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Do I have to use the Polymer UI elements?

No. The only polymer element you must use is the polymer-element element, which is used for defining your own elements.

Can I customize them? To what degree?

Yes; you can “extend” existing elements and customize them however you like, or you can create your own in the first place.

The problem I see with tools like these is that I feel at least they make too many assumptions, particularly about our aesthetic. What are those material buttons called Google is pushing?

I don’t think it looks that great, either. The “paper” UI is just a demo, really, to try and get people excited about it.