a solid foundation, and a history of highly regarded winners, such as Bertjan Pot, Studio Maarten Kolk & Guus Kusters, and Marjan van Aubel. The participation of Het Nieuwe Instituut brought little change in focus, but the award did gain wider exposure, in part through exhibitions of the nominated projects in the Netherlands and Milan. The replacement of the original incentive award by a fellowship added a new dimension. The fellow was able to use the institute’s facilities and network for six months to develop and share a promising project with potential stakeholders.

The New Material Award proved to be in line with a growing international interest in design that asks fundamental questions about the unlimited consumption of products and raw materials, and thus explicitly
subjects the role of the discipline itself to critical evaluation. Design has after all been largely complicit in the introduction and maintenance of an industrial
complex that exhausts the planet, creates social inequality, and defines quality of life and community primarily as a matter of market supply and demand. During the early years of the award, the organisers were still referring to nominees who questioned this status quo as a ‘creative vanguard’, but it soon became evident that their desire for a re-evaluation of the profession and its apparatus was increasingly widely shared.

An aspect of design had emerged that previously had rarely been regarded as a core task of the designer: the development and testing of new semi-finished goods, or the application of existing materials and semi-finished goods in products with which they had not until then been associated. Designers wanted
to take into account fundamental questions relating to the design and development of new products. What responsibility will I take? Is a new product really necessary? Are the raw material extraction practices, production methods, application, lifespan and eventual waste processing part of a cyclical process? And what role can my work play in society? Of course, past generations had asked similar questions. But the difference today undoubtedly lies in the widely shared sense of urgency.

An issue which at the time of the Club of Rome was seen as the obsession of a handful of avant-gardists has become in the contemporary design world – and far beyond – an inescapable point of departure. We can no longer afford a haphazard depletion of natural resources. By far the most successful new materials of the 20th century have plundered the available oil reserves and proved to be the source of a catastrophic trail of pollution. Plastics provided the material basis for a throw-away society. And despite their some-
times unique properties, they have primarily become the symbol of an unbridled consumerist culture. The current development of composite materials, for example, largely builds on knowledge developed within the plastics industry. We can only hope that the results will have a less disastrous impact on the environment.

In projects highlighted by the New Material Award from 2014 onwards, waste from the heavy metal industry was transformed into the raw material for new products; the particulates produced by traffic, which fall on cities like a sticky rain, were used as an ingredient in the ceramic process; and leftovers from the high-quality textile industry took on a new form and function when they were used intelligently – and almost unrecognisably – to make carpets. Material research often focused on neglected, unwanted and mostly invisible residual products. Designers, architects and artists started analysing industrial landfills, peering into incinerators or discovering new composite
materials made of waste from mines and marble quarries.

There were also numerous projects that were led by nature. The constant appearance of new minerals in nature as an unintended result of human intervention in natural situations inspired a project investigating what can happen if we bring metals into contact with something as commonplace as household cleaning products. Another project concentrated on the harvest
of petals from tulip nurseries, which see only the bulbs as a saleable product, while the petals lend themselves perfectly to produce a natural pigment for ink. Yet another looked at the possibility of using seaweed as a raw material in manufacturing biopolymers. And perhaps the most disturbing variant of this rediscovery
of organic ‘materials’: a project using cows’ blood from slaughterhouses as a basic ingredient to make biomaterial. Finally, there were projects that focused on innovative production methods rather than new materials, from casting glass to produce extremely strong architectural elements, to using a 3D printer to make inflatable semi-finished products.

By bringing together projects such as these, the New Material Award revealed how broad – and sometimes practically invisible – the work of designers
can be. How processes of fundamental change can come about at the kitchen table, as it were, and often lead to astonishing results with minimal resources. They demonstrated an essential shift in the practice and perception of design, and showed that thinking about material was gradually moving towards thinking about materiality and matter. This may seem like merely playing with words, but it isn’t! The word  ‘material’ rests on the premise that nature is at the service of human beings and their development. Marble quarries, forestry, landfills – all are the results of an anthropocentric world view in which the scarcity of a ‘material’, whether it be ebony or ivory, hardly seems to have any implications for our awareness of ecological balance, but is chiefly significant in terms of economic value.

A designer who thinks in terms of matter will arrive at a different value system, as shown, for example, by the various projects involving the use of matter assumed to be of low value, such as fungi. In the development of new products and processes, someone must always question their effect on the overall natural and social balance. From 2009, as an incentive prize, this is precisely what the New Material Award did, thus encouraging participants to develop their outlook on matter, nature and society even more radically. And especially in the latter period of the award, public concern for this search was gradually increasing.

Paradoxically, the increased acceptance of a more inclusive perspective on the role of the designer – both ecologically and socially – has made the need
for an incentive award less evident. Although individual designers continue to benefit from the continued existence of awards, the primary objective has after all been met. Ideas about materials and their application have gained the intended stimulus, and the time has come to put the ambitions in other hands. However, this does come with a caveat. As well as highlighting many encouraging projects, the various editions of the New Material Award have also revealed the persistent intransigence of industrial practice. Projects often championed the relevance of a fundamentally different perspective, but their design proposals were too modest a factor in the context of large-scale production processes. There are still steps to be taken and crucial alliances to be formed to give highly urgent themes such as the energy transition and climate change a genuinely central position in raw material extraction, material development, manufacturing, and waste processing. Here it would appear that bodies such as the government and leading science funders such as the Dutch Research Council (NWO) need to play a key mediating role.

Many projects submitted for the New Material Award over the years followed the motto emblazoned above the doors of the zoo in Amsterdam: Natura Artis Magistra. They did so in both senses that have been attributed to this phrase over the course of history: ‘nature is the teacher of the arts’, and, more particularly, the less usual meaning, ‘nature is the master of culture’. Human civilisation can be put to the test at any time by the forces of nature. Only when we approach civilisation as part of a cohesive natural balance in our designs and products will the obsession for materials have given way to thinking about matter.

Gert Staal