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 want to impose a shape but are in a respectful interaction, the material itself will suggest us what to do. Take for example a sheet of paper.

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

Just taking it in your hands, you immediately understand it can can be rolled or folded. But how many ways? The exploration of this simple action opens up a world of variations: different dimensions, inclinations, proportions, forms of the starting sheet, and so on. Could we have imagined all these possibilities without a thorough investigation? Likewise, many other actions can develop (rubbing, piercing, cutting, rolling, wetting …) and be combined. The richer this inventory will become, the more possibilities you will have available to creatively transform the material.

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

Paper is a material we can find in several shapes, weights and textures: each kind has got its own grammar, with some characteristics in common and other unique, specific ones. Let’s think, for example, of a toilet paper roll: the actions of folding and cutting are still possible 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, to some objects (like newspapers, magazines, old books and catalogs in the case of paper). But why should we study this “grammar”? Won’t it be boring using a material just for the sake of knowing it, without the goal of creating a specific product?

all the possible ways to transform  a magazine

In fact, dividing the search process from the product, as if they were two completely distinct phases, may seem unrealistic, since they usually go hand in hand. However, this sort of “forcing” can improve our awareness. A previous, intensive exploration is a very useful exercise, both manual and cognitive, to discover all the potential of a material, as well as its limits. Thus we will be able to make the most of its technical and expressive possibilities, as we can see in some artistic works.

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

In the case of classical artistic materials, such as clay, the “grammar” almost coincides with the “technique”: the set of rules and coded informations handed down over time, that we should know in order to avoid wasting material or for some complex works. For example, as far as clay: before cooking a piece, we need to know how to prevent air bubbles from forming, or if we want to attach pieces to each other, we need to know how to create the “slip”, and so on. But, in addition to this academic knowledge, it is still important to directly explore the material by our hands, to “understand” how it can be transformed: through what actions? With how many variations can each action be modulated? How does the material react? With what results?

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

Following a gradual increase in complexity, our exploration could go on with the encounter between two materials: what possible dialogues between two languages? The encounter with “the different” and the search for possible interactions highlight the individual identities and suggest unexpected solutions. Maybe here there is an interesting connection: can the materials represent significant metaphors of our relational patterns? There are not simplistic and linear interpretations but subtle correspondences between external and internal world, between materials and interiorities, which constitute the core of art therapy. But this would take us too far… We will take it up again.

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

Referring to the educational field, for example within a preschool, what can be the contribution of the grammar of the subject? As we have already said, the “study” of the material is usually implicit in every creative process: in other words, it is generally linked to a purpose, to the creation of a product. This holistic approach is typical of the playing and the spontaneous activities of children: the exploration of the material is always connected to all the other aspects of the child (emotional, cognitive, social…), to his needs, goals, stories, questions. So let’s the children freely play with materials, rather than proposing a focused and “structured” research on the material itself (like the examples at the beginning of the article). A more specific investigation could be suggested within some contexts, possibly like a game. Here is an example.

“Can a sheet of paper stand up?” I asked to a small group of children, triggering an amusing research into the structural possibilities of paper through folding. Every child found a different solution, which than we observed together, testing its balance and stability. “Are there other different ways to make it stand? How many can we find?”

So why would it be so important – for us adult educators – to experiment the “grammar” of matter, since we can not present it to children in a direct and structured way? Because this knowledge will anyway influence our way of proposing materials, understanding how they are used, setting up contexts, relaunching.
Here is another short example. In a four-year-old classroom, children wanted a small bookcase to collect their books in a clearly visible and accessible way. We had a big box and some shoe boxes to build it: how to proceed?

how to build a bookcase with a big box

We observed the big box for a while, but its “monolithic” structure gave us no help or idea. “And if we tried to take it apart?” This question made ta deep exploration of the box start, regardless of its usual form and function. We opened it, turned it over, upside down, folded it, in all possible ways. At this point, it was easy to find an idea and then define its details. Indeed, perhaps it was the box itself to suggest us the solution.

how to build a bookcase with a big box

At all levels, from a school activity to the industrial design of an object, 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”, a good way to learn this approach is 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 “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. I would like to add that it will be very useful to anyone interested in discovering the grammar of matter: the natural laws that allow us to use materials respecting their limits and enhancing their potential.

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

If you would like to interact with me and other interested people about this subject, you are very welcome to join the Facebook group the grammar of matter, where we can share experiences, questions, images, ideas. You can also subscribe to the neswletter in the footer below to keep updated on the latest posts. Of course the invitation is opened to all interested people.
See you soon for the next chapter of the grammar and enjoy your exploration!