New surfaces? Creativity emerges in production

reading time: 6 minutes

Effects and Materials in Design: How to Map Out the Trends of Tomorrow - 1

interview with Baolab

Manuela Bonaiti and Emma Clerici are the founders of Baolab, a strategic design studio established in Milan in 2007, which works on colours, materials, surfaces and trend forecasting for companies. After many collaborations, they are more convinced than ever that creativity is inextricably linked to an in-depth understanding of production processes.

From the intangible to the tangible, what’s your mission?
In our line of work, concepts like “strategy”, “marketing”, “target” and “positioning” are the starting point, but the creative process comes to life in colour charts, materials and finishes, so in tangible elements. Our materials library reveals a lot about the work we do day to day; the walls of our studio in Brera are lined in their entirety with a myriad of drawers and compartments, each containing a different material. It’s a world that inspires us and helps us to define lines of research which we then transfer to the work we do for clients (who include Audi, Bulgari, Luxottica, Moleskine, AGC, Technogym, Et. al., Bormioli, among many others).

How do you work on materials? Where do you start?
We’re always fascinated by understanding the potential of a given material and so our first contact is usually with the company’s research and development division. Tools, which are the machines that give materials an identity, are always a fundamental starting point. We can take a two-pronged approach: focusing on the aesthetic aspect, which we can express through colours and finishes, as well as on the actual production process. We work with lots of manufacturing companies and what repeatedly comes across is the pride that they, as a brand, take in their factories, talking about them with genuine enthusiasm. Discovering amidst the countless complex stages involved in production that a press can make an imprint at a different angle, resulting in totally new light effects on the surface, is for us real innovation: it’s manufacturing creativity, and that alone can open new avenues.

Reined in by customs and economic constraints, it’s often a struggle to unleash the design energy of the technicians who work on machines and processes, but it’s important to always remind them that they’re making a contribution to creative development, and that the beauty of the product is also largely down to their work.

Large or small surfaces: how do you work on scalability?
If you’re working on a material then the relationship with size, the scales in which it’s proposed, is one of the basic building blocks of the project. We work on CMF – colours, material and finishes – and those working in this field take it for given that colour has its own volume and depending on how much you use, it gives the product a very different character. When you work on materials, any shifts from micro to macro mean that you need to pay particular attention to the chromatic apparatus. With woven materials it’s easier because they’re designed to be produced in large formats, in very big, long rolls. Patterns also make a difference on work at different scales. Changes in dimension fall within the meaning and aesthetic identity of products: if I’m working on leather I know that I can envisage objects ranging from sofas to small accessories, while if I’m working on a slab I know that I’ll be installing it in physical spaces or even on facades, so I draw on a completely different universe of values, with major implications on the project and the positioning of the material created.

Is it possible to identify trends at this time of transition?
The COVID-19 health emergency has upset various paradigms. One aspect which has been subverted is our relationship with the domestic environment and with objects; sensory relationships have increased, as opposed to in-person relations between people, which have diminished. The things we have around us are important, and the more we shift towards virtual relationships, the dearer those objects become to us. Also, as we spend more and more time at home we are compelled to reinforce caring behaviours (which means greater attention to perishability, cleaning and maintenance). This instinct to value tactile qualities, which we are more aware of now, is a trend that will lead products to be more narrative.

Another result of the acceleration imposed by the pandemic is a return to basic needs, so a desire to be in contact with nature, experiencing the outdoors. The concept of threshold between indoors and outdoors is irrevocably changed and this will have a significant impact on materials, changing the canons of texture, colour and function.