We had the opportunity to sit down with RISD Visual Resources Librarian Mark Pompelia to chat about the recent creation of the School's burgeoning Materials Library. Housed above RISD's Fleet Main Library, the purpose of the Materials Library, says Pompelia, is not just to create a collection of various materials, but to help students from across every department to rethink traditional materials and their purposes. The creation of the Materials Library has been a decade-long process dependent almost entirely on student support and involvement. Thus the final realization is essentially a product by students, for students.
The original basis for the Library came from RISD's Interior Architecture Department's samples collection. Prior to that, Flavia Gnecco and Stephen Szermer, Industrial Design graduate students, had conducted an audit of materials collections on campus, as well as those at other institutions, and prepared a preliminary feasibility study for a consolidated resource at RISD. The task for Pompelia now is to develop the collection in areas of innovation and sustainability while partnering with faculty to integrate the collection into curricula across RISD's twenty-two departments.
Contemporary methods of cataloging materials may not be enough or as practical as other approaches. "My instinct as a librarian is to catalog everything to death," says Pompelia, "but I needed to kill that impulse." RISD's President John Maeda had a similar reaction before realizing that cataloging standards like that of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) may not be appropriate for students' actual needs. According to Pompelia, "students come in and don't just say, 'I need wood,' they say, 'I need something hard' or 'something to attach zippers to.'"
The Materials Lab (Matlab) at the University of Texas - Austin is recognized as a leader in academic materials cataloging. In Pompelia's words, the collection is "hardcore architecture;" similarly, the Color, Materials and Trends Exploration Laboratory at Art Center is an "exhaustive database." But there are spots of innovation in the field, such as Pratt's Center for Sustainable Design Studies (CSDS) which houses a materials research center. CSDS doesn't have a catalog, rather focusing on around 125 sustainable materials at a time and conducting detailed research reports on each. This allows students to understand a specific material and its properties in depth, as well as what exactly being "green" really means.
Eastman's Tenite Scented Polymers
Panelite Cast Polymer paneling
Taking a cue from Pratt's CSDS, Pompelia wants the RISD's Materials Library to "reflect this new approach and new ways of thinking about materials." Although Pompelia has started to create an online database of the collection, he'd prefer students to actually visit the Library to touch and feel the various materials which just "beg to be handled." There is a much different experience when interacting with a piece of wood or plastic in a tactile way as opposed to simply viewing that material on a website. Seeing first hand what Kevlar fibers look like prior to hardening or how light actually refracts through a translucent plastic is an experience not to be taken lightly for blossoming designers.
Skydex Vibration Absorbing products
Part of the Inventables collection
In addition to the Interior Architecture textile samples, Pompelia and interested students have solicited a wide range of materials, including shock-absorbant thermoplastics for Humvees, plastic with embedded scents, and corrugated glass. Some companies wouldn't return students' phonecalls, but others were "really engaged." As product reps, they want "smart questions and to educate future customers, but in a way everyone benefits from." The Library also includes a donated Inventables collection. "We don't want things you can just go see at Home Depot," says Pomelia, but rather a cross-section of timeless and innovative new products.
At the end of the day, the Materials Library is about "preparing students for life after college" and instilling a "sense of process." For more information on the Library or for how to donate materials, contact Librarian Mark Pompelia at: mpompeli [at] risd.edu (note: no 'a' in the email address).
Visual Resources Librarian Mark Pompelia
Correction Appended: The original article stated that Pompelia conducted the materials audit, which actually occurred before he joined the team in 2010. Flavia Gnecco and Stephen Szermer undertook the audit in 2009 as part of their graduate studies at RISD.
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.