Article by John Fleming and Marian Bradshaw

arshall McLuhan’s pithy formula–“the medium is the message”–has become an ever-present cliché of the electronic age. This prescient concept can also be applied to the much longer human history of the decorative arts by a simple linguistic sleight of mind–“the material is the message.” In this issue our contributors explore the ways in which materials drawn from nature and its constituent elements, shaped by human energy, condition the fabrication and final form of the object made.

For the Middle Ages these constituent elements were captured in an equally short and memorable net of words: earth, water, fire and air. Just as the natural and human history of earth itself and past civilizations is preserved for the paleontologist in fossil remains and for the archaeologist in the artefact record, so too do artisans and artists of our own time call upon the elements of nature and the forces of transformation to shape and inscribe humanity’s evolving relationship with the material world. Clay mixed with water and fired; animal skins, tendons and hair cured or woven; glass formed with fire and charged with electricity; wood split, sculpted and painted with colours from plants and earths; the embellishments of the table, feathered and candied; all these materials carry their chemical and genetic markers into the objects they form and the effects they produce. The decorative arts bring this information into social and political structures, practices and beliefs, through objects as complex systems of signs that give material presence to experience.