Architect and Designer
Associate Professor of Media Arts and Science
Mediated Matter Research Group, MIT Media Lab
"The intimate relationship between design and biology proposes a shift from consuming Nature as a geological resource to editing it as a biological one. And this journey from mining to growing is accelerating."
By Heidi Legg
Neri Oxman's work and research embodies so much of what we are experiencing as a society around technology, the hyper awareness of our planet and shifts in how we embrace the power of biomimetics, nature, and genetics in our digital lives. I have long wanted to interview Oxman. This interview was like a Griffin and Sabine story, one where we have exchanged questions and ideas for over a year, and I hope only the beginning of the trilogy. Much of this interview was conducted as she prepares for Milan Design Week in April. Her work is both complicated and innovative and reminds me of past interviews with Janet Echelman and Mariana Ibanez and George Church and Diane Paulus and and Sean Dorrance-Kelly in the way they each bring humanity and reflection into our rapidly-changing, robotic, global and digital landscape with what seems like limitless possibility. As Oxman wrote to me, “In the Biological Age, designers and builders are empowered to dream up new, dynamic design possibilities, where products and structures can grow, heal and adapt. But striding Nature’s way is far from natural. It requires a change in the way we see “Mother Nature,” from a boundless nourishing entity to one that begs nourishment by design. As we master ‘unnatural’ processes at a speed and sophistication that dwarfs evolution, Material Ecology propels us into the age where we mother Nature by design." As our 99th interview, I was delighted to finally be able to capture Neri Oxman's ideas and research for all to consider.
How would you define a material ecologist?
As an architect—I believe in the synergy between the buildings we design, and the environments they form and inhabit; as a designer—I believe that the products we design are extensions of and for human body; as a scholar of Nature [and a medical scholar], I believe in the integration between buildings, products and the environment. This holistic approach to design, which considers all environments—the built, the natural, and the biological—as one, postulates that any designed physical construct is—by definition—an integral part of our ecology. A practicing material ecologist will therefore engage multiple disciplines—computational design, digital fabrication, synthetic biology, the environment, and the material itself—as inseparable and harmonized dimensions of design. If Bucky were with us, he would, I hope, ‘synergize’.
What are you working right now that is requiring your greatest attention?
In our latest project, Vespers, we revisited the typology of the death mask. We were intrigued by the idea of exploring an ancient and long-forgotten ‘product,’ and giving it new meaning through the lens of design, science and technology. Especially exciting for us was the challenge of transforming the customary single material mask, once molded to the face of the deceased and used as a memento, into a monolithic, multi-material, multi-functional mask that can be 3D printed and used as a biological urn.
My team and I have just completed a collection of masks that we consider a natural extension to Imaginary Beings as well as to Wanderers and Living Mushtari. In all three collections we explored a data-driven approach to form generation and material modeling, where both the geometry of an object and the distribution of its physical properties (e.g. rigidity, opacity and color) are informed by structural and/or environmental criteria. The key to this approach is the realization that the environment and the design object interact through multiple dimensions and a through a spectrum of environmental variables. We call this Material Ecology. The Vespers collection offers, I think, the most sophisticated embodiment of this approach so far, demonstrating that we can seamlessly vary the physical properties of materials at the resolution of a sperm cell, a blood cell, or a nerve cell. The generation of products is therefore no longer limited to assemblages of discrete parts made of homogeneous properties. Rather, objects can be composed of materials characterized by property gradients and multi-functionality. The collection is now on show at the Design Museum in London and is part of collaboration with Stratasys. In it, we reveal new design methods that enable design and digital fabrication of multi-functional ‘skins’ printed in ultra high resolution that matches—and ultimately transcends—the scales of nature. Of course, we hope to witness the translation of these methods into the architectural scale.
What are you creating for Milan Design Week?
Our current project is an effort to move up and out (up in scale and out of the lab or the gallery.) My team and I are currently at work on a new project involving additive manufacturing of glass on architectural scales for the Milan Design Week (April of 2017).
