“It all began with Matter. It’s what we’re made of. Solids, liquids, gases, synthetics, and the unknown. Everything is made of something.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking these were the opening lines of a compelling work of science fiction, not the manifesto for a creative consultancy that explores the potential of materials, but nothing about Ma-tt-er fits any traditional model for design.
“As humanity continues to overexert Earth’s finite resources,” the manifesto continues, “we must reconsider the definition of waste. Most materials have an infinite lifecycle; they can be reused, reformed, and redesigned with a new purpose.”
Ma-tt-er is the brainchild of Seetal Solanki, a London-based textile designer who spent the best part of the last decade creating fabrics for clients like Missoni, Pucci, Hussein Chalayan, and Alexander McQueen. But after 12 years in the industry, she got to thinking deeply about the whys and wherefores of her career, and decided to make a change.
“Textiles is a funny one because it’s not understood as clearly as, say, fashion or architecture. It’s not like I can say I’m a fashion designer, because I’m not—I understand it, but I wouldn’t be able to create a garment from scratch. But textiles and the materials world isn’t really recognized as being something, yet it’s part of everything we do.
“You, for example, whether you’re writing on a piece of paper or on a computer, it’s all made from a material. Or with food: the plates it’s sat on, how it’s made, and the process of manufacturing is all connected. I call it the cog in the wheel. Without it none of these industries would be able to turn, because it all stems from either a process or a material, and it carries so much weight. It really informs design.”
It doesn’t take a great leap to see how an in-depth understanding of materials would be integral to certain industries. But Solanki says she’s surprised by how often they’re neglected. “I think some industries really get it,” she says. “The automotive industry definitely recognizes the necessity of it. There’s an actual role within the industry that deals with color, materials, and finish, and I was one of those designers for Nissan many years ago. But that kind of thinking needs to be applied across the board.
“Within architecture they absolutely understand materials, but there’s not a role that exists within companies to really think about them. A lot of the time it’s just an afterthought, and I think that’s true in most industries. If they applied ideas about materials around the concept stage it would make more sense and provide a more purposeful result.”
This all makes sense in a 3D space, but is it equally relevant in the realm of graphics and the applied arts? Solanki thinks so. Working in print requires decisions about what type of paper is used, its texture and weight in the hand, and how it responds to different uses. The ink on that paper will perform differently depending on its composition, if it’s paired with an emboss, a varnish, or combined with a foil. All of these decisions pertain to the individual makeup of materials.
The same can be said of the digital sphere. Decisions about programming languages, platforms, user interface, and experience are all informed by the quality of a few simple materials.
Solanki has found this useful to bear in mind while designing the Ma-tt-er website herself. “That in itself has been about communication—how you communicate what a material is. So we’ve chosen to do it through the periodic table. Everything is made of something, so we communicated that by thinking about all the different materials that exist in our world and how we associate with them. It’s very human, the approach we take.”
Communicating what they do online is one thing, but central to Ma-tt-er’s success has been its ability to engage in the real world, with public events, talks, and workshops. “I think it really solidifies what we do when something physical happens or an activity happens,” says Solanki, “because you’re interpreting with the material itself and understanding how it can be used.”
The hands-on approach appears to be working. The studio has attracted a raft of high profile clients like Unilever and Ikea looking to rethink the way they use materials to increase the sustainability of their business. But Solanki also works with smaller clients much closer to home, like unisex fashion retailer Open As Usual, for which she’s currently designing an identity, events series, website plan, and materials library to reinforce the ethos of the brand.
Elsewhere she’s working on wayfinding in a concept space that combines a restaurant, wine bar, clothing boutique, and vinyl lounge, using materials associated with these different themes to inform how visitors navigate the space. “We’re going to use food-based materials toward the restaurant, and then fabric with different weights that will be dyed with ingredients from the wine, and acoustic materials in the vinyl lounge. It’s all about finding a way to navigate using materials that have a relationship to where you’re going. It’ll be very sensual, but intuitive hopefully.”
And of course in these spaces too, Ma-tt-er designs with sustainability in mind. “I think sustainable design should be the only way we do things,” says Solanki, “it shouldn’t be a choice.”