AMSTERDAM – With the book release CMF Design, author Liliana Becerra introduced the CMF process to a wider audience. Detailing the areas of colour, material and finish design, this book serves as a valuable source of information about this emerging professional discipline and its fundamental principles. In this article, we focus on one specific aspect of the book – material combinations.

Designing products around the materials can lead to very creative and often unexpected aesthetic and functional solutions. There are different approaches when it comes to establishing and creating CMF combination strategies. Most of them obey to general principles of aesthetic and visual composition, while others are a result of the materials design approach. Besides specifying every single colour, material or finish as a separate element, it is important to foresee how they will behave when assembled together. Natural materials will want to expand and contract under different environmental conditions such as humidity, heat or external elements. Synthetic or man-made materials on the other hand, don’t necessarily absorb humidity or allow water to penetrate and modify its structure. Ideally, materials that go together should have similar physical properties. When materials with different properties are assembled together, the industrial design of the product could allow for the creation of gaps and higher tolerances between materials and surfaces as a functional and visual design element, in order to allow the two materials to expand or contract independently.

A material pairing study explores the aesthetic and functional potential of intersections between plastic and metal (project by Liliana Becerra for Nokia).

A great emphasis on material combination strategies has surged in recent years for products designed to be ‘considerate’ throughout their entire life-cycle by involving a strategy called ‘design for disassembly’. This emerging key area for product and CMF design implies specifying the different product parts and materials to be easily assembled and disassembled for repair, refurbishing or recycling. One of the greatest paradoxes of our times is that there are products created to have a very short life span, yet manufactured with material technologies that make them hard to recycle at the end of their useful life. A good example of this paradox is a disposable toothbrush whose different parts have been fused together through a co-moulding process. Once different materials – like rubber and plastic in this case – have been fused together, they behave as one single material with different properties: while the soft rubber provides the handle with a good grip, the plastic provides the necessary rigidity to perform the brushing function. The challenge arises when the bristles are worn out before the handle is, and it is not possible to remove them and replace them as a single part. Moreover, during the disposal process, recycling is ruled out due to the contamination of the material stream with foreign particles.

The backbone of the Ago table, designed by Alfredo Häberli for Alias, is clearly visible through the glass top (photo by Studio Phototecnica, courtesy of Alias).

One way for commingled products to have a second life is to grind them up and use them as filler in asphalt and plastic timber. This process is known as ‘down cycling’ and is based on using a material only for its filler and mass qualities and not for its inherent performance characteristics. There are several aesthetic and functional strategies utilized to create products with disassembling in mind. Some of them involve the use of connectors that snap together instead of using toxic glues which make it impossible to recycle them. Another approach is to design the joints of the products – such as screws or pins – to be visible design elements instead of hidden details. This approach requires a lot of rigour in terms of balancing out functional and aesthetic elements into one product.

Based on the philosophy ‘design of reduction’, the Clarity chair preserves only the essential elements of form and function (photo by Scott McDonald, courtesy of Allsteel).

A good example of this approach is the Ago table by Alfredo Häberli for Alias. The different construction elements of the table are designed as visible parts showcasing rather than hiding the joints where materials converge. This design approach uses different materials on different parts not only as an aesthetic element but also as a construction/deconstruction process. According to the designer, his table concept is: ‘Based on a pared down steel frame whose purpose is to secure the legs and support the top. A supporting structure similar to a backbone, allows for an extremely stable and visually light composition.’

Physical visualization study of colour, material and texture compositions targeting small consumer electronics (project by Liliana Becerra Inc. for Nokia).

There are a number of products where the functional and aesthetic properties of a material provide at the same time form, function, colour and finish of a product. This holistic approach to design does not consider CMF design as a separate discipline but instead, integrates it into the design process to create smart product constructions. This approach is also known as ‘materials-led design’ because the process begins by exploring the properties of the material first, according to the targeted design functionality. In the end product, the material influences the form and the form is fully supported by the material.

Photos courtesy Liliana Becerra.


This is an extract from CMF Design. For more information, and to order your copy of this book, go to: