I vaguely remember from engineering lectures that a bare conductor is simply a length of electrically conductive material that has no cover – a naked wire. The nakedness of its name reveals a kind of primal fear of electricity; a bare conductor sounds a slightly dangerous thing, mildly shocking.
Bare Conductive, then, is a great name for a sparky little design workshop in London’s Spitalfields. What makes it interesting is that it is concentrating all its energies into the potential of a single material.
That single material looks dark and a bit gunky. It is rather unromantically described by Bare Conductive founder Matt Johnson as “a water-based paint using carbon”. But its potential is in what it does – conduct electricity.
This is where their design theoretical, experimental intellect gives Bare Conductive an edge. This might be a relatively low-tech product but it is one with high-powered thinking behind it. In a way what they are doing is analogous to what the influential British designer Bill Moggridge, who died earlier this year, was doing with computers – concentrating on the interface that the tech-geeks were often ignoring in favour of processing and software. Bare Conductive’s product blends the educational interest of understanding the electric current that now underpins everyday existence with a capacity for invention and improvement.
My favourite application is their idea of a conductive painted wall that does away with the need for a light switch – it can be touched anywhere by hands groping their way in the dark. People apparently still look for the light-switch, but the little plastic rocker switch always seemed to me such a dim solution, one which gives neither haptic nor aesthetic pleasure.
“We’re also conditioned by our mums not to touch the walls with grubby hands, well why not make the whole wall a switch?” Johnson says. It helps those with grubby hands that the paint only comes in black.
It can also be used to sense movement and proximity – for instance whether an occupant has been immobile for some time – which could trigger an emergency response.
Its roots are in the founders’ studies at London’s Royal College of Art. “We were interested in seeing if we could create a material that would allow a product to conduct on the surface of the skin, or on the body,” Johnson tells me.
“There was a huge amount of work at the time on e-textiles and implantable electronics,” he continues, “and we wondered whether we could be somewhere between them, whether there could be some application between a temporary tattoo and body ornamentation that also took it through other uses, maybe even medical applications.”
When you look on the company’s website however, the evidence of all these diverse potential uses doesn’t seem quite there. Instead there is a playful (and rather wonderful) array of pens and paints, toys and DIY badge and model kits. I met Johnson and his colleague Bibi Nelson at the Budapest Design Week, about to do a workshop for kids using their paint products at the beautiful Buda villa of the Blood Mountain Foundation. It was great fun, but isn’t it all a little ephemeral?
“In an ideal world,” he replies, “I’d love it if there was none of our work at all on the website.” Which sounds odd coming from a designer. “We want to use the website as a catalyst for designers and makers and for industry as well.”
So where can he see the product going? “It can be used to make the objects around us interactive. Imagine a point of sale display that was intelligent but not too intelligent, perhaps you pick up a product and it makes a sound or takes a photo.”
I ask for more specifics. “We’re working with the music industry at the moment – because they’re always looking for new ways to distribute their product. Imagine a music poster that responds as you move closer to it or touch an image, plays music or sends a gig date to your diary.”
We’re not used to interacting with posters, but why not? Where Johnson really comes alive however is when I ask why this really quite low-tech product might survive in a high-tech world of smart phones and iPads.
“The material allows you to create interactions which are appropriate to the content and aren’t defined by the interface. It’s a pure design approach. If someone commissions you to design a car, your first question is, why do you need a car? An iPad is an incredible universe but why do you only have to look through that one telescope?”
The next challenge, Johnson says, is packaging, a whole new level. “It has to be economical and it forces a rigour, from 1,000 music posters to 100,000 really cool cereal boxes.”
Johnson is the ideal mix of obsessive engineer and cool designer, happiest messing around in his wet and dry labs, mixing paints and experimenting with circuits, blending his mechanical and design skills.
We have become used to the idea of open-source software and even design but an open source material is a generous way of working, a bracingly refreshing departure from the usual roster of celebrity chairs and super-slick devices.