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Redesigning Product Design

The Media Lab’s Neri Oxman, PhD ’10, wants designers not just to dream up new products but to change the way they’re made.

On the ground floor of MIT’s Media Lab, a most unusual cocoon is being constructed. Several feet in height, it consists of 32 polygonal panels of silk threads laid down by a computer-controlled machine and then hand-sewn together into an airy three-dimensional scaffold. Though made of separate pieces, it is based on a design that uses a single line to weave the shape, much the way a silkworm constructs a cocoon out of a single kilometer-long thread. In another part of the building, thousands of gray silkworm larvae are being fattened on crushed mulberry leaves. When the worms are ready to stop eating and start spinning, they’ll be turned loose on the scaffold to fill in the spaces with their own feverish knitting, transforming the carefully designed structure into a living construction site.

Neri Oxman
Neri Oxman

Artist and designer Neri Oxman, PhD ’10, who leads the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter Group, is masterminding the project in collaboration with Fiorenzo Omenetto at Tufts University and James Weaver at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. This living scaffold, which was dreamed up and executed by members of the Mediated Matter Group, is the latest in a series of experimental structures that Oxman has created to challenge the status quo in design and production.

As a doctoral student at MIT and now as an assistant professor of media arts and sciences, Oxman has garnered accolades for objects she has designed on a computer and produced on a 3-D printer; they have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the 2010 Beijing International Art Biennale, and they are part of the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou museum in Paris. She worked with designer Iris Van Herpen and the 3-D-printing company Stratasys to create a 3-D-printed dress for this year’s Spring Fashion Week in Paris.

Pneuma 1, helmet artwork
Pneuma 1, helmet
digital materials, 2012

“A recurring theme for her work is something that’s creepy and beautiful at the same time,” says Craig Carter, her close collaborator and a professor of materials science at MIT. Oxman’s works look both strange and eerily familiar because of the way she plumbs nature’s repertoire. The objects bring to mind dappled pelts, porous sponges, cushioned wombs, and gaping jawbones, but they’re made entirely of synthetic materials jetted out of a 3-D printer. Though designed on a computer, they seem almost perversely alive.

For Oxman, the process of design is more important than the finished products. “They’re thought of as artworks, but in fact I see them as expressions of processes, or expressions of ways of thinking about making,” she says. The goal of her group is to revamp the way designers create products. She believes that nature can offer strategies for making multi­purpose buildings and objects that perform better and can be produced with less energy and waste. She has coined the term “material ecology” to describe this approach. Her hope is that just as traditional ecology examines relationships between living organisms and their environments, material ecology will examine how products interact with their environments—as well as with people and with other products—and look at the processes by which they are manufactured. Today’s designers, she believes, should be more active in designing those processes rather than simply the finished forms. Products could behave more like systems she sees in nature: complex structures that are created to perform multiple functions efficiently.

“Neri Oxman’s work looks like beautiful sculpture, but it is much more,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator at MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. “It represents the future of architecture and design. She is doing what we have been trying to do for millennia—capturing the secrets of nature to learn how to build, organize, and generate.”

Oxman launched the Mediated Matter Group in 2010. The name implies that just as in nature all matter is “mediated” by its environment—plants and animals must adapt to it in order to survive—design should take the environment into account. “I also believe that materials are the new software, hence the ‘media’ within ‘mediated,’” she says. Materials have become increasingly programmable, in part because of digital fabrication techniques like 3-D printing, in which objects are designed and modeled on a computer and then translated into physical form. Unlike more traditional fabrication techniques that cut or remove material, 3-D printing adds material in layers, making it possible to rapidly build structures with micrometer-­scale resolution.

Leviathan 1, armor artwork
Leviathan 1, armor
digital materials, 2012

Nature, she believes, offers new ideas for fabricating products. Today, most are assembled from discrete parts designed for a singular purpose. (A car, for example, is built by joining together components as diverse as the stiff steel chassis, a protective shell, transparent windows, and comfortable padding.) But Oxman is more interested in constructing integrated objects that are strong, soft, supportive, breathable, light-absorbing, reflective, opaque, or transparent where needed. She uses the analogy of skin: though it is one continuous “part” of the body, its properties vary gradually, so that it can include both callused heels and tissuelike eyelids. In the same way, product designs could specify the precise—and perhaps varying—performance requirements of the materials. The result could be smarter, more streamlined designs that have practical benefits.

