The following article is an edited transcript based on the MRS Medalist presentation given by C. Jeffrey Brinker (Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico) on December 3, 2003, at the Materials Research Society Fall Meeting in Boston. Brinker received the Medal for “his pioneering application of principles of sol-gel chemistry to the self-assembly of functional nanoscale materials.” Nature combines hard and soft materials, often in hierarchical architectures, to obtain synergistic, optimized properties with proven, complex functionalities. Emulating natural designs in robust engineering materials using efficient processing approaches represents a fundamental challenge to materials chemists. This presentation reviews progress on understanding so-called evaporation-induced silica/surfactant self-assembly (EISA) as a simple, general means of preparing porous thin-film nanostructures. Such porous materials are of interest for membranes, low-dielectric-constant (low-k) insulators, and even ‘“nano-valves” that open and close in response to an external stimulus. EISA can also be used to simultaneously organize hydrophilic and hydrophobic precursors into hybrid nanocomposites that are optically or chemically polymerizable, patternable, or adjustable.