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'Let the material lead the way!'

Designer Daniel Liden says we should stop approaching materials out of habit. Instead, let the materials lead the way to new sustainable design.

Many corporate design studios are split into two teams: The industrial design team defining the form and physical shape of a product, and the color, materials and finishes team, or CMF for short. The general idea being that these teams will work seamlessly together.

Lead the way: Daniel Liden, senior designer at Chris Lefteri Design, believes that we should let the materials lead the way.

“I have a fundamental problem with that way of working,” says Daniel Liden, senior designer at Chris Lefteri Design.

“In reality, I feel that there is a very high risk that materials become almost like an afterthought, like a color by numbers exercise of filling in color, materials and finish on shapes that have already been defined without taking materials into account on a deeper level. I would much rather start to think about materials and processes at an earlier stage, to really try and understand their properties and the creative opportunities that they can offer.”

In this way, the designers at Chris Lefteri Design think of themselves as a “materials-led” design studio. Daniel and his colleagues, whose recent work includes projects on sustainability for Google, Logitech and the Finnish smart watch brand Suunto, aim to bridge the gap between the material industries and the design community, specifically working in the industries of consumer electronics, automotive and FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods).

“What we are trying to do is to turn the traditional design process around and start with the materials. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can we use a specific material to design beautiful product experiences? In this context, sustainability is pivotal,” Daniel says.

“I would personally find it very difficult to talk about products as being ‘beautiful’ or ‘user-friendly’ if they are having a massive negative impact on the environment.”

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Sustainable construction: “As an outsider, it is really interesting to see what is going on in architecture and construction in terms of sustainability.”


Increasingly relevant to recycle

Design for recycling and materials with a smaller environmental footprint are becoming increasingly relevant for those working with product design.

“We have seen how the automotive industry is trying to embrace a more modular approach to design and platform thinking to streamline manufacturing and make it easier to service and disassemble cars,” Daniel says, adding that the construction industry is also key for a more sustainable future.

“As an outsider, it is really interesting to see what is going on in architecture and construction in terms of sustainability. In a way, some of the ‘new’ concepts that are seen as key in terms of sustainable development are very well established in construction. I mean, what could be more modular than a brick?”

“One project that I love is Upcycle Studios, a recently finished housing development in Copenhagen by local architects Lendager Group. They sourced local concrete waste that they ground up and recast on site using a mobile concrete recycling station.”

According to Daniel, this level of thinking about circularity, local resources and recycling is quite rare in product design.

“One exception that I can think of is the Dutch designer Richard Hutten, who has been hired to replace all 27,000 seats at Schiphol Airport with a new design based on recycled aluminum from the current seating at the airport,” he says.

Sourced and reproduced locally, Hutten shows how aluminum’s infinite recyclability makes it a material of the future.

“For me, if there is one area where the construction industry can learn from product design, it is to really go into depth with the materials, almost at a molecular level. There is an impassioned and complex debate going on right now about the use of plastics, for example. The relative benefits and drawbacks of recycled materials vs. bio-based materials is being explored and examined very closely. I am not sure that the same level of attention is currently going into sourcing building materials.”

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The wave

When plastic waste started appearing everywhere, including in the intestines of whales, the world finally started to take the problem seriously. Politicians, researchers and producers saw the need to reconsider the use of plastic as a material in everything from cosmetics to cars.

Now, other materials are lining up to be scrutinized. With material solutions, tomorrow’s environmental standards can be solved through design. To get there, designers such as Daniel need to find a better way to use materials. That is not done in a day.

“Sometimes when we look at sustainable alternatives, the materials that we want to use might not be available in the form that we are used to,” Daniel says.

This is a challenge he is eager to find a solution for.

“From a sustainability point of view, it may make perfect sense to use aluminum instead of injection-molded plastic, for example. But the transition from plastic molding to aluminum sheet forming, extrusion, or another process altogether could be a real design challenge. At the end of the day, the earlier in the creative process that you start to think about sustainability and new materials, the easier these transitions will be to make,” he says.

Daniel calls for more critically evaluated exchange of material knowledge in the industry.

“I would like to see a lot more experimentation with sustainable materials. The biggest impact will be achieved by challenging the current status quo of convenient and common ways of making products that we tend to fall back to,” Daniel says.

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The example: Aluminum is strong, flexible and lightweight. It can be shaped in an endless amount of ways. Pictured: The design process for Tom Dixon’s aluminum chair from 2019.


Dig deeper

At Chris Lefteri Design, Daniel and the rest of his team of designers carefully recommend selected materials and processing technologies that help their clients innovate within their field. What is their forecast in the world of materials?

“To dig deeper and make a real effort to engage with suppliers, as well as understanding the debate around sustainability. At the end of day, I feel a responsibility as a designer to be able to explain and justify decisions that I make about materials and processes. In this context, open and transparent suppliers like Hydro are invaluable partners for finding ways to design more sustainably and creatively.”

With that in mind, Daniel wishes us all, designers, constructors and architects alike, to start a process by looking at materials. And to have the consumer, and the future of our planet in mind.

As we are rounding up our conversation, Daniel pulls out an example for inspiration:

“Coincidentally, I saw that Tom Dixon had designed an aluminum chair in collaboration with Hydro for the 2019 Milan Furniture Fair. For me, Tom Dixon is a great example of a designer who does not seem to care about breaking up design into separate disciplines, like the industrial design/CMF divide that I mentioned at the start of our conversation. It seems to me that he always starts with the material to see where it takes him through creative experimentation.”

At Hydro, we passionately believe in a sustainable future. In this series of articles, we talk with industry leaders and professionals and explore the theme “sustainable construction,” and how we can create the future of building and construction using technological innovations.

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