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Entries in material world (10)


material world: acrylic

Formulated in the mid-1800’s, acrylic has evoked modernity since it was first commercially developed in the early 1900’s.

Scientifically, clear acrylic is a generic term for PMMA—synthetic polymer of methyl methacrylate; while Lucite®—MMA—is trademarked. The key difference is at the chemical, base level and is apparent in how both are best used. Acrylic is usually formed into sheets while Lucite® is typically hand-cast, almost crystal clear, often deliberately made with inclusions.

Swatch store door handle, Milanphoto by: ellenm1In the 20’s and 30’s, new materials and technologies were exploited and stream- lined Art Deco designs were the perfect form as modern- ism exploded on the scene.

First marketed in 1936, it’s been used in many places for many items—but none more than replacing glass for safety reasons.

Having few reactions with human tissue, specifically in and around the eyes, splinters from acrylic sheets were far less harmful if impacted. This realization opened the door to over-sized sheeting for public aquariums and guards around ice hockey rinks—not to mention contact lenses and safer shields for helmets and airplanes. Remember the war-time montage from It’s a Wonderful Life when “Sam Wainwright made a fortune in plastic hoods for planes.”?

photo by: pablo sanchezphoto by: karen horten

The terms acrylic, Lucite®, plexi-glass, are often used interchangeably with clear resin recently added to the group as technology evolves.

Starting around 1957-75—around the time of the space race and disco days—‘ultra-modern’ goods were revived and further developed as home furnishings. In the past few years, acrylic and Lucite® have gained favor in women’s fashions—especially in shoe heels this year.

Besides chrome, few materials have an undeniable and unmistakable air of modernity as acrylic. Its streamlined nature is perfectly married to sleek profiles—which open the imagination to multi-uses in a variety of spaces.

For small spaces, acrylic peekaboo and format collections are must-haves with their nominal visual weight—not to mention a “goes anywhere, goes with anything” attitude.


material world: flatware

photo by: saintpo2007Knives are the oldest and most basic of all kitchen utensils. Primitive utility knives were used for almost everything—to hunt and harvest, chop and carve. It was the most important tool anyone could own because of its usefulness.

Not surprisingly, the more one could afford the more ornate the knife. Being so readily available, wood handled versions were the least expensive. Ivory and horn were as prized as trophies and often uniquely carved. But all metal versions were the most expensive using only precious metals. Typically they were monogrammed to identify the proud owner.

Not too far behind, spoons developed as diets evolved. And last, the fork started as a simple two tined—or pronged—utensil used to dig into bones or shells for meat or to rescue it from the cooking fire. Eventually three and four tined versions became standard since they performed better.

As wealth increased in middle and upper classes, homes increased in comfort and home goods were made to address specific tasks. Knives remained prized possessions over other utensils often being stored under lock and key in sturdy wooden boxes to guard against thievery. Typical flatware sets consisted of only simple forks and spoons since knives were custom.

photo by: geishaboy500

At the height of the Victorian era, dinner courses soared from one to as many as ten and etiquette declared that no foods should be picked up by the fingers so placesettings could include fish knives, berry spoons or lettuce forks.

Spoons became as varied as today’s wine glass shapes with different versions for bouillon and gumbo. Luncheons required their own unique, often smaller, utensils including spoons specific to sugar, various teas and coffees which were being imported from exotic faraway lands.

After the 1920s, as wealth and luxury were checked by economics, efficient mass production and everyday life with less hired help all joined to give rise to the modern 5-piece placesetting.

As new production techniques were developed, silverplating became popular for everyday use while sterling is still for special occasions or formal entertaining. Markings of 18/10 or 18/8 stainless steel refer to the amount of chromium and nickel included. For example, flatware stamped 18/8 combines 18% chromium for durability and hardness with 8% nickel for shine and luster. Lastly, a shiny or matte look is achieved in the final processes by either polishing or brushing the metal.

