Reading Time: 3 min | Aug 2022

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5 material revolutions that changed design - and the world

When new materials are discovered or invented, it often has profound effects on the economy and everyday lives. Sometimes it even leads to a fundamental shift in our societies.

Traceless material is made of natural biopolymers and can be fully composted. © traceless

Can you imagine a world without plastic or houses without windows?

What we take for granted today is the result of material innovations that were closely linked to technological innovations. Discover five materials that have changed our way of life dramatically.


When bronze was first discovered by mixing tin and copper, it was a true revolution. Tools and weapons became stronger. The casting process made it easy to shape things, too: there are bronze sculptures from many cultures, cups and even coins.

The discovery of bronze also changed the way societies interacted with each other: Because copper and tin are rarely found together, archaeologists believe that the drive to smelt copper led to the first instance of long-distance trade across cultures and even continents.


Although glass does occur in nature (think volcanic obsidian glass or those funky wormlike tubes made when lightning hits sand), things got interesting when humans learned how to make it intentionally. First as beads, then for drinking vessels, vases and pitchers - and everything else imaginable. Arguably, the use of glass as a building material has had a greater impact on people's state of mind and wellbeing than almost any other: can you imagine an apartment building, office or house without windows?

Steel and Concrete

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once wrote, "Each material has its specific characteristics which we must understand if we want to use it. This is no less true for steel and concrete." Of course, Mies was a master of concrete like no other. But there is no mistaking that steel and concrete have shaped our built environment like very little else, from the Eiffel Tower to skyscrapers of today.

Plastic and Fiberglass

Let’s make a bold claim and say that polymers and fiber-reinforced plastics opened more worlds for designers in the 20th and 21st centuries than any other single material innovation. Imagine the thrill of a boatbuilder like Ericus van de Stadt or a designer like Eero Aarnio when exploring the possibilities of these new materials. Strong, yet light and capable of being molded into practically any shape imaginable. At the time, no one was thinking about the carbon impact of petroleum-based materials, so designers used them for everything imaginable.

Watch the video, in which Eero Aarnio talks about his design process, the famous Ball Chairs and the goal of his designs.

Recyled Materials and Biopolymers

From recycling ceramic waste into new patio tiles to harnessing the power of nature to make better plastics, the innovative materials of the future will take their cues from nature - even when designed in a laboratory. The key concept here is circular design, with secondary use and repurposing factored into designs from the start. Circular Design as a strategy is even enshrined in the European Union’s European Green New Deal.

Time will tell how quickly we all adopt these principles.

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