Working as an architect in Holland, there was one little mystery puzzling Els Zijlstra. Why was there no central organisation pairing up creative professionals like herself with manufacturers of the most advanced materials available?
A purist who lives a simple life on a houseboat, Els is fascinated by material and couldn’t understand why something so necessary was not already in existence. She resolved to create a network connecting design specialists with suppliers, leading to the birth of Materia.nl.
Since its inception in 1998, the group has grown steadily to become internationally renowned, representing 1200 manufacturers worldwide and boasting in excess of 100,000 members.
Together with CEO Jeroen van Oostveen, Els works closely with blue chip clients from the worlds of yachting, aerospace, fashion, the armed forces and car manufacturing, including the likes of Ferrari, BMW and Chanel.
The former university lecturer agrees that it is the simplest idea that often spawns the most successful business model. ‘I worked for five years in an architectural office and I needed this information and missed having it,’ says Els from her base in Amsterdam.
‘All the information that was available was product related not material related. ‘The manufacturers also needed a platform because they knew there were creative professionals looking for it. No-one could find each other!’
Els decided their criteria had to be rare and unusual materials that are difficult to source. ‘You have an idea and even if people are keen, it takes time to set up,’ she says with a smile. ‘We started out quite small, collecting materials and writing articles for magazines. We were asked to do an exhibition which was a big success and other countries started becoming interested in seeing our exhibition.’
Indeed, the trade fair side of the business has led to the closure of Materia’s Inspiration Centre (which was attracting up to 1,000 architects and designers a month) in favour of the Material Experience on Tour, a travelling exhibition which this year will be hosted in Holland followed by Shanghai, Brazil, Seoul, Australia and Milan.
‘Our core business is to connect the manufacturing industry with creative professionals,’ explains Jeroen. ‘We want to stimulate the use of new materials. The two areas are completely different, one part is about money, the other part is about creating. They find it difficult to communicate with each other on the same level so we connect them and they share the same love for the material.
‘We want people to feel, smell and touch materials. The internet can’t replicate that which is why we need the exhibition. At the beginning of Materia in the late 1990s, we took the exhibition to trade shows. We developed Material Experience in the Netherlands and gave other exhibitors the chance to attend. A lot of our clients are interested in going to other markets like the UK and find it difficult. That’s when we decided to take the show concept on tour. We were at METS with a few of our partners and we are reaching out to new countries all the time.
‘It is very expensive to ship materials so we take a cross section depending on the theme of the show we are attending. At METS, we had lightweight products which are interesting for the yachting community and in Shanghai, we are exhibiting at a flooring show so we will take materials that are interesting to the flooring industry.’
Little over 20 years ago, there were very few materials to choose from. Today, there are more than 2,500 materials in the collection but the criteria for inclusion in Materia’s brochure and on their website remains strict.
‘We focus on trends that are happening,’ explains Els. ‘Sustainability, bio materials, smart materials and techno transfer are just some of those we feature. Every material has to add extra value. If everybody knows about it already, it’s not interesting for us. Whether it’s technical added value, super insulating, fire resistant or has been made by a robot, something has to stand out.’
The brochure is a futuristic read. Smart materials feature in innovative artist Dan Roosegarde’s Heijman’s Intelligent Highways project, where instead of road signs, the road surface lights up to warn motorists ‘I’m hot’, ‘I’m new’ or even ‘I’m dangerous.’
‘These amazing ideas are happening here already,’ adds Els. ‘A designer or architect is not enough, you need a partner in industry who wants to innovate and take the risk with you. The Dutch government is stimulating innovation and the Netherlands is growing because of it. It’s in our DNA to create architects and designers. Dutch design is big globally, we come from a history where nothing is impossible. But cost is a factor and there are rules and regulations for everything, which only serves to stimulate the creative mind.’
Some of the quirkiest materials include Potato Cork - a bio-based fire resistant, insulating and water repellent material made from potato peelings which have been cleaned, pressed and dried - Fern, made from the leaves of the Guyabano tree in the Philippines, and Kokoboard, whose base ingredient is peanut shells. That said, plastic is the most popular material search on Materia.nl with 26% of all searches relating to it.
‘There is a lot of research going on because bio based plastics (made from renewable sources) are not as good as regular plastics yet,’ explains Els. ‘The development still has a long way to go and the cost also needs to work. You can invent whatever you want but if it’s more expensive than the regular material, it won’t sell. The big advantage with plastic is you can do everything with it. It can be hard, soft, translucent… it is such a versatile area.’
Materia also champions biomimicry - a new science that studies nature’s models and uses these designs and processes to solve human problems and challenges.
‘Personally, I am a fan of smart materials related to nature and biology without any electronic devices which are able to work in their environment,’ says Els. ‘Biomimicry is a very interesting field. Around 30 years ago, no one had heard of it but we started thinking that we should look at nature and evolution in order to solve problems in the environment. It’s interesting to see how nature deals with energy, waste, water and transport. Smart materials can solve a lot of problems.’
Clients from the yachting industry differ greatly from the rest of Materia’s general client base. Els explains: ‘A lot of materials from our collections which are interesting architecturally are not suitable for yachts. Take veneer….the yachting industry wants real wood, it doesn’t matter how much it costs. If we show them a cheaper lookalike veneer, they are not interested!
‘Because there is so much money in yachting, there is the possibility to be innovative. They can explore techniques to make materials faster and more lightweight. Wally is doing fantastic stuff. In general, sustainability is not hugely important for them but I know of some ships which are using only solar power or smart materials to generate energy from the sea waves. It’s a fascinating time.’
The quest to slow down the rate at which we are consuming materials is an important challenge which Materia take seriously, inviting experts to write articles and give talks at seminars. ‘It’s one of the big issues of our age,’ agrees Els. ‘That is the reason there are so many sustainable materials in the catalogue. You can use bio based materials which will always come back and are grown from agricultural waste or you can recycle everything.’
The long term plan is to make Materia the world’s biggest source of new materials. ‘In 70% of all innovations worldwide, materials are the key factor,’ adds Els. ‘I am happiest when I find a small industry making fantastic stuff, we publish it and show it off and they start to work with great clients.’