Material Guy

Beylerian's library inspires designers worldwide

A decade ago, George Beylerian created Material ConneXion, a library of samples of materials from quarried rock to Lycra. Ever since, architects, designers, fashion gurus, and businesses including Nike (NKE ) and Procter & Gamble (PG ) have been looking for inspiration at the 40-employee, New York company's library. Now the 72-year-old native of Alexandria, Egypt, has launched outposts in Milan, Cologne, and Bangkok.

In 1996 I was working as a design marketing consultant for the furniture company Steelcase (SCS ) when I had a eureka moment and decided to create a library for materials. No one was keeping track of innovations with an organized, much less curatorial, eye. I went to Steelcase with the idea, which they liked. But they didn't want to own the business. They gave me $200,000 and a 4,000-square-foot space with free rent for four years. It was a big help.

Our first client was Ivy Ross, who was the design director at Coach (COH ) and very ambitious. People of her ilk got the word out; there just wasn't any other source out there like us.

We opened our first office at 4 Columbus Circle in 1997. There were just four of us, and we were full of passion and determination. Now, our libraries each have about 4,000 materials and information about the processes that created them or how they can be used. Some materials are naturally occurring, some are man-made.

Not everything is accepted. Each item is voted on by a jury of 8 to 10 senior designers, architects, engineers, and material scientists. If a material does not get in, usually that is because more thought has to be given to it—how to use it, how it is affixed—to make it a worthwhile solution.

Creative minds come here and they cross-pollinate. Parachute materials turn into window treatments. Microcassette tapes have been recycled and woven into a gorgeous, patent leather-like material. It's wonderful to see that. The library also has been a muse for fine artists such as Sandy Chilewich, who turned the industrial-grade plastic mesh used to secure falling rock along highways into high-end place mats sold at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Our corporate clients and artists pay for access to the library on a sliding scale. Now we are building the business beyond the subscription model. We provide design consulting to international companies and act as a broker and talent agent for the likes of Philippe Starck. We have exhibitions and conferences, and a quarterly publication called Matter.

Most exciting right now are the innovations in sustainable materials. Two years ago, companies came looking for materials with one thing in mind: how much they cost. Today, the No.1 request is for green materials. They are not just better for the world, but also better for a company's bottom line. We helped Aveda (EL ), for example, create sustainable packaging for its cosmetics line. And we have an exclusive strategic collaboration with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, an internationally recognized design firm practicing ecologically, socially, and economically intelligent architecture. They have a concept called cradle-to-cradle design, which is a way to reduce the environmental footprint created when producing anything.

I'm still ambitious and aggressive. I think this is a great time for design. The library has come of age.

By Mara Der Hovanesian

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