Welcome to a new worldin which lack of substance, lack of heft, means neither a lack of strength, rigidity nor utility. Today, lightweight means luxury.
Imagine a material that, on its own, could transform everything from computing to car design. It conducts electricity and heat better than any known material. It is called graphene and it is also superlight – small wonder when it comprises a single layer of carbon atoms and is 1 million times thinner than paper. And yet it is also incredibly strong. Indeed, its unusual honeycomb structure makes it the strongest material in the world.
“It’s so strong it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap [cling film],” as Columbia University mechanical engineering professor James Hone has put it.
The question is, are we ready for it? Isn’t the heavyweight – outside of the worlds of aviation, fast cars and sports equipment – still closely associated with quality? This, after all, was the conclusion of one prototype engineer on taking apart his Beats headphones and discovering that they contained small metal ingots with no apparent function other than to contribute some 30 per cent of the headphones’ total weight. “Weight makes the product feel solid, durable and valuable,” he notes.
Studies would suggest that sense is widespread: pioneering research in 2007 by the University of Bangor underscored the idea that, in many categories of purchase, weight has a small but statistical influence on our estimations of value and quality. It may be largely subliminal and very subtle but that sense is no less very real: reduce an empty container by 15 per cent and consumers typically valued its contents at the same as at the original weight; reduce it by 30 per cent, however, and suddenly those consumers wanted to pay less for it.
Expectations of weight matter too, the study found: our notion of the perceived value of an item is shaped by how much the product matched our expectation of what it weighs.
The more those expectations are disrupted, the more our value judgement is affected. We expect, for example, heavier bottles of wine to be more expensive.
Yet, technology, improved design and even cultural shifts are set to change that dynamic. If heavy furniture, for example, has long been desirable, now look to Marcel Wanders’ Balloon Chair. It is, literally, made of party balloons filled with compressed air, wrapped in strips of carbon fibre and then hardened with epoxy resin. And it weighs just 800g. But that, Wanders argues, makes it more suitable for 21st century lifestyles, in which – from our cafe-based “offices” to our increased travel – we’re more nomadic than ever before. That, from Apple Air laptops to Nike sneakers, has seen a premium gradually put on lighter-weight clothes, footwear, bags and gadgets.
Technologies like 3D printing will further change the way things are made and considered – cutting out anything superfluous in the way traditional construction cannot – much as advances in milling machinery can produce, say, an archetypically heavy material the likes of granite in sheets thin enough to flex.
“What looks like a chunk of marble may in fact just be 2mm thick and placed over a honeycomb shell,” notes Jimmy Carroll of Winch Design, a specialist in private jet and yacht design, fields in which weight really matters to performance.
“More and more we can expect the heavyweight to actually surprise, and please us, with its lack of weight.”
“Increasingly the heavier and more bulky something is, the more it suggests that the less refined the design practice behind it has been, that more material has actually been used than required. You might speak of elegance now being found mostly in economy,” suggests Luke Miles, director of the New Territory design agency. “And perhaps our digital experience is shaping our expectations of physical objects – it’s making us want more legibility, more transparency. Weight can be as much an aesthetic issue too, aside from the degree of literal lightness. Of course, it’s about context – and some objects need one or other kind of weight. A chair, for instance, still needs to at least reassure that it will support. A cellphone needs to have some weight in the hand.”
Much, as history suggests, a watch has needed to have some presence on the wrist. But that too is changing, suggesting that even the luxury world is shifting away from the association between heaviness and quality. Recent launches have seen Panerai produce a timepiece in Carbotech, a world first, and IWC produce one in boron carbide, with Roger Dubuis offering cases in silicon. All are extremely lightweight materials – silicon, indeed, is half the weight of titanium, and is increasingly widespread in watchmaking, as is aluminium. Dubuis’ Excalibur Quatuor weighs in at 79 grams.
Benoit Mintiens, product designer for LG, Maxicosi and his own watch company Ressence, argues that, while these are pioneering moves, they’re in keeping with a generational change in attitudes: for younger people especially, the lightweight is synonymous with modernity and sustainability. “In contrast, anything that is heavy – or looks it – is equated with sluggishness, which in turn is connected with pollution,” he says. “Once lightweight things were thought to lack substance, now they express contemporary values. And I think we can expect to see that understanding grow.”
Less is more? Everywhere you look, objects are losing their heft, thanks to advances in design and materials.
In recent months Merida Scultura has produced the world’s lightest production road bike, with a frame weight of just 740g, while APWorks, a subsidiary of Airbus, introduced the first 3D printed motorcycle, weighing in at just 35kg. For those who move by other means, Amplid has produced the world’s lightest snowboard, at 2.3kg. And it’s not just modes of transport shedding the pounds: Lenovo has launched the world’s lightest laptop to date, at just 1.7Ibs. We can expect more of this too: last year Boeing unveiled Microlattice, its latest materials development. It’s the world’s lightest metal – so light in fact, that a piece can rest on top of a dandelion.