Material World
How an obscure little design firm helps giants like Estée Lauder, Nike, and Target build cutting-edge products out of the coolest new stuff.
By Bridget Finn

(Business 2.0) – George Beylerian sounds mildly amazed as he recounts the early days of Material Connexion, the company he founded to act as a central repository of avant-garde materials for industrial design. "Here is a business," he says, "that had no business plan." That may explain why Material Connexion has lost money for most of its seven-year existence and has never gotten revenue above the low seven figures.

Yet Material Connexion may rank as one of the most successful unsuccessful companies around. Heavyweights from Nike to BMW to Nokia have used its service to find offbeat materials—things like soy-based insulation, ink that conducts electricity, and paints that change color—with which to create products that have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. In the process, Beylerian's little firm is having an outsize effect on the course of industrial design.

Material Connexion's office-cum-gallery in Manhattan features samples of more than 3,000 substances, all neatly arrayed on library-like shelves for designers to peruse. The company acts as a consultant and matchmaker, hooking up designers with manufacturers of new materials that routinely inspire product breakthroughs.

When Nike designer Suzette Henri was developing the new Air Jordan XIX basketball shoe, for example, she knew that common materials like leather and rubber would bore the sneakerati. Through Material Connexion, she discovered a woven netting used to keep PVC pipes from bursting. The lightweight, yarnlike braid snuggles tightly on the foot; no need for traditional shoelaces. The $165 sneaker ended up being one of Nike's biggest hits this year. "Material Connexion is one of my most valuable tools," Henri says. "It's like a candy store to me."

Filling a Niche

It's no surprise that Beylerian was the first to come up with the idea for a comprehensive clearinghouse. Now 69 years old, he is himself a well-known design guru. He began mulling a library for cutting-edge materials in the mid-1990s, when he was a creative director at high-style furniture maker Steelcase. There, Beylerian mounted exhibits that toured design centers and museums. For one show, he asked prominent designers to contribute displays of their favorite materials. The response convinced him that "what was missing in designers' lives was a central place to explore new materials," Beylerian says. He quit Steelcase to create it.

His timing was good. Thanks in part to ever cheaper and more versatile materials, fine design is increasingly a feature of mass-market goods. (Michael Graves's teapots for Target are the iconic example.) Today a product's design is often the boldest way to set it apart—and unusual materials enable imaginative design. "Innovations in materials are an incredible marketing feature," Beylerian says.

Getting Material Connexion up and running was itself a creative job. To find only the most high-tech materials, Beylerian hired a team of consultants to scout hot new stuff; rotating juries of eight to 12 designers from across the industry vet it all. He put out the word to manufacturers that he was looking for radical new things. Material Connexion now reviews about 40 samples a month; perhaps a quarter of those are rejected.

Designers can pay some $200 a year for unlimited access to the company's Web catalog or view the stash in person by paying a modest fee. Designer Harry Allen was in the firm's library when he first spotted the funky material that inspired a new packaging for Estée Lauder's Aveda, a popular line of cosmetics that emphasizes natural ingredients. Allen found an eco-friendly composite in the library and then hired the manufacturer to create a new version of the material that combined flax and recycled CD cases. Aveda now uses it to make lipstick tubes. "It looks like granola," Allen explains, "so it was perfect for Aveda."

Hitting the Big Time

Beylerian charges as much as $200,000 annually for private sessions in which he and his team suggest the ideal material for a client's new product. In one of those powwows, the company turned BMW on to a touch-sensitive textile that the automaker used in a concept car at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show. A tiny circuit embedded in the fabric routes commands to the car's computer. "You just touch the seat and it reclines," Beylerian explains.

With such deep-pocketed clients, why isn't Material Connexion rolling in dough? Part of the answer is that making money wasn't Beylerian's initial goal; he was comfortably flush from his earlier career successes. Moreover, the concept's popularity took him by surprise. But Beylerian admits that when it comes to some basic business issues, he "didn't know what [he] was doing" when he launched the project. He doesn't charge materials makers a dime to be included in his repository, even though getting there often brings them huge contracts. He does charge design schools based on enrollment—but fees start at just $500, and all of a school's students get access to the website.

Some have put it to good use. Two Columbia architecture students found a material normally used in aerospace, modified it, and sold it to designers as chic walls for homes and offices. The pair now has a booming little business. Material Connexion's payoff from the success the firm enabled? Zip.

Beylerian says Material Connexion actually made a bit of money last year on revenue of $2 million, and he's finally taking steps to capitalize more fully on the company's position. He plans to charge designers for access not to the library but to suppliers, and he wants to take a cut of any sales the firm helps broker for the manufacturers. He recently entered into licensing deals to set up Material Connexion libraries in Italy and Germany. "I didn't have any idea how big a business this could be," Beylerian says. "But now we've become a catalyst of immense proportions. It's time to move to the next phase."