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A Breath of Inspiration at the Material ConneXion Library

John Berry, executive director of Design West Michigan, at Kendall College of Art and Design's Material Connexion Library

John Berry gives designers access to better and better materials. Lots of them.

John Berry gives designers access to better and better materials. Lots of them.

John Berry gives designers access to better and better materials. Lots of them.

Inspiration, the unconscious burst of creativity, is a beautiful and elusive moment. The word is derived from Latin -- inspirare, meaning "to breathe into."

Writers, poets, artists, and other creatives have long turned to the Muses, ancient Greek goddesses, for inspiration to create great works of art. And Newton got hit on the head with an apple. 

For designers, inventors, and entrepreneurs in Grand Rapids, a small vial of foam glass might serve as the spark of creativity required for the next great invention. Or inspiration might be found with another unique fabric or composite. Over 1000 innovative, sustainable materials are now available at Kendall College of Art and Design's Material ConneXion Library, which recently opened its doors for the entire business community to explore. 

The library is located on the fourth floor of Woodbridge N. Ferris Building (previously known as the Federal Building). The collection is part of the New York-based Material ConneXion consultancy, a global network of materials specialists and scientists with a mission to provide creatives with access to the newest and most unique materials in the world. 

The Kendall facility is one of only 10 brick-and-mortar Material ConneXion libraries in the world and features the largest material collection in any academic setting in the nation. 

The significance of this library goes beyond the obvious. It's real importance is its potential to spark creativity and inspire students and designers to innovate  and solve difficult problems -- to breathe new life into old business models by building and inventing products with unique, sustainable materials. 

John Berry, executive director of Design West Michigan, is one of the individuals responsible for bringing the collection to Kendall. The library was an indirect result of his efforts to develop a new design curriculum at Kendall. 

"One of my first projects with Kendall was to help form a degree in collaborative design," Berry says. "While creating that program, it was recognized that having access to a wide range of elements -- one of them being materials -- would help students understand the full range of design processes. It struck me that what Material ConneXion is about in New York would be exactly what would be good for the students at Kendall."

Berry then went to New York with then-president of Kendall, Oliver Evans, and learned that Material ConneXion would also be interested in having their library become associated with an art and design college. 

The two organizations struck a deal, and after an initial testing phase where the materials were made available only for Kendall students, the entire collection has been opened up for the community to access. 

"We realized this was a valuable resource. There are several members of Design West Michigan that are members of Material ConneXion. If they wanted to access the material, they would need to fly to New York or spend an enormous amount of time figuring out what materials were available and what company the materials are from. It's an unbelievable time saver. All the various materials are vetted by Material ConneXion. Through the online network, members then get a direct link to the company, which is not always easy to do."

Berry says the entire design community in West Michigan benefits from having the library here. "Our designers have the ability to expand and enrich their great design talent," he says.

For Kendall faculty and students, access to the library has been full of surprises. "It is easy to assume that industrial design students would find value, and they did. Collaborative and interior design students also (found value). The surprises have been in graphic, fashion, and jewelry design. I continually see fashion designers come into the collection and say, ‘I could do this with that,’ so it has become an unexpected source of inspiration."

For the business community, Berry relates a story of how a team from a large corporation came to the library looking for a specific material, and during the course of their exploration discovered some materials that fit a different project they were working on. "They quickly asked 'how do we get a contract to subscribe?" Berry says.

Access to the library and its online database, which allows users to search by material, keyword, and manufacturer, is a subscription service. Kendall pays for their students and faculty to have access to the library. 

For individuals and businesses outside the college, the fee structure is straightforward. Online-only access for individuals is $250/year. The ability to physically explore the collection of materials, plus have online access, is $450/year. For a company wanting access (online and physical) for four people, it is $1,740. For a company wanting full visiting and online access for seven people, it is $3,000/year. 

By end of June, the library will have over 1,000 samples. That is expected to soon grow to 1,500 samples with an ongoing rotation. Combined with the online database, designers can access another 7,500 material samples. 
Moving forward, Berry envisions many community partnerships emerging from opening up access to the library -- not only through designers and corporate research, but through interactions with organizations that support entrepreneurs and inventors. "It's a tremendous opportunity to get a spark of an idea by seeing a material you never knew existed."

John Rumery is Rapid Growth's Innovation and Jobs News editor.

Photography by Adam Bird
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