The Interviews

Chris Lefteri


The Future of Product Innovation

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts

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It has been said that our material possessions define who we are, and I suppose that’s true to an extent. But have you ever considered what your stuff is made of and what happens to it after you dispose of it? Thankfully, there are now a lot of industrial designers out there who take this into consideration when they design products. One such person leading the charge is Chris Lefteri, a leading authority on materials and application of materials in design.

After studying industrial design at the Royal College of Art in London, his interest in materials kind of turned into an obsession. He studied and began writing about the materials we use in everyday products and, in essence, turned himself into an expert on the topic. Lefteri is the author of eight books on design and material innovation, most notably the Materials for Design series, which examines different qualities and features of materials.

At his studio, Chris Lefteri Design, he designs products and advises clients on the best practices in regards to materials for their offerings so they can make the most informed choices in regards to how their products are made. The studio works with clients in several industries including automotive, packaging, sports, furniture, consumer electronics, and fashion.

Lefteri is a senior lecturer at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, and he conducts workshops at his Materials Design Lab, where he introduces participants to a range of materials and the ways they can be used.

How did you become such an expert in materials?

When I was as student at the Royal College of Art, I was always interested in the emotive value of products and how you could change the way people reacted to a product through simply changing the materials that make up the product. I was mainly interested in how this could be achieved through simple forms and gestures, and a user having a relationship with an object in the way that you use it—how this can change the way that you feel about the object. It was only when I left college, that I started to think about how no one had really approached the subject of the role of materials in design. It was curiosity that made me into a materials designer, and it was only through embarking on the process of writing a book that I became, to a small degree, an expert.

What is your favorite material to work with and why?

I don’t really have a favorite material. Most materials can offer surprises when you work with them. In a way, it’s the simplest materials that are the most fascinating and the materials that are the most accessible to work with. The materials that don’t really need machines, but can be crafted by hand. When I am running a workshop I often ask participants what their favorite material memory from childhood is, and the answers that come up most often are those materials that could be manipulated by hand. The materials that empowered children to craft, or to draw, or to just play. Things like wood or chalk being used to draw on the pavement or plasticine.

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One material that I tend to show at all my workshops is one that was developed by designer Sarat Babu, which is not really a material, but is my favorite use of a material. It shows what happens when you take fairly common materials and do something new with them. You can see a video here.

Here are some images of a project that I ran with design students in Singapore based on crafting a simple material. Each student was given the same wooden rice spoon and asked to remove as much material as possible (the spoon had to still be strong enough to pick up sticky cooked rice), and then tell a story of what led them to this shape.

Do you tend to specify natural materials over synthetic materials for certain products?

We don’t break down materials into these headings. Because something is natural doesn’t mean it is better.

For sure the material family that is seeing the biggest explosion in innovation are those materials that are making use of the waste from natural materials used in industry. One of the most fascinating for me is a plastic that is made from chicken feathers—the by-product of the food industry. Six million chickens are killed every single day for food in the USA alone.

Another innovation is from designer Alkesh Parmar who used the peel from the production of orange juice to create a new plastic. On a more technical level Fiorenzo Omenetto is looking at taking the optical properties of silk—which makes it shimmer—and using this as data storage.

In terms of how often we get to use these materials, it’s very rare. Even new bio-based materials that are widely available are hard to come by in a product. I wish I could say that our clients request more sustainable materials, but I’m afraid they don’t. Many large corporations are still totally driven by cost and consumer demands. If more consumers demanded more sustainable materials clients would use them.

What kind of testing do you do at your studio?

We tend to test materials by prodding them, by hitting them, by squeezing them, by holding them up to light or stretching them. By doing this we can really find out quite a lot about what the potential application might be and the value for a user. We also test materials by taking innovations in processing and applying those to existing materials.

It’s often a misconception that innovation can only come from a new material, when new is often born out of processing a material in a new way.

Another rule that we follow for creating new materials is to put existing materials into a totally different application. For example, taking a material from the medical industry and finding a use for it in some wearable tech

What do you find is the biggest challenge/barrier for product designers when it comes to working with clients, in terms of the materials they specify?

The biggest challenge for designers in using new materials is to find the right suppliers, and to convince their clients in large corporations to buy into why they should do that bit of extra work to specify the new material. Overcoming the idea that it’s going to be a headache for supply chain, for procurement or engineers, and more work than just sticking with materials they already know.

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Here’s a room diffuser that I designed for BASF last year for the home of the future. In the past homes were designed around function. The traditional fireplace was the center-piece and social focus of the room in addition to providing an element essential to survival.

Our future homes will be a place where well-being and health monitoring have moved from the wrist to become a product that is as important in the home as the fireplace was to our evolution, from function to emotional well-being.

The product is centered around the user’s well-being and responds to an individual’s emotional needs, deriving an element of awareness of their emotions and responding through mood lighting, aromas, and time. Using a combination of facial recognition software and touch recognition technology, the diffuser tells how the user feels and creates lighting and aromas to respond to the user’s emotional needs.

Are the best materials the most expensive?

It depends what you mean by best. But, as a rule absolutely not. It’s not really about the material, it’s how the material is used. Some of the biggest innovations come from the simplest materials that have been developed into a product through being processed in a totally new way.

What, in your opinion, is the worst material on the planet and why?

The one that takes the longest to produce and is used in a product with the shortest lifespan before it is discarded.

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Originally published on January 31, 2017