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See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me

Material ConneXion has been called the petting zoo of materials for its easy accessibility to some 3,000 fabrics, metals, polymers, and other amazing things.

There are more than a thousand libraries in New York City and probably half as many private clubs. But Material ConneXion— a curious hybrid between the two located on a quiet block of West 25th Street—is the one that caters exclusively to "materialists" and anyone interested in the design world.

While books line most libraries’ stacks, the shelves here are filled with an eye-popping array of foils, fibers, moldable resins, metals, and innovative textiles. Geared toward designers as well as the curious entrepreneur, all are intended to spark an idea, update an existing product, or execute a new one.

Since its inception in 1997, the membership has climbed to almost 2,000—mostly fashion, interior, jewelry, and industrial designers and architects. Nike scouted brightly colored coils to update the Air Jordan. Aveda sourced lipstick cases here when looking for stylish, ecofriendly packaging, and top architects like David Rockwell come in search of new building materials, such as one of the latest: a light-transmitting concrete.

This is the first repository of its kind in New York, and in the beginning even in-the-know artists and builders furrowed their eyebrows at first mention of the place. But Sandy Chilewich, whose fortuitous discovery at Material ConneXion inspired her to create a wildly successful line of place mats, paints a clear picture of how the company works.

Initially on a quest to embellish another product, she stumbled upon a lightweight, stain-resistant vinyl weave. When it didn’t work for her original purpose, she says, "I said to myself, Why am I forcing this? The material—gorgeous, functional, and low-maintenance—is perfect for place mats." Chilewich’s intuition proved dead-on. Relatively inexpensive, hand-washable, and elegant, her eponymous mats have become staples at the city’s top restaurants, among them Craft, Jean Georges, and Lever House. Buyers at Barneys New York, Sur La Table, and Bloomingdale’s snapped them up, too.

"We only select and archive things that are technologically, ecologically superior," says founder George Beylerian, an industry pioneer who brought the first molded plastic furniture to the United States from Italy in 1968 as a Kartell licensee. Since then materials have become increasingly complex."You have these technomaterials that keep you warm in the winter, cool in the summer, that you don’t have to iron, and that are also washable." Designers, he thought, needed a single place where they could explore their options.

The vetting process starts in-house with Andrew Dent, Ph.D., one of 23 employees based in New York, who’s constantly in touch with researchers at universities, laboratories, and Material ConneXion’s outposts in Milan, Bangkok, and Cologne, Germany. "As scientists on staff, we can talk the talk," he says. "A university lab might name a particular type of molecule, which will mean little to a designer; I then translate that to say it’s scratch-resistant."

A rotating panel of eight to twelve jurors—independent architects and design professionals—comes in to determine what stays and what goes. It’s a vigorous process, Dent explains. "We need a high- profile architect who may see a material and say, ’No, I used that five years ago; it’s not as durable as it seems.’ "

Once accepted, materials are grouped into one of eight categories (glass, ceramics, metals, naturals, polymers, to name a few) and placed in the 1,000-square-foot library. Peppered with adjectives such as multilaminar, photoluminescent, unsintered, the museumlike placards seem to have jumped from the pages of a scientific journal. But Beylerian encourages creative types to not let the complicated terminology intimidate them. "Think of it as a grown-up petting zoo."

Fees range from $200 for Web-only database access; memberships cost from $450 (individual) to $5,000 (12-person subscription); unlimited corporate access starts at $15,000. 212-842-2050; materialconnexion.com.