The Art of Steel: creator community reshapes the industrial material for everyday beauty
Both elegant yet utilitarian, the rusted, bespoke material ‘ARTSTEEL’ is an innovation onto steel itself. Yet, as a pigeonholed industrial material, its struggles to thrive outside of construction. See how Loftwork’s creator community helped local steel manufacturer Front step out of the iron cage and unearth ARTSTEEL’s everyday beauty.
Steel is a construction heavyweight; workable, inexpensive, and with only one slight drawback – rust. Yet Japanese steel manufacturer Front has managed to transform the ‘degradation’ of rust into a plus. Enter ‘ARTSTEEL’, Front’s very own styled weathering steel that controls and coats rust with rust. Rust also underpins the material’s aesthetic; not only does it result in a natural look with deep shades and textures, the careful craftsmanship of each individual piece allows it to take on a unique, one-of-a-kind quality.
To expand the potential of ARTSTEEL and create more business opportunities, Front hoped to veer out of B2B construction and into in-house B2C products – but were met with roadblocks. As Front designers began developing original interior furniture, the company discovered that compared to their timber counterparts, steel items still come with too high of a price tag for domestic demand.
Through Loftwork’s MTRL division, an open innovation program for materials, Front was able to take a step back and reevaluate their material through creators’ perspectives. By establishing a global design award through Loftwork’s online platform AWRD, we generated media coverage, created brand advocates and paved the path for new product development – all within 6 months. Leveraging our experience, platforms and existing creative community, we have increased awareness and traffic for ARTSTEEL, as well as given Front the strategic foundation onto which to unleash their business potential.
- Promote ‘ARTSTEEL’ materials to product designers and creators, with the goal of converting them into fans and brand advocates.
- Generate new, unconventional ideas through a framework outside of the meeting room, i.e. a design award.
- Create long-term strategies for new product development and relationships with creators/designers.
To achieve the primary goals of building a community of ARTSTEEL material advocates, as well as generating ideas for new products, we chose to utilize a design award as the entry point for this project. This platform also became a suitable incentive for Front’s new product development, a key objective for Front CEO Kaneshige Matsukawa.
For this project, creative director Nozomi Ito chose to recast the material through a lifestyle lens, exploring the possibilities of new product ideas with a ‘wabi-sabi’ focus. A uniquely Japanese aesthetic concept, wabi-sabi expresses the beauty of the ‘imperfect’, befitting for a material that prides itself on its ‘flaw’. In recent years, wabi-sabi has infiltrated popular Western imagination; marketing ARTSTEEL in such a way through the global platform of AWRD allows us to open up the scope of the material’s international appeal.
Introduction at Material Meetup event
To test the waters, we used Material Meetup as both a starting point for the project and the first point of contact with creator and maker community members. We invited Front’s new business representative Masayuki Fujii to speak on the charm of the material of ARTSTEEL, and its applications in the lifestyle sector. Hosted by FabCafe, Material Meetup is an event series in which manufacturers, craftspeople and creators gather under the theme of materials.
Research and ideation
To gain a deeper understanding of the material processing itself, the project team headed to the Front factory for a factory tour. Rather than mass production, as is the case with most industrial materials, the pattern of ARTSTEEL involves elaborate handiwork. No two patterns are the same; craftspeople create them one by one. Trying their hand at the pattern-making process, the project members found it impossible to do without a degree of craftsmanship.
Before the launch of the award, project creative director Nozomi Ito conducted a pilot version – an Ideathon – with university students recruited independently by Loftwork, as well as Front interns. This not only enabled the project team to ascertain that the direction and theme of the award could be both practical and effective, but also provided insight into how the public perceive and engage with ARTSTEEL. This workshopping method, of warm-ups, brainstorming and discussion, showed that even students without product design experience were able to create applicable and high-concept ideas within a few hours.
The launch of a global design competition through AWRD
We established a global design competition from start to finish, through Loftwork’s very own online award platform AWRD. With a community of 50,000 creators and a steady infrastructure, the platform streamlines the awards process, allowing organizers to easily manage their events online – from the creation of a bilingual Japanese/English landing page to submission call-outs to even the appointment of judges.
Through AWRD, the relevant judges were also appointed, each serving a different ‘function’. With a wealth of materials and design expertise, industrial designer and CEO of Feel Good Creation Inc. Miyuki Tamai was selected as a judge for technicality. With the potential of commercializing the winning works, Masaki Oda from Isetan Mitsukoshi was selected to bring a sales perspective to the table. Former & Premium magazine executive director Takahiro Shibata was also brought on for cultural zeitgeist. Lastly, to represent the company’s interests, Front’s Masayaki Fujii completed the panel.
Talk event and showroom at FabCafe MTRL
To further situate both the ARTSTEEL material and award within the realm of lifestyle and product design, we organized a talk on everyday objects, led by Takahiro Shibata, former & Premium editor and renowned tastemaker, and appointed judge for the award. A local stomping ground for the creative community, FabCafe/MTRL Tokyo has held a number of events not only geared towards promoting new materials and products, but also connecting with industry influencers. With an impressive wealth of lifestyle experience and expertise, Takahiro Shibata was both guru and ARTSTEEL spokesperson, for fellow product connoisseurs at the event.
Gold Prize: Paume Lamp by Christoffer Jevring & Daniele Caldari
Silver Prize: ART STEEL-inspired accessories by AoHouse
Special Prize: Rust Sabi Chari by Nyokki
“The natural texture of ARTSTEEL was not really accepted back when we first started. However, in recent years, the number of inquiries from architects and designers has increased, and I feel that the ‘natural texture’ resonates with young sensibilities. Looking at all the competition entries, there were products such as lights, decorative objects and luxury goods – all ideas made from ARTSTEEL-inspired concepts. One of my dreams is to see ARTSTEEL blend into everyone’s daily life. I am thankful for those who helped to achieve that dream and I hope that everyone will continue to love and support this material.” – Kaneshige Matsukawa, Front President
Loftwork Inc. is a global creative company, which designs programs, spaces, services, communication and websites through collaborations. We are located in Hong kong, Taiwan, Tokyo and Kyoto . We also operate various owned media and platforms. Digital craft cafe “FabCafe” , and material design lab “MTRL” , the online creator platform “AWRD”, and an open community bio lab “BioClub“. Loftwork is dedicated in building a global community of innovators. Through the design process, we create good impact to society.