The second generation of our glass 3D printer—led by my team and the MIT Glass Lab—enables the design and construction of structurally sound optical lenses on architectural scales. Specifically, we can design and digitally fabricate structures that are geometrically complex and optically tunable in high spatial manufacturing resolution. Because we can design and print components with variable thicknesses and complex inner features—unlike glass blowing where the inner features reflect the outer shape—we can control solar transmittance by designing unique surface features for the inner and external surfaces of the object. Unlike a pressed or blown-glass part, which necessarily has a smooth internal surface, a printed part can have complex surface features on the inside as well as the outside.
We’ve also experimented with color gradients in the past, and have been considering ways in which coloration may affect environmental performance, specifically the harnessing of solar energy.
With almost 450 billion square feet of windows installed per annum only in the US (2015), color tuned glass 3D printing on building scales have the potential to impact—and help fight—the effects of global warming on an urban scale.
You have been seen for many years now as a leading designer and engineer in the materials space. Do you have a preference for exploring material that has an end use in fashion or architecture or in the everyday?
All of the above!
Choice is a form of compromise, no? So why chose if you can have both (or all!). Look, I believe in the balance between dreaming and building, problem seeking and problem solving, questioning and answering. This balance can be reached either by working in parallel on real world (i.e. practical) design commissions and speculative designs, or by fusing them: the applied and the speculative, the real and the projected. So far, my team and I have been working on the former; i.e. inventing and developing new design tools, techniques and technologies that have the potential to redefine the way we make things, and seeding them within speculative design contexts. Our work on high-resolution multi-material modeling and bitmap printing—which enables the design and digital fabrication of structures that can vary their mechanical and optical properties in high spatial and temporal resolutions (ones that often transcend the scale of the physical phenomena they are designed to embody)—is one good example for this. Another example is the fiber winding technique enabling variable density silk spinning)—a tool with very real and immediate applications in, as well as relevance to, fabric-based architectural structures and, of course, the fashion industry. This tool was implemented in the Silk Pavilion, a speculative project that explores the relationship between digital and biological ‘agents’ in design. In it we controlled the distribution of biologically spun silk (with the help of 6500 silkworms) structurally (using a robotically spun silk template to guide silk deposition density, organization and location) and environmentally—using the sun path diagram to dictate the movement of the silkworms on top of the scaffold structure. The glass printer, as well, began as a speculative project that gradually transformed into a promising technology with significant potential applications in product, and even architectural scales.
Think Centre Pompidou without functional or formal partitions. Instead, consider a single and continuous transparent building skin that can integrate multiple functions and can be shaped to tune its structural and environmental performance. Not unlike the human skin which serves at once as both a barrier and a filter. The prospect of this design approach entering architectural practice thrills us.
It is the embedding of new forms of design and construction within a speculative context that excites me. It has also worked well for us, especially since it is often challenging to introduce a brand new technology to the market, quickly. Built work—whether embodied in a process or in a product—is essential to who we are and what we make. But, as my colleagues and close friends know very well, we have been longing to revisit the architectural scale through the lens of some of our technological innovations, on our own terms, and we will be working towards this goal in the coming years.
On material choices: biomaterials for product and architectural scales continue to play a significant role in our work and research, particularly because these very materials—and the ability to tune their composition—so elegantly embody the material ecology approach. You get to encode material and structural behavior, across scales, by design, and that’s very exciting. The platform combines an age-old crustacean-derived material with robotic fabrication and synthetic biology to form multifunctional structures with mechanical and optical gradients across length scales. Applications include the fabrication of fully recyclable products, as well as architectural structures with graded properties. Proposed applications demonstrate environmental capabilities such as water storing structures, hydration induced shape-forming and product disintegration over time. Derived from the ocean, shaped by water and augmented by photosynthetic marine bacteria, these structures represent the transformation of a marine arthropods shell into a tree-like chitosan made skin that will ultimately convert sunlight into biofuel. The platform and its products demonstrate a material ecology approach to shape and property formation by design.
Our previous work Wanderers explored photosynthetic wearable skins and in this project we wanted to dream up the possibility of architectural building skins that are at once structurally sound, environmentally informed and have the potential to contain and flow media through them. This is yet to be achieved in architectural scale as a truly integrated system and we are now working towards this goal.
The relationship between our design ambitions and the technologies that enable them is non-platonic. There is an intimate transfer of content between product and process, artifact and technology, technique and expression.
