The Grammar of Matter

Every material has got a set of specific characteristics and qualities resulting from its nature, that defines its limits and potential as well as its range of possible transformations, reversible or not. It is what I call a kind of “natural grammar”, meaning some inner rules that can be empirically investigated. How?

Observing and transforming the material with a friendly approach, remaining attuned to its nature, with the curiosity and discretion of a guest. If we do not impose a shape but are in a respectful interaction, the material itself will suggest us what to do. A sheet of paper, for example.

all the possible ways to fold a sheet of paper
Pictures from the book ” Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form ” by Paul Jackson

Just taking it in your hands, you will immediately guess it can be rolled or folded. In how many ways? The exploration of this simple actions open up endless variations: you can try different dimensions, inclinations, proportions, forms of the starting sheet, and so on. We couldn’t imagine all these possibilities without an hands-on investigation.

The same applies to many other actions, that we can develop (rubbing, piercing, cutting, rolling, wetting …) and combine. The richer our inventory will become, the more available choices we will have for creatively transforming the material.

some possible ways to transform a sheet of paper
Pictures from the book “Il gioco creativo – 1 La carta” by E. Rottger and D. Klante, Il Castello Edizioni

Paper comes in several shapes, weights and textures: the grammar of each type of paper has got some characteristics in common (with all the papers) and some different, specific ones. Let’s think, for example, of a toilet paper roll: the actions of folding and cutting are still possible (like in a sheet of paper) but influenced by the cylindrical shape and the weight of the cardboard, thus effecting different results.

all the possible ways to transform  a toilet paper roll

The same goes for whatever material, artistic, waste or everyday, from the simplest to the most complex and structured one, to some objects (like newspapers, magazines, books ord catalogs in the case of paper).

But why is it important to explore the “grammar” of a material? Won’t it be boring using a material just for the sake of it, without the goal of a specific product?

all the possible ways to transform  a magazine

A deep exploration of the identity of materials is really enjoyable and useful to discover all their transformative potential, that than can be used for whatever goal or context. Thus we will be able to make the most of its technical and expressive possibilities.

Art works by Stefano Arienti
Art works by Stefano Arienti
Art works by Zbigniew Salaj
Art works by Zbigniew Salaj

In some cases, such as clay, the “grammar” mostly coincides with what we call “technique”: a set of rules and coded informations handed down over time, necessary for more complex works. For example, before cooking a piece of clay, we need to know how to avoid air bubbles to prevent the piece from breaking, and so on. But, in addition to this knowledge, it is still important to directly explore the material firsthand, for understanding its nature: how can it be transformed? Through what actions? How does the material react? With what results?

some possible ways to transform a piece of clay
Pictures from the book “Il gioco creativo – 3 La ceramica” by E. Rottger and D. Klante, Il Castello Edizioni

Following a gradual increase in complexity, our exploration can go on with the encounter between two or more materials: what possible dialogues between two languages and grammars? The encounter with “diversity” reveals even better the specific identity of each material and brings unexpected solutions. Maybe these dialogues between materials can represent a significant metaphor of our relational patterns as human beings. Of course, there are not simplistic and linear interpretations, but subtle correspondences between external and internal world, very interesting to be deepened. You can find more about this in the post “Dialogue with a sheet of paper”.

some possible ways to use clay and cardboard together
some possible ways to use clay and other materials together
Atelier of the Loris Malaguzzi Center, Reggio Emilia

At all levels, from the educational field to the industrial design, using a material with a respectful approach towards its nature generates a more authentic, ecological relationship with it, as well as a more pleasant and coherent aesthetic result.

As Bruno Munari explained in his book “Da cosa nasce cosa”, we can learn this kind of approach by observing nature. Simple shapes like a drop of water, or more complicated ones like that of the praying mantis, are all built according to laws of constructive economy. In a bamboo cane the thickness of the material, the decreasing diameter, its elasticity, the arrangement of the nodes, all of these respond to precise economic laws: if it was stiffer it would break, more elastic it would not bear the weight of the snow. There is a limit we cannot go beyond, in the sense of constructive simplicity.

The orange fruit as example of perfect packaging by Bruno Munari

For example, the traditional blown glass bottle has a logical form in relation to the material: in fact its shape is nothing but the shape of the drop of molten glass, dilated by the blower. This means that it is a logical form, where the thickness is uniform over the entire surface, such as in soap bubbles. You can’t make a square bottle with blown glass, because the square shape is unnatural compared to the expansion process of this incandescent magma which is glass.

Picture from the book “Da cosa nasce cosa” by Bruno Munari, Laterza

Thus, it seems that an “exact” thing is also beautiful. This is why the observation of natural forms is very useful to designers, who learn to use materials for their technical characteristics, according to their nature, and not to use iron where wood would be better, and so on.

Discovering the grammar of matter allows us to use a material respecting its limits and enhancing its potential. It allows an meaningful dialogue with matter, for anyone interested in a creative and interactive relationship with the world.

how to represent trees with a string
Picture from the book “Saremo alberi” by Mauro Evangelista, Artebambini

Click here for exploring the Grammar of Matter through my Course, where I have condensed my experience about materials (20% off for Newsletter Subscribers!)

You are also welcome to join the Facebook group The Grammar of Matter for sharing ideas.

