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Real vs. Fake: Material Science and the Power of Words

Jun 2014

June was a busy month for The Vinyl Institute. As an organization, we participated in two major trade shows: NeoCon and the AIA Convention. Both shows are great opportunities to engage the design professional community as well as our many partners in product manufacturing. I always enjoy the chance to explore the new products on display at trade shows. It was a pleasure to chat with so many of you!

Deceuninck, plastic film on a vinyl windowThese events also offer extraordinary opportunities for education. I attended one presentation I found particularly interesting and thought provoking and wanted to share it with you. Grace Jeffers, a Design Historian and Materials Specialist presented a program titled, “Manmade Natural: Real versus Fake Materials, A New Perspective.”

Jeffers’ sponsor, Wilsonart, the manufacturer of high pressure laminate surfacing, shares her interest in man-made materials as demonstrated in the restoration work of the Wilson House in Temple, Texas. The house was awarded National Landmark status by the Texas Historical Commission and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a significant architectural structure.  Jeffers lectures, curates, and teaches regularly on pattern, ornament, and the history of imitation in design. In her seminar presentation, she discussed what she calls the ‘real versus fake dichotomy,’ as well as ways to both see materials and compare them. Some of the terms she used are worth careful consideration:

  • Natural vs artificial
  • Genuine vs man-made
  • Organic vs synthetic
  • Real vs fake

How do we define ‘real ‘and what values do we associate with that term?  Often our descriptions of ‘real’ are positive, for example natural, genuine, authentic and organic. Our descriptions of ‘fake’ often use negative words like artificial, false, fraudulent, impostor, synthetic, imitation, and even cheap. So what does all this mean to design professionals in their world and to the manufacturers who need to communicate with them about products, and the materials from which they are made?

Deceuninck, plastic film on a vinyl window Aristotle once said “Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation.

Trompe-l'oeilThe truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations.” Imitations are as old as human kind. ‘Synthetic’ drawings in caves depict how ancient occupants saw the events and activities of their daily lives. Stone carvings of fruit on buildings replaced the perishable and expensive ‘real fruit’ used in earlier times as a form of welcome, and they are still beautiful today.  Trompe-l’œil is painting designed to deceive the eye, and to simulate depth and perspective. It was very popular with the early Romans and Greeks and it was used by Renaissance architects as a form of building decoration. It’s fake, but it is fun and is still being done today!

In the period following the development and introduction of Linoleum, the new product was disparaged because it was considered to be a ‘fake’ stone floor. It eventually grew in acceptance to become its own class of material which in turn led to modern resilient floors. In fact, whether they are Linoleum or not, many resilient floors are still referred to by that generic term. So in a way, Linoleum made the unintended leap from being ‘fake’ to being ‘real.’   Now this begs the most important question. Aren’t ALL building materials ‘synthetic’ to some degree? And don’t ALL materials require human input and processing? Put another way, aren’t ALL materials ‘fake’ on some level?

Consider these examples: Since metals like iron, copper, zinc and aluminum are extracted and processed from stone (ore) are they real, or are they fake? Glass is made from melted sand, so is glass real or fake? Rubber started out as ‘real,’ sourced from the sap of rubber plants. Today, most of the rubber we use is a synthetic material which is really a thermoset plastic.  So, does that make today’s rubber products any less ‘real’ or in any way inferior to the original material? Of course not. In fact, what led to the development of synthetic rubber were shortages and demands for higher levels of performance that the original material just couldn’t provide.

Here is one more for your consideration: While not usually a building material, pearls are available as natural, cultured or plastic, so which ones are the ‘real’ ones? What if you knew that they all looked pretty much the same (which they do) and lasted pretty much the same amount of time (which they do)? Would that change your thinking? By the way, did you know that Barbara Bush and Jackie Kennedy wore fake pearls? Are they any less important as historical figures or any less ‘real?’

Photo courtesy of Deceuninck, Vinyl cladding, vinyl windows, vinyl decking, vinyl shutters, vinyl furniture, vinyl pool liner. As we look at ‘real’ materials versus ‘fake’ materials, much of the matter comes down to our perceptions and descriptions of value.   By manufacturing synthetic materials we can make materials perform longer and better, thereby increasing their value. An example of this is the plastic wear coating on wood as well as linoleum floors. We can also conserve natural resources by using man-made materials instead of using natural materials in the first place. Man-made materials deliver better value and performance. That’s why man-made, synthetic materials often displace their natural predecessors in the first place.

The discussion of materials always needs to consider the applications and needs of the end user. Here are some examples of the value that vinyl materials provide that you might want to think about:

  • They are more consistent since natural flaws have been engineered out
  • They are often more durable
  • They are ‘molecule efficient’ and can be readily recycled
  • They are easy to maintain often requiring just soap and water to clean
  • They are impervious to water
  • They can save water with few water main breaks and no biofilm growth or rust (in PVC pipe)
  • They are often more hygienic because of clean, impervious surfaces
  • They are not efficient conductors of heat  (so they do well in energy saving windows)

I think this is a fascinating subject, one which will continue to be at the center of the debate about materials. Grace Jeffers is writing a new book on this subject and I will be sure to let you know when it is available.