If genius is 99 percent perspiration (and 1 percent inspiration), then entrepreneurs surely walk the fine line that separates the Einsteins of the world from those poor sweaty souls who practice yoga in saunas. The archetypal startup is the lone inventor in a basement pursuing his or her passion with relentless energy. Somewhere between the original spark of genius and a successfully profitable enterprise, though, lies a maturation process that pits the inventor’s vision against the cold and cynical outlook of the business world. Often the 1 percent-a deep and highly individual creative desire-gets lost amid the desire to look and feel like a “real” company. But it is quirky proclivities combined with the sweat that creates the innovations around which successful businesses are formed.
Maggie Orth, founder, president, and sole employee of International Fashion Machines, may not yet qualify as a genius (such labels being generally applied retrospectively), but she certainly has expended the kind of obsessive effort that would make Dr. Einstein proud. Orth creates what she calls interactive textiles-fabrics with technology literally woven in-that can do things such as change color, broadcast and receive radio signals, or act as keyboards under one’s fingertips.
Many regard the seamless weaving of technology into our personal environments as an inevitable trend with huge profit potential (witness the dramatic expansion of wireless networking, for one), and Orth is no exception. She believes integrating electronics into the clothes we wear, the fabrics we sit on, and the materials that clad our walls is the next logical step.
Yet one look at Orth’s interactive fabrics, and it’s obvious that she is driven by far more than a desire to capitalize on a hot trend. Simply put, her pieces are stunningly beautiful. Her “electric plaid” fabrics, for instance, are intricately woven with fibers that shift colors when heated via electronic controls. The result is a sublimely animated, vividly colored wall covering that is constantly in motion.
The strong aesthetics of Orth’s creations are no surprise: she trained as an artist at the Rhode Island School of Design before earning a PhD at MIT’s Media Lab. “The problem I had when I got to MIT is that I couldn’t make beautiful things out of technology,” she says. Orth quickly solved that problem, creating, among other items, a jacket with a built-in musical synthesizer played via an embroidered keypad and an haute-couture “firefly” evening gown with integral lighting that sparkled and flashed as the wearer walked.