The assembly of intermediate filament (IF) arrays involves the recruitment of a complex set of cell-type-specific IF-associated proteins. Some of them are integral membrane proteins, others act as crosslinking proteins with vectorial binding activities, and yet others comprise motor proteins. In vivo IFs appear to be predominantly heteropolymers, although in vitro several IF proteins (e.g. vimentin, desmin, neurofilament (NF)-L and the nuclear lamins) do self-assemble into IF-like polymers. In contrast, NF-M, NF-H, nestin, synemin and paranemin, all bona fide IF proteins, are unable to self-assemble into IFs either in vitro or in vivo. The individual IF proteins of this large multigene family are chemically heterogeneous, exhibiting different assembly kinetics and yielding discrete types of filaments. The unique physical properties and interaction capabilities of these distinct IF molecular building blocks, in combination with accessory proteins, mediate the generation of a highly dynamic and interconnected, cell-type-specific cytoarchitecture.