Towards a new tactile appeal

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The health emergency has focused on the hygiene of the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch. This has accelerated the development of new materials and finishes.

CMF – an acronym for Colours, Materials and Finishes – is a very topical area of industrial design focused on the chromatic, tactile and decorative identity of products and spaces. The studies of Clino Trini Castelli, as well as Ettore Sottsass and Andrea Branzi, who worked extensively on developing new materials (plastics, laminates, etc.) in the ’70s and ’80s, made a key contribution to this area. Today we are witnessing a new revolution whose cultural shift must be guided and technology will prove to be an extraordinary medium.


What are the new frontiers of surface design?
The most current topic is touch. The health emergency has placed emphasis on tactile appeal and smell; on the quality and hygiene of the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch.

All the products that clearly highlight their hygienic and active properties, environmentally friendly design and antibacterial action will definitely boost their performance in the target markets.

Another aspect is the technological layers that can be applied to the surfaces; this is the case for ceramic companies that have made great strides in recent years by creating antibacterial, anti-slip, through-body and decorative solutions, including through the use of full digital printing. Digitalization and new production processes make it possible to experiment outside of the everyday, the ordinary. Let me give an example. Sponges and porous products have never entered the market without offering washable finishes. When Rem Koolhaas laid the bare aluminium foam at Fondazione Prada, it paved the way for a new aesthetic and a whole category of products that we would never have seen in this context.


So do designers or companies act as trendsetters?
Large companies also have a mission to create innovative products that set trends and explore new languages.

One of the most fruitful influences comes from the fashion world – I know that I’m stating the obvious. Fashion accessories and accessory finishes are as close as you can get to the world of tactile interior surfaces. Fashion trends arrive in the interior sector around a year and a half later.

The cosmetics industry also pioneers trends that appear later in other sectors. Creams have new textures (powdered, polish, glossy etc.). When we accept these textures – we can even consider them “finishes” – on our skin, it means that we are ready to accept them on our everyday objects, or on the furniture and surfaces that we use.

Rather than trends, we need to work on cultural changes, which take a long time and are more closely linked to the construction sector than the furniture industry. Interior architecture and interior design are different fields and evolve in equally different ways.


What aspects will profoundly change the perception and choice of surfaces?
has changed in our spaces: LEDs and OLEDs have entered our homes, so the finishes also have to be designed differently. A surface not only has a physical feel, but also a visual feel and light plays an important part in this. This aspect is also very familiar to ceramic companies, which are working on the opacity levels of finishing varnishes in order to improve their visual appeal and to more effectively control their light reflection. At the Politecnico di Milano laboratory, which I oversee with Israeli designer Ron Arad, we notice every day that the new generations of designers pay little attention to surface quality. They often exaggerate and accentuate the colours available in the colour palettes included in the software they use, but few are able to work with the necessary sensitivity to shades, grains and textures.

When they use materials by importing them into their software, we find that they have no awareness of design scales. Textures – such as those of ceramic products inspired by wood – are often used, applied to micro or macro sizes; this results in a new interpretation of materials, inadvertently opening up new meanings and new languages. This habit comes directly from the zoom in and zoom out feature that they are used to on a smart phone’s touch screen; this approach has also been transferred to the design stage. These younger generations live in 20th century houses, but are simultaneously and continuously immersed in digital spaces. The hybridisation of two realms, digital and analogue, will lead to new categories of finishes.


Anna Barbara is an architect and associate professor in Interior and Spatial Design at Politecnico di Milano. She has been a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, School of Art and Design, Beijing (China); Kookmin University, Seoul (South Korea); Hosei University, Tokyo (Japan) and at universities in USA, France, Thailand, Brazil, Jordan, UAE, India, etc. She was the 2000 Canon Foundation Fellow in Japan. Awarded by Premio Borromini and selected by Archmarathon and ADI-Index 2019. The relationships between the senses, time, spaces and design are the main topics that she has developed in education, conferences, publications, curatorship and professional works. 

She has designed international sensorial projects for: Trinity, Pioneer, Panasonic, Ibiden, Honda, Fujitsu, Suruga, Lexus, Toyota, Ford, Exmovere, Jadeluck, International Robotics, Fissan, Lancôme, Symrise, Guerlain, Condé Nast, Cleaf, Venini, AAD in Abu Dhabi, Acell, Natura, Vantone, Vats, etc. in China, Japan, USA, Europe, UK and UAE, as the founder of SenseLab. 

Author of Storie di Architettura attraverso i sensi (Bruno Mondadori, 2000), Invisible Architectures. Experiencing places through the senses of smell (Skira, 2006) and Sensi, tempo e architettura (Postmedia Books, 2012), Sensefulness, new paradigms for Spatial Design (Postmedia Books, 2019) and many other publications. In 2021 she will launch, together with, the first international Olfactive Spatial Design course.