Why aluminium is a material that designers like me cannot live without
What I like about extrusions is that you can keep the beauty of the aluminium where it can be seen, and if you wish, can conceal the functionality inside. There is also the precision of extrusion. Aluminium holds its own in this respect.
When I was growing up, aluminium was primarily seen used for siding and roof on houses and barns, in areas that didn’t have trees to make shingles. Now as I look out my car window in midtown Manhattan, I see four fantastic skyscrapers, all aluminium and glass. Nearly all modern skyscrapers are clad in aluminium.
The aluminium siding of yesterday is in skyscrapers today. It’s beautiful.
What can I achieve with aluminium?
I have always loved materials in general. You love to understand all materials, their characteristics. What can they do? What can’t they do? What is the proper use? What are the proper finishes?
The first car I bought was a Ford Flathead V8-60. The flat cylinder heads that Ford designed for its engine were cast aluminium, and I loved them. This was perhaps my entry into industrial design. And this is when I started realizing how beautiful the contrasts in materials could be, like aluminium and stainless steel. But where stainless steel could be cold and off-putting, aluminium was a material you could really embrace.
We have a social hierarchy of materials that is part of our culture. Like gold, being so important. And the extraordinary attraction we have to anything silver or shiny. Humans and animals, too, are attracted to shiny things. My wife has aluminium jewelry that is as lovely as anything you can find.
The quality of aluminium really takes me – the material, the finishes. That you can CNC a chunk of material into an amazing shape, finish it off with satin blasting and polishing, anodize the whole thing. It would be very hard to find another material that is as aesthetically beautiful. With aluminium, you get to that point very quickly.
Keeping the value of aluminium through reuse
People talk a lot about sustainability today. We should. It is needed. But sustainability should be implied and obvious. It should not be used as a marketing tool.
Sustainability is not something new. It was here well before the industrial revolution. People took care of their things. It was only when you got into the middle part of, say, the 1900s, when we experienced a boom in production, where our problem was growth by consumption.
As we move forward, I believe that aluminium has a bright future because it can be easily reused. This is not just a narrative. It is a reality. Personally, I want to feel good about using a material that can be returned and used for something else when it is finished as a product. This really means a lot to me.
We should be able to use things again in another way. This is part of my job as a designer. It behooves the designer to think about how he or she can continue to make use of their product in another way. Or as the fantastic things you can find at good flea markets.
A responsibility to look ahead
My process with design is this: I spend a lot of time just looking at stuff. Seeing how people do things. Sometimes I take out a piece of paper and just start drawing. It gets me thinking. Thoughts, products. And then I think about the opposites.
I would say that half of the time, I get a product idea. And I never throw away an idea.
Sometimes having a solution starts from a problem, and this gives ideas about products. If I come up with an idea, then I look for the business opportunity. And see where it goes. Sometimes the idea works, sometimes no, not yet. And sometimes the public reaches a point where that idea is now valid.
Right now, I am looking at street signs. OK, nothing special. And at the protection they put around trees, which I have to say could be better. At the traffic lights – red, yellow and green. With LED lighting, you could go from three light fixtures to one. My assumption is that this would save cities around a billion dollars. And then you think: Why do we need traffic lights at all? With self-driving cars, the colored lights could be on your windshield.
The industrial designer has a responsibility to look ahead.