We inhabit an environment filled with materials that astound us with their capacity to transform. Our challenge is to discover, collect, analyse, process and utilise them. This holds true not only for materials found in our physical environment on Earth – from rare, extremely pure minerals to hybrid composites— but also for ‘dark matter’ in space. All over the world we use raw materials that at some point will run out. Not only does this constitute a threat to our direct environment, it also results in the disappearance of unique ecosystems and even entire cultures. Yet we continue to wonder at the infinite potential of materials, including their capacity to be used on ever smaller scales. Human ingenuity continues to throw up new meanings, under constantly evolving aesthetic conditions.

When these materials are shaped and transform in to more or less functional objects, we refer to them as things. Design is the framework for understanding these altered pieces of our material surroundings as things—the furniture in homes, the machines in factories, the utilities that transport light, power, and electromagnetic frequencies through space or beneath the ground. However, the design perspective alone does not suffice when faced with the vast majority of commodities, technologies, and infrastructures that shape our everyday lives. While design views the thing first and foremost as an isolated object of desire, our fundamental coexistence with and reliance on things demand different tactics, at levels ranging from the microscopic to the gargantuan, from the intimately close to that of the often invisible megastructure, privately owned or shared, and from the sensually tangible to the confoundingly immaterial.

These comprehensive views must mesh between the institutional, academic, and logistical frameworks that developed in the 20th century to look at materials and things as forms, symbols, concepts, commodities, tools, artefacts, and possessions. Crucially, the interlacing of aesthetic power with political and economic agency within things and materials must be confronted. And in the embrace of the immaterial as an increasingly important factor in the way we organise society, the question of things becomes particularly critical: while design continues to question enduring archetypes of creative production, the rapidly updating technology reshaping our world stretches our conception of things as clearly-defined objects.

Projects developed on this premise and in the context of Things and Materials include:

Series on Materials, an exhibition programme within which an individual material is examined from historic, speculative, and sensory perspectives. Fellowships form the starting point of an exploration of the various materials, after which a formal approach is selected in which to present the outcomes to the public, be it an exhibition, publication, or film. Previous projects have included WOOD: The Cyclical Nature of Materials, Sites and Ideas (fellow Dan Handel), PLASTIC: Promises of a Home-made Future (fellow Tal Erez), and GLASS: Engine of Progress (curators Koehorst in 't Veld). Christien Meindertsma and Chris Kabel are currently carrying out research as fellows of Het Nieuwe Instituut in to (respectively) concrete and finishing technologies such as varnishing, laminating and coating.

The Temporary Fashion Museum was an experiment that turned the entire building of Het Nieuwe Instituut into the first national fashion museum in the Netherlands. The exhibition interrogated the myths of renewal and timelessness that underpin the fashion system, and approached time as fashion does—as a fluid phenomenon and a framework for speculation. The Temporary Fashion Museum also dealt with the museum as an institutional model, played with possible approaches to the visitor, and introduced activities such as shopping, dressing up, and making into the exhibition space.

Biodesign, an exhibition based on a wide range of projects that harness living systems for types of creative production within art and design, curated by William Myers. Biodesign links advances in fields such as medicine and architecture with challenges related to climate change, increasing populations, and resource depletion—envisioning a system in which design, production and use take in to account the consequences they wreak on different environments and forms of life. The exhibition actively stimulated speculative investigations through workshops, including a presentation by renowned performance artist Stelarc.

The New Material Award is a biennial award for material innovation by artists, designers, and architects, organised in collaboration between Stichting Doen, Fonds Kwadraat and Het Nieuwe Instituut. The award functions in two ways: a jury selects two winners through the competition every two years, while the website also works as an archive and research resource in various categories. Various submissions are also exhibited during Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven and the Salone del Mobile in Milan.