How does it feel to have your work in MOMA and the Smithsonian and to have Paola Antonelli, senior curator at MOMA, say you are “doing what we have been trying to do for a millennia?”
Paola Antonelli is a mentor and a dear friend, a rare combination and a gift. But more than that, she is truly a force of nature in the world of design and at large. She is a fearless curator and I’ve been fortunate to know her. Here is a woman who can acquire Tetris for MoMA’s permanent collection! Here is a visionary who can acquire the @ symbol and the Google Map Pin for the collection, side-by-side an Eames chair; a creator of cultural code who can instill and inspire moral dilemmas through speculative design curation and who believes that design is the essential moral meeting ground for all. Her shows regularly reveal her unique taste in thinking, and an ability to offer insight into the often-dark human condition—by displaying, for example, a-3D printed gun as a case for open source design, or a lethal injection cocktail, as an object of design. All this and more while promoting the ‘ground-truthing’ of science, by introducing the WYSS’s Institute Organ-on-a-Chip to a Picasso enthusiast. From her, I have absorbed what I intuited: that designing systems is as valuable—and perhaps more meaningful—than merely designing objects of desire. Paola is a thought leader, who has what it takes to turn design into the universal language it deserves to be.
Hmm… I realize I did not answer the question. But perhaps, in other ways, I have.
When did you know you were onto something?
I recall a somber quarrel between two students—a materials scientist and a biologist—over the microscope’s settings. The materials scientist viewed the world through the lens of properties, the biologist—through the lens of function. That’s when I realized that it is how we set our lenses—literally and metaphorically—that ends up defining how we see the world around us, and how it sees us back, across the many realms of being: material, immaterial, spiritual. At that moment, I decided to try and transcend the notion of scale, so that I could—ultimately—float above and through the lenses, shift them as I please, often times ‘wearing’ several lenses at once. And this has also shaped my design thinking and my design (or, otherwise, humane) sensibilities, I think. I live at peace with contrast and take great joy in mediating between its poles.
The ‘Krebs Cycle of Creativity’—the sequence of reactions by which organisms generate energy—is a framework by which to travel across scales, disciplines, media and even species. I created it in order to establish a tentative, yet holistic ‘cartography’ of the interrelation between the domains of art, science, design and engineering; where one realm can incite (r)evolution inside another; and where a single individual or project can reside in multiple dominions. In a related essay—“The Age of Entaglement”—I suggested multiple ways to view the graphic: as a clock, a microscope, a compass, a gyroscope. As the space is navigated, I imagine an output of creative energy—not unlike the output of chemical energy in living cells—resulting from the fluid movement from one realm to another.
The builders say we dream too much, and the dreamers—that we are too fast to build. The geography is one of mindset, it’s not a place.
All roads lead to the “Bermuda Quadrilateral.” In 2007, John Maeda proposed a diagram under this name, based on the “Rich Gold matrix.” The map—a rectangular plot—was parceled into four quadrants, each devoted to a unique view by which to read, and act upon, the world: Science, Engineering, Design and Art. According to Maeda, to each plot a designated mission: to Science, exploration; to Engineering, invention; to Design, communication; to Art, expression. Describing the four “hats” of creativity, Rich Gold had originally drawn the matrix-as-cartoon to communicate four discrete embodiments of creativity and innovation. Mark your mindset, conquer its little acre, and settle in. Gold’s view represents four ways-of-being that are distinctly different from one another, separated by clear intellectual boundaries and mental dispositions. Like the Four Humors, each is regarded as its own substance, to each its content and its countenance. Stated differently, if you’re a citizen in one, you’re a tourist in another.
But how can we become constant travelers within a border-free, and lingo-legible ‘intellectual Pangea?’ How can we traverse a cerebral supercontinent, where the analog of world citizenship governs our identity as thinking—and creating—beings?
How can we navigate an atlas that is charted not for four hats, but for one pair of shoes, and with which we can—including some luck and a quantum leap-of-faith—inhabit multiple places at once? Can a scientist invent better solutions than an engineer? Is an artist’s mindset really all that different from a scientist’s? Are they simply two ways of operating in the world that are complementary and intertwined? Or, when practicing art, is perhaps what truly counts less the art form and more one’s (way of) being? Ultimately: is there a way to understand the culture of making which transcends a two-dimensional Euclidean geometry—four plots to match four hats—to a more holistic, integrative and globe-like approach?
