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Neri Oxman: Design is truly alive

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Celebrated designer Neri Oxman wonders what is the origin of form? How do we invent form? Is it a preconcieved image of narrative? Intelligent design? Getting rid of the stone in the way, as Michelangelo speculated?

If form is to follow function, how is that function tested and evaluated?

It has been my assumption that design by shift of perspective may be, perhaps, considered a second nature.

I’ve accumulated a set of design research experiments inspired by nature. Pioneers in this approach are few. Like Buckminster Fuller, they are immense in stature, the form finders of the 1970s. They asked not what an object wants to be, but what a material wants to be. They developed a hands-off spirit towards design which has profound implications for how we make things today, and how we perceive sustainability.

Nature offers not forms, but processes to think about forms – recipes that mix material and form together, relationships from which form emerges. She’s been mapping precedents and procedures, using a method she’s invented called computational form finding. A designer can approach these tools and edit within the set of constraints.

Instead of designing 2D or 3D forms and sending them off for analysis, we invert the process and start from analysis, generating forms from what we learn in the analysis.

Nature is a grand materials engineer – abalone shells are twice as strong as our best ceramics, and spider silk is five times stronger than steel. And nature designs multifunctional structures – our muscles support us mechanically, but also manage and conserve our energy.

But there are things that nature does not do – trees do not grow into the heaven. Why can’t they? Nature didn’t invent pumps – we did and then build the skyscraper. Nature didn’t build wheels – we did and built the factory and the industrial revolution.

Her father, an architect, presented her with an image of the first glass skyscraper – a study in the separation of material from function. It’s her anti-building – the steel is for structure, the glass for environment. With design like this – and with pumps and wheels – there are ways we harm our planet and increase our carbon footprint.

What’s a natural way to design that use and utlilize natural principles and embrace technological advancement? What would nature 2.0 look like? Would we be beating nature? Or designing a sustainable way.

She shows a microscoping photograph of the membrane of an eggshell. It looks like an insulative ceiling panel. She explains that, like many things in nature, it’s made from fibers. It allows heat exchange, and also has profound strength. If you understand this image, she tells us, you’ll understand her entire work.

Neri Oxman, photo by Kris Krüg

She was invited by Paula Antonelli to invite four objects for a show at MOMA – instead, she chose to design four processes. The idea behind this was multifunctionality – the idea that a structure could both support and engage in heat exchange. She shows a printed material, which has white and dark spaces – the black are stiff and supportive, while the white conduct heat.

She shows us a canyon, sculpted by water and wind. She shows a material she’s designed that can be sculpted by a designer with light, to have thickness and translucency, based on what’s needed by the lighting conditions.

Designers might be more like gardeners in the future, selecting for environmental fitness – we recognize that a glass house would work very differently in Iceland than from in the Sahara.

In the late 19th century, Julius Wolfe discovered that bone could create stronger, more calcified structures when put under weight. The bone is doing design and execution at the same time – we don’t do this as designers. Bones lose density in space, gain it during pregnancy – how do we design in the integrated way that our bones grow?

What can design do for science and technology? Using algorithms, we know we can map load. We can map heat and light. What does this mean for the medical industry?

Pain is a personal thing, and difficult to map. And it’s always been poorly treated by Western medicine. Second skin is a process designed to map the pain profile of a particular patient, and then distribute hard and soft materials to match her needs. The patterns are like the spots of a cheetah, but they’re spots of hard and soft, designed in conjunction with a top materials scientist at MIT.

This has led to a glove designed for carpal tunnel sufferers, custom gloves designed for an individual’s particular pathology. Mass-produced braces are too big or too small – by unfolding the skin of your wrist digitally, she reforms the pain profile into a tool that holds and constrains the movement.

Beast was a project to design a customizable chaise lounge – printed from a material that holds itself structurally, while cradling pressure points. It’s like sitting in your acupuncturist or massage therapist, she tells us.

How do we generate a new technology that caters to more sustainable ways of making and doing things? Can we print buildings as if we were 3D printing bones and save 50% of materials? We can. At MIT’s Media Lab, she’s creating something called Variable Process Printing, which allows us to print buildings as if we were printing oysters at a thousand times their scale.

“Design is truly alive because it’s truly, truly relevant… It’s high time we transcend the fallen state of design into a new and exciting paradigm of literally making our future… and it’s happening.”

(Read my notes on an earlier Neri Oxman talk.)

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