Faux: Design, Performance, and Perception of Fake Materials

Materials are everywhere. They remain central to our lives and to contemporary design, despite the omnipresence of digital information. Yet, the fact that many materials that we encounter on a daily basis are mere representations of other materials has largely escaped research and contemporary discourse. We simply do not think much about asphalt roofs made to look like slate or cedar, vinyl siding or ceramic floor tiles imitating wood. Did we not enjoy the suggestion of luxury that comes along with the faux wood grain on the dashboard of the budget car? How about astroturf on the urban scale? Looking beyond products and the built environment faux materials have been instrumental for centuries on theater stages across the world. The performing arts have long deployed material illusions in the scenic space, often painstakingly painted and designed to be seen from specific angles and distances, under the controlled lighting conditions of the stage. These material illusions are broadly accepted and are an expected part of the performing arts, they are linked to the visions that the artistic team develops for the production itself. What lessons can be learned from scenic material illusions? Have faux materials paved the way for the current blurring of the real and the fake, triggered by the rise of social media and more recently, popular AI tools?

Materials are designed, involving conscious choices, such as colors, textures, finishes, and formats. Biomaterials grown in labs or produced from agricultural waste products and binders, now expand on the traditional material palette. They substitute conventional materials such as leather or petroleum-based plastics and thereby lower the emission of harmful greenhouse gases. Yet biomaterials have no inherent aesthetics, no cultural or technical precedent, no history. How will they be designed?

The contemporary culture of faux materials is highly sophisticated. The theatrical world remains committed to a craft-based model, but the built environment embraces the vast scale of industrial production. Practical, economical, ecological, and cultural concerns are but some of the factors that play into today’s growing culture of fake materials.

The seminar sets out to explore and understand the past, present and future of design, making, performance, and perception of fake materials at the urban, the building, and the product scale. Throughout the course we will seek to learn lessons from the legacy of material illusions in the scenic environment. Students will engage in material ethnography and experience hands-on workshops that involve designing and manually crafting materials. We will debate theoretical positions, consider material stories, learn about craft and production, and quantitatively assess material perceptions. We encourage students from all programs to apply and join us on a journey at the edge of what is ‘real’ and what is ‘faux’.

The first day of GSD classes, Tuesday, September 5th, is held as a MONDAY schedule at the GSD. As this course meets on Monday, the first meeting of this course will be on Tuesday, September 5th. It will meet regularly thereafter.