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!)

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