Many naturally occurring peptides containing cationic and hydrophobic domains have evolved to interact with mammalian cell membranes and have been incorporated into materials for non-viral gene delivery, cancer therapy or treatment of microbial infections. Their electrostatic attraction to the negatively charged cell surface and hydrophobic interactions with the membrane lipids enable intracellular delivery or cell lysis. Although the effects of hydrophobicity and cationic charge of soluble molecules on the cell membrane are well known, the interactions between materials with these molecular features and cells remain poorly understood. Here we report that varying the cohesive forces within nanofibres of supramolecular materials with nearly identical cationic and hydrophobic structure instruct cell death or cell survival. Weak intermolecular bonds promote cell death through disruption of lipid membranes, while materials reinforced by hydrogen bonds support cell viability. These findings provide new strategies to design biomaterials that interact with the cell membrane.