CB2 pattern 518 flatware

For Cloud Gate, Anish Kapoor’s first public outdoor sculpture in the US, steel plates were riveted to a frame then polished to a mirror finish hiding the joints.


material world: angle iron

photo: While iron is a chemical element—atomic number 26, Fe in Mendeleev’s periodic table—steel is an alloy or a mixture of various elements. Sometimes the names are used interchangeably since they’re both heavy metals, but they are different.

Steel often contains carbon for hardness and strength, carbon steel, which is actually stronger than iron.

Efficient mass production techniques were developed in the 1800’s and steel production moved from the town “smithy” or blacksmith, to large smelting factories.

The industrial age dawned as stronger, more durable metal was used instead of wood to build taller buildings, larger ships, longer bridges. Train tracks were laid across the country opening up the west.

As industrialists provided the fundamentals for progress, architects’ imaginations went wild with bold ideas to use these newfound materials.

For example, built as an entrance for the 1889 World’s Fair which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, the Eiffel Tower was originally a temporary structure. Today it’s a communication tower broadcasting radio and TV signals—via 120 antennas—not to mention one of the most instantly recognizable structures in the world.

Using Bessemer steel beams, steel cages became the framework supporting the weight of skyscrapers. Previously, buildings were only a few stories tall because the outside walls could only carry so much weight—back then, all the weight of a building.

Today, steel is one of the most commonly used materials in the world for buildings, bridges and tunnels, tools and weapons, automobiles and machines, appliances and household goods—including refined industrial furniture.

Construction grade angle iron is actually steel that’s formed into an “L” shape which further increases its strength. It’s not only the functional framework for the bolt dining table, it’s also the form with raised lettering and exposed hardware, details of this architectural material.


material world: mirrors

Calm water was most likely the first source of one’s reflection–which eventually led to narcissism named after the Greek god Narcissus.

Over time, many advances were made in the development of mirrors which led to today’s pristine versions. If you’ve ever seen dark, spotty antique mirrors, imagine what crude reflections the Romans saw from blown glass coated with molten lead. became a center of mirror production in the 1500s using new techniques based on its glass-making expertise. Not long after, owning them became a luxury and status symbol which helps explain the decadent Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

Obviously they’re one of the most reliable ways of making a room appear larger. In the 70s however, mirrors were a literal reflection of disco and Glam Rock as their floor to ceiling sparkle overwhelmed many a sunken living room. For a modern look to increase space visually, consider infinity mirrors.

It’s no surprise that original Feng Shui beliefs were that mirrors related to the element of water and can increase or shift energy flow. In recent decades, proper placement in Western homes became just as relevant as yoga and green teas.

Today, “spy” mirrors—convex glass reflecting a wider area than flat glass—are most often used for safely allowing a peak around a corner. But they’re a whimsical touch when placed in an eclectic, sophisticated room.


material world: terracotta

Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, 210BCDirectly translated, terracotta is baked earth. A material that’s literally as old as the hills, its been used for centuries to make everything from simple pottery to over 8000 soldiers which form the Terracotta Army. Between those two extremes—a vast array of building bricks, roof shingles, and cladding on steel supported skyscrapers.

After the Chicago fire of 1871, the need to rebuild the city allowed it to become a lab for technological advances in architecture at the same time steel became more readily available for building construction. The modern sky- scraper was born and clad in decorative glazed and unglazed terracotta. Hence the architect Louis Sullivan’s coined phrase, “form ever follows function”.

photo courtesy of flickr/yeowatzupPreviously it had been used in the building and decoration of the Forbidden City in the 1400s and plaques in Mesopotamia around 1950BC. Whether baked in the sun or high fired in a kiln, often terracotta is unglazed and textural. Its porosity makes it perfect for potted plants since it can absorb and hold water like a sponge, then feed them naturally over time.

For vernazza, terracotta is molded into a sleek modern dinnerware profile void of all ornamentation. The beauty of the design is in the detail of the proportions and the stark contrast between the warm unglazed terracotta body and the glazed soft-gray center.

And just as durable terracotta pottery survived thousands of years—dating as far back as 3000-1500BC—vernazza easily goes from the refrigerator to the oven or microwave. So yes, its safe in the dishwasher.

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