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Innovation by Design

Coconut fiber, aluminum foam, and self-cleaning textile—popular circulating materials at Loeb Design Library.


May 13, 2014—Visitors to the Materials Collection at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Frances Loeb Library will never be admonished to look without touching. In this tactile paradise, fingers—and imagination—are encouraged to roam free.

Tucked in a long, narrow room off the stacks, the collection consists of 600-plus physical material samples, often with multiple pieces per product. Bins, boxes and bags fill shelves and drawers with objects of every texture, color, size and shape.

Created and cultivated to support research, teaching and learning, the collection is available to help students and faculty re-envision possibilities in the constructed environment.

“You have these preconceived ideas of what concrete is,” said Johanna Kasubowski, Design Resources Librarian. “We have samples of concrete as you’ve never thought of it—foamed concrete, flexible concrete. It really shatters the way you think about a building material.”

Started as a faculty research project in 2004, the collection was absorbed into the Library in 2011. Today, librarians Alix Reiskind and Johanna Kasubowski work closely with Jane Hutton, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Materials Collection faculty liaison, to shape the collection growth, oversee operational considerations, and are in the midst of developing a new database with the Rhode Island School of Design’s Fleet Library Material Resource Center. A database facilitates discovery, and a specially designed space is dedicated to its use in teaching and learning. 

“The space retrofit transformed what services the library can offer within the collection,” Kasubowski opined.  “It has allowed us to activate the collection through installations, work with faculty, and host classes.”


tabletop installation of materials

The physical collection is organized into five families of material composition—Biocomposite, Polymer, Metal, Mineral and Ceramic. Librarians periodically create installations (above) to showcase the materials and the diversity of holdings so library visitors can see, touch and think about the materials.

“It’s not a sample collection of mass-produced products,” explained Kasubowski. “Some of the materials are developed by people making these new materials in their garages, or an artist.” 

Circulation of materials in this collection has been widespread touching on all compositional families, which indicates the breadth of interests that patrons have. 

A sign encourages tactile browsing

The uses for the objects are as varied as the materials themselves. A faculty member may check out samples of wood, metal and ceramic to demonstrate heat transfer properties of the different materials to a class, or a student may reference an item in a presentation. A course on lifecycle design might evaluate products for closed material cycles through reuse, reclamation and recycling.

patrons browse the collection

The collection’s faculty liaison, Professor Jane Hutton uses everyday materials like a pressure-treated 2x4 or a bag of mulch in her courses and asks her students to explore its production and trace its origins. “I think it’s very interesting to be able to see this range of materials somewhat out of their context,” she said. “You can read into them relationships that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

database of materials

A custom designed database provides images and multiple points of access to meet research needs. The Library is in the midst of creating a new database with the Rhode Island School of Design’s Fleet Library Material Resource Center.

montage of materials

Coconut fiber can control erosion; mushrooms grown into a mold can replace polymer-based rigid Styrofoam packing; a mat of human hair (99%) and plastic (1%) can clean up oil spills. The latter was invented by a hairstylist who, knowing that hair adsorbs oil, envisioned a hair blanket thrown over an oil spill.