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Trading textbooks for textures

Wall of mounted materials

Tactile materials allow students to touch inspiration

by Katie Coburn

Seaweed dye, cow stomach, milkweed fabric and stainless steel yarn sit side by side among more than 200 tactile material samples mounted on select shelves of the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning Library.

Showcasing its first-ever materials library where students can gain inspiration for projects and research, this year, the DAAP library became one of the only university libraries worldwide to display a physical collection of innovative and advanced materials.

“It’s important for university libraries to focus on becoming a destination, because we are competing with the Internet for airtime with students and the world,” says Jennifer Krivickas, DAAP library director and chief curator of the materials library, which has been a work in progress since 2012. “So to create a destination collection is really an awesome way to stay relevant and to be a place where people want and need to go. You cannot get this online. It’s a tactile thing.”

Straying from traditional textiles, woods and plastics, the unique collection enables students from across the university to rethink material implementation in interprofessional projects and research. Through seeing, touching and even smelling materials on display, students can discover and learn about innovative materials firsthand and through the library’s digital database.

Modeled after Material ConneXion, a global materials consultancy that maintains the world’s largest library of subscription-based materials and processes, the DAAP library contains 250 different materials totaling $50,000. Krivickas plans to make additional 250-piece investments every other year, if not annually, depending on the library’s ability to attract financial donors.

“The goal is to be the largest academic collection, not only in the region, but in the nation,” Krivickas says.

Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., takes the prize for largest academic collection with its 1,500-piece version, Krivickas says. She credits Kendall’s exponential growth to the commercial support it receives from companies in its region and hopes that UC can develop similar corporate partnerships throughout Cincinnati.   

But Krivickas’ vision for the library is more purposeful than Kendall’s impressive collection.       

“Unlike Kendall, which has this growing collection of everything innovative, we’re going to have everything innovative but also sustainable because we want to be pushing our students to always be thinking in sustainable terms,” she says.

At UC, each sample board includes a description of the material’s sustainable attributes, usage properties and processing to inform students of the role sustainability plays in innovative and advanced materials.

Curated by Andrew Dent, Material ConneXion vice president and head of the consultancy’s research team in New York, DAAP’s initial collection consists of the most innovative materials, but not every material is sustainable. Gradually, Krivickas intends to curate a collection of materials comprised completely of sustainable attributes, and she plans to use the 2015-16 academic year as a pilot year to assess how faculty and students react to the idea.

Although maintaining an expanding collection of sustainable materials isn’t cheap, Krivickas argues that the cheapest route isn’t always the best route, a concept she hopes DAAP students will learn through utilizing the library.

“Everything that we build, everything that we make, we should be responsible for it,” Krivickas says. “That’s our goal: to make people responsible members of society making earth-conscious, future-forward decisions.”

Second-year architecture student Katie Hillebrecht applauds the library’s efforts to keep pace with the design world’s increasing exploration of sustainable building and agrees with Krivickas that sustainable materials are worth the expense in the long run.

“The battle of sustainability versus price is a short-term battle. It may be more expensive to build with these [sustainable materials], but over time it will save you money,” Hillebrecht says. “It’s no longer design versus sustainability. You really do have [sustainable] options that work with the design as well.”

The materials library wasn’t designed to benefit one DAAP discipline or DAAP students alone. In fact, Krivickas met with representatives and faculty from numerous colleges across the university to integrate recommended materials into the initial collection, and she is devising a curatorial board to advise future investments.

If specific materials don’t appeal to a student or are too expensive to purchase, the collection allows students to think outside the box and creatively research or design a material that fits his or her project needs, Krivickas says. 

Students inspired by a material can order a sample using the product company’s contact information provided through scanning a small bar code located next to each material description, which once scanned provides access to the Material ConneXion database and its materials’ information. Though compatible for most students who can easily download a code reader to their smart phone, bar code readers are available for those who visit the library lacking capable technology.

The materials library will maintain the same hours as the DAAP library during the academic year and is open to all UC students, faculty and staff. Plus, because UC owns a subscription with Material ConneXion, a perk of investing in a physical materials library, any UC person can enjoy more than 7,500 materials located at the consultancy’s library in New York, free of cost.

As Kirvickas works to expand the materials library, she encourages faculty to incorporate it into their lesson plans and hopes outside companies can eventually use the space to gather research and brainstorm ideas.

The library speaks for itself, but it also speaks to the accreditation of DAAP and the university as a whole, Krivickas says.

“It’s a different kind of library. It’s a different kind of university,” she says. “It’s a different kind of design school.”

Katie Coburn is a writing intern with UC Magazine.