On Materials

I have been falling in love with materials for as long as I can remember.

When I was very young, once of my favorites was a type of colored beeswax meant for modeling. It came in two forms. The first was a set of bars in translucent, muted colors. The other form was a set of thin sheets meant for cutting out and decorating candles. The colors of these were more varied, vivid, and opaque. Both smelled wonderful, a bit like honey. The colors were beautiful. It felt clean, did not stick to my hands like other types of clay. I got to know this material intimately. I knew that before the wax had reached a certain temperature in my hands, it would crumble rather than mold itself into the shapes I wanted. Another level of discovery was that the sheets and the bars had slightly different melting properties. There was a gorgeous metallic silver and a gold sheet in the package that I reserved for details and very special projects. The metallic sheets, especially the gold, were more malleable than any of the other colors, another reason they were so special.

These properties were not held in the analytical part of my mind, it was something like learning to walk: physical, like balance, intuitive. I just knew that as the wax warmed up, I could move it in my hands more quickly. In its initial cold state, I had to mold it in slow motion so that it wouldn’t crumble; as it became softer the pressure of my fingers would increase. The way I did this came from a combination of the immediate resistance of the material and my own previous knowledge about it. The pressure of my fingers would reach an equilibrium with the resistance of the material, eventually known so well that I didn’t even have to feel the moment of resistance to know where it would be. I learned where its limits lay and I worked with them, even while searching for new techniques to use those properties.

I had a clip-on desk lamp that would become warm when it had been on for a while. I would press the wax against the surface to warm it faster, and both the metal exterior and the lightbulb developed a thin layer of sweet-smelling colors. Hot water also worked, but I knew to make sure not to mold it while wet in order to not trap water inside the wax. The hot water technique also created a fully melted outer coating than I had to then mix into the more solid core to average the malleability to something useable. I was banned from using the microwave for about a year after my parents discovered me experimenting by trying to melt a bit of wax in a plastic bottle cap. Love inspires risk-taking.

There were many other materials I loved as I grew up. Ceramic clay, soapstone, paper, felt, yarn. These days I often tend to fall for fabrics, like a charcoal-colored silk charmeuse that makes me breathe a little differently when I touch it. It is so incredible to let the atoms of my fingers encounter the atoms of these materials. I want to get to know them inside out, from how they shape and drape from a distance to how they tear and break in my hands, then all the way down to the level of threads and particles I can’t even see. It’s hard to express in words how extraordinary it is to love a material, but it’s such a powerful visceral pleasure to lose myself in it. If it weren’t for this connection to the physical world, I might be lost in my own head. But materials make me permeable, letting the world in through touch and creating things to put in it.

I associate my love for discovering and using materials with the great enjoyment of zooming out and zooming in on problems, whether with language, logic, programming, or mechanical design. I also associate it with the kind of design I like to do when I’m making physical things, intuitive rather than analytic. As much as I do love the purity of analysis, when it comes to working with the physical world, I don’t really want to plug in the malleability relative to temperature of a block of wax as variables into modeling software. I find this software invaluable to design and visualize shapes too complex to build with my hands or keep track of in my head. But the way materials move, resist, fold, and lock together works for me as an extension of my body’s senses. Answers in this space are experienced as physical shocks. Knowing how to manipulate new materials comes easily, without my being able to explain where the solutions originate.

However, I also see limitations to my objects-to-think-with. One is that I’ve tended to fall for soft materials, leaving my intuition about stresses and strains on structural materials lacking. Along the same lines, I’ve spent much more time fascinated by joins between materials: molding clay to other clay, attaching a curved fabric edge to another, locking origami shapes to themselves, than with the interactions between separated materials: rolling balls, turning gears, pulley systems. Again, I can’t “feel” the answers to questions in that space. I’m stuck with the math and the equations there, and it is a struggle rather than a pleasure. But we’re getting to know each other.