Paper theaters for traveling workshops

I am emotionally attached to this little theatre, one of the first paper objects I designed and self-produced. It is a kit for traveling collage workshops, with both a practical and aesthetic-scenographic function. If closed, it becomes a kind of easy-to-carry folder, which contains the materials for the workshop. If opened, it becomes a theater. The side horizontally positioned becomes a “stage” where some paper are placed and made available for the activity. The vertical sides show some examples of works made with the same kind of paper. It would be optimal to have a certain number of theaters dedicated to different types of paper: for example only white paper (or black and white), colored, from smooth to rough, metallic, semi-transparent, textured, etc.

A collage-theater for black and white paper, and one for colored paper

The following drawing represents the construction scheme. The dashed lines correspond to foldings (consider the thickness of the cardboard while folding). The circles indicate the points that must be pierced and joined (using automatic push-buttons or “split pins”).

The construction-scheme of the collate-theater
The assembly steps

The photos below show how to close the theater so that it becomes a sort of folder. After having completely opened the structure, the “stage” (the horizontal side) is turned upwards; the side parts are first folded in half and then towards the center.

The closing steps

The theaters offer a panorama of the specific expressive characteristics of different types of paper with a great visual impact, stimulating curiosity and experimentation. No need for much explanation … The curtain opens and the scissors dance can begin!

Two collage-theaters

Collecting precious findings

What is this object for? Collecting, transporting and displaying small two-dimensional findings – pieces of paper, fabrics, leaves, tickets, musical scores, precious fragments, memories. It can also be a scenographic support for telling stories, using the findings as clues that accompany the story sequences. In the pictures below you can see the “cut-and-fold” technique and the scheme used to make the structure.

A paper archive to collect and show small precious findings

Two “collectors” can be joined together by gluing the vertical sides, in order to have more findings available and to make the structure more stable. It is also preferable to glue a cardboard (with a central fold) on the two sides (that are the horizontal base), to facilitate closing and opening. The archive flattens out like a book and can be easily transported, despite its big size when opened that makes it very scenic and effecting.

Using this tool or other kinds of collectors, a tiny fragment becomes precious. It can also stimulates the theoretical reconstruction of imaginary objects that Bruno Munari describes in his book “Obvious Code”. What can arise from fragments of remains, following a random investigation method on forms, materials and structures? Not scientific reconstructions, but freely suggested by the fragment itself and scrupulously completed by the imagination, in order to make the entire imagined object visible.


And what about you? What kind of collectors do you prefer? You are welcome to explore and share!

What’s the sound of paper?

Colors, shapes, textures, consistency, hardness or softeness, weight, dimension, smells, sounds… Each material speaks to us through all our senses, but above all, we are used to consider the visual informations. Here I would like to share my investigation about an often overlooked aspect of a material I love: the sound of paper. How many action can we do creating different sounds with paper? Let’s try.

  • Crumpling
    Every action made with a different type of paper will produce different sound nuances. Reopening the paper and crumpling up again, will the noise be the same? You can collect various pieces of waste paper and crumple them, one after another, in a kind of sound farewell ritual before throwing them away.
  • Shaking
    Make the sheet vigorously oscillate in the air with one hand.
    The sound changes according to different dimensions and thickness of the sheet of paper.
  • Tearing
    You can draw the direction and the lenght of the tear, mark the stops, change speed and rhythm of tearing.
  • Rustling
    Have you ever tried to quickly leaf through the pages of a book? It makes a very nice sound… Here are some books I created in order to increase the rustling-sound, made of different kind of very “noisy” paper.

The pages can be cut in different size, so that it is easier to leaf through the book, investigating different sounds and finger movements. It is also possible to alternate strips of various types of paper in the same book, or to differentiate strips of the same type by glueing small objects, in order to increase the rustle. You can play a “Rustling Book” holding it by the bound side and shaking it, making it swing, pinching the pages with different rhythms.

Rustling books

Another kind of sound-paper-object is the Accordion Book. It is made by folding orthogonally two strips of paper joined at one end, as you can see in the picture below. Once the bending is finished, a thicker cardboard has been glued on the two ends. A rubber band fixed in the two cardboard pages will be used to insert the hands. You can play it holding both ends, then opening and closing it horizontally or outwards. Otherwise placing it on a table, then opening and closing it vertically with one hand.

accordion-book
Accordion book

You can also make a sound-book with a descriptive-narrative function that accompanies a story telling with some relevant noises at the right time.
“…she was going through the woods…” (rustling of crepe paper leaves)
“…and branches broke as he passed…” (crumpling of baking paper)

Sound-book

“…they slowly got out of their beds…” (rolled and unrolled toilet paper)
“…and and they ran fast on the gravel road…” (sandpaper imprints crawling on a rough surface)
“…till the land of the silence song.” (the book closes)

sound-book

“In ancient times life was immersed in silence. Today, however, it is always accompanied by noise: everything we have around produces a noise. The noise is therefore a familiar experience to our ears, while the musical sound represents an occasional element, built in its perfection, not very spontaneous, limited. Finally, let’s break the narrow boundaries of pure sounds to venture into the infinite variety of sounds and noises. The noise that comes to us confused, irregular and always different, holds innumerable surprises. Let’s learn to listen it … “


“The art of noises” by Luigi Russolo, 1913

*

Subscribe to take a 20% OFF coupon for the Grammar of Matter Course!
Take a 20% OFF coupon for the Grammar of Matter Course!