What do you think we will see in the next decade when it comes to clothing and technology?
Textiles will in the future be designed as extensions of our bodies; they will be made of engineered living matter and will embody functionality unlike anything that exists today. Notions of textiles as skins have been around for many years but the way of getting there is only now emerging. 3D printed wearable living matter will become a reality in the years ahead as we discover how to control material properties using 3D printers on cellular length scales.
Most importantly, clothes will no longer be made predominantly of fibers but 3D printed matter and will no longer be inanimate but contain living matter.
To deliver flexibility and comfort (breathability) we will need to control the microstructure and composition of the clothing matter itself. Rethinking what clothing is and what functions it can deliver is very much an opportunity that will emerge in the years ahead.
Will we see much more in the next decade when it comes to 3D printing?
Yes! Due to recent advancements in digital fabrication, the scales of making, printing, and building are approaching the already micro scales of mapping. Consider, for example, the ease with which one can transition from an MRI body scan of, say, a residual limb, to a 3D print of a prosthetic device (with, by the way, 20 times the print resolution of the scan!). Or, consider the ability to 3D print synthetic; wearable skins that not only contain biological media but can also filter such media in a selective manner. Imagine the possibility of 3D printing semipermeable walls, which can allow certain molecules or ions to pass through them. Given that some of today’s printers can 3D print in 16-micron resolution—hair thickness resolution, still visible to the naked eye—it is possible to imagine designs where the channels inside a wearable contain micro-pores that can, as printing resolution increases, filter microbes and replenish the body. In this way it is possible to imagine controlling the exchange of sucrose, biofuel and other nutrients between the wearable and the skin. These synthetic, multi-material, and liquid-containing garments could operate like the human skin, as both barrier and filter.
Designs that combine top down form generation with the bottom up growth of biological systems will open up real opportunities for designers working with digital fabrication and synthetic biology. Their main benefit is that they can enable the creation of systems that are truly dynamic—products and building parts that can grow, heal, and adapt. In the end, cells are simply small self-replicating machines. If we can engineer them to perform useful tasks, simply by adding sugar and growth media, we can dream up new design possibilities such as the ones described above.
When you launched the Mediated Matter Group at MIT in 2010, did you know how popular it would become and why do you think people are so drawn to it as this moment in time?
I don’t think I think in those terms, popular or unpopular. I follow a clear vision without paying much attention to the critics. Mediated Matter started as a one woman’s group with a mission to reexamine the legacy we’ve inherited—as designers and architects—from the Industrial revolution, and help carry the world of design from the digital era into the biological era.
At the core of the mission was the thesis that the world of design has been dominated since the industrial revolution by the rigors of manufacturing and mass production; that assembly lines have dictated a world made of parts, framing the imagination of designers and builders; And that the assumption that the parts themselves are made from single materials with homogeneous properties subsequently formed into predefined shapes, and fulfilling predetermined specific functions is a part of the design belief system and usually goes unquestioned; it is also enforced by how industrial supply chains work. Mediated Matter declared the close of the digital age; where design remained constrained by the canon of the machine age—the age of assembly. But it championed and advanced novel technologies that emerged from the digital age that are today enabling engineering and production at nature’s scales, ushering in what we like to think of as the fourth industrial revolution: the biological age of and for design.
I began with a few fearless team members, and our group slowly grew in size and in research areas, from a Beatles sized group of four people, to a soccer team of 11, to a larger and an even more multi-disciplinary team. We’re excited to grow and explore what it means to scale up and out: to design in larger scales and to move beyond the walls of museums, galleries and cultural institutions. To build.
You are an interesting hybrid of a more tactical artist but yet with the mind of a technician. Is this an aberration or do you think all fashion designers and architects will have this combination in the near future?
Our projects necessitate that we invent the technologies to create them. In that sense, the relationship between our design ambitions and the technologies that enable them is, well, ‘non platonic’. There is a rather intimate transfer of content across product and process, artifact and technology, technique and expression.
A printed glass pavilion, for example, cannot be designed nor can it be built without a glass printer; our biomaterial structures could not have been designed or constructed without designing a robotic platform to design and build it; the Silk Pavilion would have not been constructed without a robotically woven scaffold on which to spin silk; the Wanderers would have not come to life without high resolution material modeling of macro-fluidic channels and the ability to print them. And so on.