Typically, 3-D printing uses a single material to create shapes with uniform properties, which limits their range of performance. Creating objects with varying properties requires a different approach. A project called Beast, from her PhD work, uses a cell-like pattern of both soft and stiff acrylic materials in the printing of a chaise longue, creating one continuous undulating surface that varies in thickness, stiffness, curvature, flexibility, and pattern density in order to offer structural support and comfort where needed. Oxman envisions someday constructing buildings using swarms of 3-D-printing robots. For now, her team has been developing new printing methods. In one, a robotic arm functions as a 3-D printer but can move freely in space to add materials outside the bounds of a printer gantry, the movable frame that places the printer head in position. Others in her lab, including ­mechanical-engineering grad student Steven ­Keating, SM ’12, are “printing” with fast-curing foams that can be left in place as molds for other castable structural materials like plastics.

Oxman is also exploring 3-D printing techniques that depart from the conventional method of laying down sequential layers of materials. In research parallel to the silkworm pavilion, her group uses a robotic arm fitted with a head that can extrude plastic materials in a thread. By using a magnetic motion sensor to track the figure-eight movements of a silkworm, the group is hoping to program those movements into the robotic arm in order to create a large-scale cocoonlike structure for observation. Oxman says printing methods that build with threads or fibers rather than layers could achieve more sophisticated structures, more like the ones found in nature. In contrast, the 3-D-printing industry is focusing on making printers bigger, faster, and cheaper. “If we can print materials, can we weave materials? These are very different research questions than the ones industry is asking,” she says. Her work is less about creating the next printer and more about inspiring completely new approaches to designing and producing artificial objects.

Silkworm fiber on digitally fabricated scaffold
Silk Pavilion, Installation
Silkworm fiber on digitally fabricated scaffold, 2013
Constructed by Oxman and Mediated Matter Group members Markus Kayser, Jared Laucks, Carlos David Gonzalez Uribe, and Jorge Duro-Royo

Oxman, 37, grew up in Haifa, Israel. After serving in the Israeli army for three years, she entered medical school but switched to architecture—which was perhaps inevitable for a child of two architects. She studied at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and completed her diploma at the Architectural Association in London. After working at London architectural offices, she came to MIT as a PhD student and Presidential Fellow in the Computation Group under the late Bill Mitchell, former dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. As she forged collaborations with Carter and other faculty members, she expanded her focus from using computers to design objects to rethinking fabrication techniques as well. Her interest in imitating natural forms deepened into a desire to mimic the processes that generate them.

Her collaboration with Carter has been a rich one. Oxman often begins a project by sending him an image: a cocoon, a mushroom, a snake skin. Carter comes up with algorithms that give rise to something similar—not producing the form directly, but allowing a similar structure to evolve. One of Oxman’s goals is to remove the designer from the design, letting the algorithm create the form.

But it’s Oxman who determines the final piece. It’s this interpretive step, Antonelli says, that goes beyond mimicking nature to creating “new artifacts that are more than the sum of their parts.”

The collaboration has taken both Oxman’s and Carter’s work in new directions: not many materials scientists get to see their creations displayed at the Pompidou. For that exhibit, Carter, Oxman, and Joe Hicklin of the software company MathWorks created a series of objects inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, pairing mythology and nature to make fantastical but functional pieces for the body. A stretchable pregnancy corset has an armor shell and a soft internal membrane to support the belly as it grows. Body armor is made lightweight and comfortable with ripples, folds, and channels inspired by lung tissue and sponges. A flexible helmet made of undulating soft and stiff materials draws on anatomical scans of the human head to ensure that stiff materials are concentrated around soft fatty tissue and soft materials around bony protrusions.

“She’s using this wonderful imagination about what could be,” Carter says. “She’s intellectually fearless.”

That fearlessness is evident in the Silk Pavilion at the Media Lab. Not all designers would be eager to relinquish partial control of their projects to insects, but Oxman is eager to see the outcome: rather than simply mimicking nature, the Mediated Matter team invites it in as part of construction. “That process of metamorphosis, making it part of the design process, and linking [them] together—maybe that’s the ultimate definition of material ecology that I wanted to get to,” she muses from her office three floors above the pavilion-in-progress.

Oxman speaks with poise and a deliberate intensity, but also with an earnest sense of wonder. One has the sense that the silkworm piece, which wrapped up in late April, was created not to demonstrate an idea but to discover something.

All products are defined by the fabrication tool used to create them, she says. “The most beautiful products, or the most elegant or seductive products, in my mind are those that tell a story of a process.”

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