Shopping with Lauren Birrittella, Home Products Development ’07, is a hands-on experience. She can’t help knocking on a piece of furniture to see if it sounds like wood, or running an expensive sweater through her fingers to see whether it’s fine cashmere or some kind of blend. When she visits people’s houses, she admits, it takes every ounce of self-control not to touch everything.
Fortunately, Birrittella is paid to do just that. A color, materials, and finishes (CMF) specialist at Glen Raven, Birrittella is the gatekeeper of the 10,000 different kinds of materials supplied by the North Carolina–based fabric manufacturer, best known for its Sunbrella shade textiles. She runs the Glen Raven Materials Explorer, a free online database featuring 200 representative materials—from SPF-enhanced cloths and water-resistant fibers to antimicrobial finishes and industrial metal fasteners—that architects, furniture makers, automotive designers, and more consider incorporating into their creations.
“We have so many different products, and we sell into so many different industries,” she says. “Sephora, Harvard Bioscience … and I have to know about all the new materials and innovations happening.”
Birrittella’s obsession began at FIT, when her senior trend project had her visiting Material ConneXion, the world’s biggest materials library and consultancy. “I thought it was the coolest place in the world,” Birrittella recalls. She got an internship and eventually was hired as an archivist maintaining a library of more than 7,000 materials. While there, she collaborated with her design hero Betsey Johnson on a weather-resistant mannequin for an outdoor installation called Sidewalk Catwalk.
In 2011, Glen Raven wanted to launch a similar “Materials Explorer” library—to showcase its own textiles, as well as the metals, plastics, and other materials it carries from other manufacturers—and asked Birrittella to spearhead the project.
“There was no library at all before,” she says, “so I had to work with all the market managers and designers and the people who make the fabrics to pick an assortment of 200 samples that represent those 10,000 different products.
“It was initially a short-term contract to make the library, but I loved Glen Raven and Burlington so much that nine years later, I’m still here.” In addition to the online archive—which she updates continuously— Birrittella keeps Glen Raven’s six brick-and-mortar Concept Galleries stocked, organizing exhibitions on topics such as 3D printing for designers and R&D teams seeking ideas and inspiration.
But she says that her work isn’t just for designers.
“The way we interact with our world is affected by the quality or even just the feel of different materials,” she says. “Like, everyone is addicted to their phone, but if it felt really gross like sandpaper, would you keep pulling it out of your pocket? Probably not. It really affects everything. That’s exactly what my role is about—to show the importance of materials.”