Need a new polymer (or glass, metal, or fiber)? Material Connexion is a petting zoo for the latest, greatest resources known to humans

New materials are born every day—in manufacturing plants, laboratories, and basements around the world—all of them with infinite possible applications. The problem is: How do you get them into the hands of designers and architects, who have the vision to put them to use but no time to seek them out?
That’s where Andrew Dent (right) comes in—the Cambridge-educated materials scientist behind Material ConneXion. It’s a vast physical library full of innovative materials, with branches in New York, Milan, Cologne, and Bangkok. The founder, George Beylerian, a onetime Egyptian merchant and Italian furniture importer, conceived it in 1997 as a “petting zoo for materials.” It’s a place where designers can get lost in a veritable wonderland of exciting new polymers, glass, metals, and natural fibers—the way a chef might at an open-air greenmarket. The basic premise: inspire more creativity by exposing designers to possibilities they didn’t even know existed.

“Innovation has a very special place in our hearts,” says Dent, who’s in charge of seeking out the materials. “The best part of our business is that we get to see it up close, and the way to become an expert at anything is to literally live with it.”
Dent’s henchmen scour the Earth for new products, and a jury of creative professionals decide which ones are inventive and resilient enough to make it into the library. About 4,000 materials have made the cut so far, with 500 new additions each year. The concept works like a gym: members pay an annual fee to get access to the libraries (which also have a cheaper online equivalent). Then, the company offers “personal trainers” for clients with complicated needs. Dent and Beylerian don’t take money from manufacturers because they want the selection process to be unbiased. “We don’t care if it’s from DuPont or some guy in his garage,” says Dent, “We just want the most exciting products.”

But Material ConneXion does more than just play matchmaker. Letting designers browse virtually every innovation on the planet under one roof has led to some serious cross-fertilization, like Nike Jordans (lower right) that feature a mesh once exclusive to the cable industry, and cosmetic packaging for Aveda that uses post-industrial polypropylene typically found in outdoor decking. After all, in the library, the materials are free of context, so designers can only consider the inherent qualities of the material itself. Now, Dent says he’s seen the birth of a new era where the material dictates the design, rather than the other way around. But what really gets the materials scientist up in the morning are those rare moments when he comes across something he can’t wrap his head around. Most recently, that was injection-molded plastic chain mail. “My quest is to find something that, when I look at it, I just have no idea how they did it,” he says. “Those are the real ‘wow’ moments for me.” —Ian Daly



“The best part of our business is that we get to see it up close, and the way to become an expert at anything is to literally live with it.”