Much of what we do can only be done at the MIT media lab. Hey, where else on the planet can you genetically engineer microorganisms hosted in printed microfluidic devices, or print a squid sucker ring teeth protein and use it as a new thermoplastic material for biocompatible product design? Look, traditional biking is a self limiting technology in the same way that leading a creative practice is; and thinking of a design practice through this lens is liberating, because, once you can identify its limits, you can redefine and therefore redesign it to outgrow itself. I think my lab has reached this limit and we’re now considering how to scale it up, in both size and breadth of applications.
In the end, our team operates, as a ‘predictive practice’, a laboratory in which the future of design is being actively and empirically created, not merely questioned. We don’t regard ourselves as problem solvers, but as solution finders to problems that may not yet exist. I’d hate to give up that edge. Ever.
What is your favorite piece of work you have created?
The next [one].
With the Silk Pavilion at the Media Lab, the process seemed to be the dominant throughout. Is process more important to your projects or is it the end product?
The same. In all of our works, process and product are intertwined to the point where—if successful—we cannot separate between them, they wear each other’s faces.. In all of our projects, this relationship is entangled and non compositional. It is one where the technique defines an expression as much as the expression defines the technique. And that’s also how Nature works (recall the growth of trees, the formation of the glass sponge, swarm intelligence, the birth of planets).
We seek the logic of formation rather than the description of form itself, particularly forms of logic that are often concealed, such as force fields guiding the distribution of calcium in trabecular bone. We then translate these phenomena to the product or building scale. Inspired by spongy bone, we have been exploring a new robotic construction method called ‘variable density printing,’ where the distribution of matter is informed by the desired distribution of structural load. All our projects seek to enable variation of material properties and behavior as part of the [digital] fabrication process.
Who inspires you?
Those whom I admire inspire me: Picasso, Beethoven, [Ingmar] Bergman, Bernstein, Mies of course. With the exception of Mies, I’ve read all their biographies. The Magic Lantern is my favorite.
Where do you get your news?
Ha. I’ve always preferred the gossip of the planets to chinawag because we can’t really know our place in the universe except in relation to the moon or a star, so I visit Sciencedaily for my share of Hubble’s gazes to start the day. I am an avid reader of BrainPickings, an Inventory of a Meaningful Life. Maria Popova is a hero, a muse, and a dear friend. Maureen Dowd, columnist for NYT. I admire her taste in thinking and in humor; she is also an unspoiled embodiment of a healthy feminism, one that leaves room for the boys to be gentlemen with an always fresh and progressive take on the difference between the genders. Manohla Dargis, columnist and film critic for NYT. She is a brilliant thinker and writer, expressing the perfect balance between pop culture and creations that are, well, timeless.
Is there an event you really look forward to?
New Moons. When the moon and the sun appear on the same side of the Earth, its sunny side up. Because of this, the moon becomes invisible in the night’s sky and it becomes possible to observe faint celestial objects like galaxies and stars. We often think of the moonlight as the celestial body helping us to see what’s down there (although, ironically, it has no light of its own, our apprehension of it is a reflection of the sun), but when it comes to up there, we can see so much better in its absence, when it moons.
Where do you go to refuel or be inspired in Boston and away?
New York City and Walden Pond.
What is your 'raison d’être?'
To younger generations of designers and architects, I profess that design is neither a profession nor a discipline; it is an acquired taste in synthesis. A good designer can, by virtue of design—the noun and the verb—not only solve problems but also seek them out, long before they emerge. Design, like language itself, conveys meaning through the creation of wholes that are bigger than the sum of their parts. And when a tight connection exists between method and form, technique and expression, process and product, one can enter the realm of the generative, where design transcends problem solving and becomes a system of thinking about making to attack any world problem.
Material Ecology—the design approach and its related areas of research—is therefore not limited to any categorical delineation: achieving world peace, eliminating poverty, or curing cancer. Rather, I consider my design approach—its theoretical foundations and principals, along with its collection of tools, techniques, and technologies—a system by which to address manifold issues, across scales and disciplines, from curing Malaria to populating Mars.