Contemplations: Aluminum and Its Many Languages

An abbreviated history of the metal and its possibilities

When you call me
You can call me Al
— Paul Simon 

Aluminum is a grand re-definer. One of the most naturally abundant materials on our planet, this metal—extruded, rolled, bent, foamed, pressed, and cast—seduces with silvery shimmer and brilliantly mirrors light from the cosmos. 

From the soft to the spectacular, aluminum’s omnipresence can go unnoticed. Its impact on the vital infrastructures that define our everyday rhythms is so intrinsic that it’s easy to forget its monumental role in propelling us along. 

Reorienting myself, I turn to what’s around me: a small threaded cap for a vial of floss; a half-size and gracefully aged baking sheet, thick and sturdy; the slim, satiny encasings for my laptop, phone and hard drives that protect my digital life and its backups; a trio of book-sized design objects with handsome planar surfaces, some mirrored, some brushed. Even a quick inventory reminds of aluminum’s generosity across scale, form, finish, and use.

In pondering what qualities define a material as uniquely modern, I can’t help but think of age. Aluminum, after all, is only two centuries old, quite young when compared to its metallic siblings like copper, brass and bronze that echo back to ancient times. In addition to its youth, perhaps aluminum’s intrinsic connection to modernity lies in the magical harmony created when accessibility, sustainability and possibility sing?

A few decades before aluminum as we know it came onto the scene, its story was one of luxurious rarity reserved for opulent embellishment. In the early 1800s chemists first discovered a means to separate the workable metal from its raw material within the confines of a laboratory. Slow to make and costly to produce, aluminum’s early applications were found in fine jewelry, decorative design flourishes and architectural detailing. When the Washington Monument was completed in 1884 its top was capped with a solid 9-inch pyramid of aluminum, a not so subtle nod to nationalistic prosperity. The evolution from expensive metal to industrially produced world-changer came only two years later. The Hall-Hércoult process, named after the two scientists that separately, but simultaneously discovered this new method, utilized large amounts of electricity to extract the metal. This had a profound, immediate and everlasting impact on aluminum’s capability to be produced in much larger quantities at much lower costs. 

The beginning of the 20th century ushered aluminum’s grand impact in industry and culture. Its characteristics of being light weight, non-corrosive, easy to manipulate, and near infinitely recyclable fostered an energetic trajectory of application that left industries from the sea to the stars changed in its wake. Vital design components like cladding, hardware and engines found in ships, airplanes and space capsules took advantage of the material’s low weight and high strength to boldly advance how we explore and travel. 

Designers, architects and artists began to employ the material in ways that could be as practical as they were poetic. The Emeco Navy Chair, created in 1944 for the US Navy is still made of salvaged aluminum, its iconic form a brushed, tactile finish. In the 1950s, Modernist architects like Albert Frey and Minoru Yamasaki fronted their buildings with thin screens made of repeating geometric and patinated forms to protect from the elements, while also providing elegant ornamentation. When Minimalist Donald Judd relocated to Marfa in the late 1980s, he created 100 Untitled Works, a meditation on the cube rendered in industrially milled aluminum. Each piece, a unique variation in which rigorous formal precision is counterbalanced with the sculptures’ surfaces rich in shimmery, reflective abstraction. Light and Space artist Robert Irwin employed aluminum for his influential disc works in which the material was manipulated into thin convex canvases that were meticulously spray-painted and then lit to create a perceptual installation of wonder and optical confusion. Sculptor Lydia Benglis made aluminum casts to freeze in time her performative works using paint and polyurethane. One wall work reads as a dulled, metallic lava flow that uncannily floats off the ground. 

In the 21st century, Nasa scientists continue to advance and refine how aluminum is applied in telescope mirrors, creating jewel-like reflective surfaces. Japanese artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto’s elegant, totemic and refined sculptures are made with extremely advanced milling techniques applied to pure aluminum as a means to give physical form to foundational mathematical equations. Local artists, A History of Frogs utilize the lost wax casting process to craft organic and lush artworks intended to adorn fingers, necks and table tops. And of course there’s the recent work by Kalon that has utilized the material in both its raw and powder-coated states as they continue their journey of designing for the rhythms of the space. Their Element bed, made of luminous, brushed aluminum and warm douglas fir, has generously scaled and simplified forms that enrich the senses and ground a space. The Material Studies Rugosa collection renders seating and a side table in an arresting powder-coated finish with rich hues that simultaneously punctuate and mirror back its environment.

Given aluminum’s extraordinary breadth of application and depth of inquiry, the possibilities can overwhelm as much as empower. If at loss for the actions or words to engage with this material and its many languages, perhaps a playful perspective shift will do? To relate to aluminum, or Al, as a friend is to engage with curiosity and respect. After all, we’re only two hundred years into this friendship and there’s much more joy and kineticism to be had.