Neri Oxman's experiments with 3D printing include furniture coverings that behave like skin, clothes that mimic a spider's thread and medical equipment modelled onw animal fur. Could such "biologically inspired" design hold the key to the technology's future?
At the MIT Media Lab, where "the future is lived, not imagined", Neri Oxman runs the Mediated Matter research group. Since 2011, the Israeli designer and her team have studied and created "products and processes integrating environmentally aware, computational, form-generation processes and digital fabrication". At the heart of this endeavour is a radical shift in the world of 3D printing, with the machine becoming a form-giver rather than merely a form-replicator. For Oxman, 3D technology is not simply an end point that converts existing information a single layer at a time to manufacture small-scale, modular objects. She conceives of a much more radical, "biologically inspired" model of design and fabrication – one that integrates natural processes, yields "intelligent" materials and poses questions with groundbreaking implications for printing technology. Can we, she asks, make objects that integrate the properties of continuous mutability, variation and adaptability that are the hallmarks of the plant and animal kingdoms? How might we "grow" products rather than assemble them? Is it possible to use 3D printing to create large-scale environments? And can we move beyond a static 3D paradigm towards a fourth dimension, with products that transform over time?
Mintotaur Head with Sutures, 2012, digital materials (image: Yoram Reshef)
We meet in Oxman's office, one of the many identical grey cubicles that make up the recent extension to IM Pei's original Wiesner building by the Japanese firm Maki and Associates. Here, she keeps beautiful conch shells, delicate animal skulls and miniature versions of exquisite design prototypes, which are scattered in permanent collections at local and international museums including the Museum of Science in Boston, MoMA in New York and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She picks these objects up from time to time to illustrate her inspirations and to explain the logic that animates her primary research questions. Each of her projects emerges from a basic premise: "If nature is sustainable and beautiful, how can we make things that are sustainable and beautiful?" To this end, her work continually draws on the natural world in order to learn how materials change and adapt to accommodate different needs: she has examined the behaviour of spiders, which spin up to eight different threads during their lifetime, each possessing a unique density related to its specific purpose; she has investigated the "spatially varying microstructures" of sponges and skin tissue; and she has studied the way in which social insects such as termites, ants, wasps and bees demonstrate a collective "swarm intelligence".
Beast (2008-10), a prototype chaise longue (image: Objet and Yoram Reshef)
One of Oxman's earliest prototypes, Beast (2008-10), is a design for a sinuous chaise longue informed by the adaptable qualities of skin, which possesses different densities depending upon which part of the body it is sheathing. What makes Beast unique is that it consists of eight different materials that were printed in one piece as a continuous surface and that it actively responds to the weight and contours of the sitter. In this respect, Oxman is both following in and diverging from the footsteps of high modernists such as Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier: she is interested in the ways that objects, furniture and built spaces can profoundly alter the body's behaviour; yet she departs from the modernist ethos that form follows function in that the materials in her prototypes are neither separate nor static, but heterogeneous and constantly expanding and evolving.
Iris Van Herpen's 3D printed cape and skirt, 2013 (image: Iris can Herpen)
In January 2013, at Paris Fashion Week, Oxman presented this type of elision between nature and technology in a collaboration with Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen. Along with the other couture creations in Van Herpen's Voltage collection was a 3D-printed skirt and cape that acted like a "second skin". Using a technology developed by Stratasys, Oxman combined hard and soft materials in one printed design, which meant that the piece could fuse with the model's shape and mimic her movement. Moving on the runway, the piece, with its trompe l'oeil seashells, shimmied and palpitated ever so gently. "Tech couture" holds immense potential for reinterpreting the construction of clothing, but Oxman's goals extend beyond the demands of contemporary fashion to reflect her varied intellectual background, which includes studies in medicine as well as architecture and design computation. She has explored the use of 3D printing to treat medical conditions, with Carpal Tunnel (2009-10), a customised wrist splint inspired by animal coats that adapts itself to the "pain profile" of its patient by distributing hard and soft materials according to the wearer's requirements. Minotaur Head with Sutures (2012), meanwhile, is a fantastical headpiece that considers the technology's potential to protect military personnel.
Arachné armour/corset, 2012, digital materials (image: Yoram Reshef)
Most recently, in the series Imaginary Beings: Mythologies of the Not Yet, which debuted at the exhibition Creative Multiversities at the Pompidou Centre in May 2012, Oxman collaborated with W Craig Carter from MIT, Joe Hicklin from software company Mathworks, and Israeli 3D printing company Object. For this collection, Oxman was inspired by the parallels between mythology and design. "Design" she wrote in a statement about the series, "has consistently dealt with amplifying human powers or compensating for human limitation. It is not surprising, then, that mythological 'beings' are often portrayed as personifications of natural forces." What was once deemed impossible or merely fanciful – existing in the penumbra of "the not yet" – is actualised through design and material technologies. In various public statements, Oxman has made the spider an archetype for her practice. "In more ways than one," she says, "spider spinnerets are the antecedents of multi-material printers." Arachné, one of the most arresting pieces in Imaginary Beings, draws upon the myth of the mortal weaver who was transformed into a spider by the jealous goddess Athena. Practically, it is a corset that mimics the heterogeneous quality of a spider's thread – each fragment of its surface responding to a particular anatomical need – with the rib cage requiring extra protection and the chest necessitating softer, suppler qualities. Gravida, a corset named after a fertility goddess and conceived especially for pregnant women, is designed to support the growing belly. The material not only functions like a stretchable carapace but also responds to changing external conditions, so that it retains heat in cold temperatures. Meanwhile, the amphibious-looking Remora is named after the suckerfish, an animal known for its symbiotic relationship with larger marine animals. This whimsical contraption acts as a pelvic corset that attaches itself with suction to the human body and can be adapted to be worn on the inside or outside of the pelvic region in order to address different medical issues.
Oxman is also occupied by the question of scale. How, she asks, might multiple 3D printers communicate with one another in order to fabricate larger objects and spaces? To imagine this scenario, she looks at the autonomous synchronisation of swarming termites. What if an army of 3D printers could communicate in the same way? Although this may not be on the immediate horizon, in Oxman's telling, since "nature allows us to find forms", theoretically there must be a way to imagine constructing whole buildings with 3D-printed material (load-bearing walls would be created by denser areas, non-load bearing walls would be lighter, and natural lighting would be provided by nearly translucent parts of the surface). Another piece of this puzzle is the issue of layering, which is one of the most significant limits confronting 3D printing today. While current machines produce objects through consecutive layering, Oxman is engineering an additive technology distinguished by its ability to weave. In this new paradigm, she says, "material is deposited in space without layers", creating a continuous system that grows and changes over time. Buildings created with 3D technology could potentially respond to their environment in real time and, in this way, initiate a whole new phase in the conception of sustainable, energy-efficient architecture.
The future of 3D printing is as rich as the human imagination. For instance, Oxman wonders whether one day it will be possible to use 3D technology to print with DNA and create a synthetic skin. Could we imagine a chair that would grow along with us as our body transforms over time? Might we be able to tweet a physical object ("tweet-fab") and perfectly align digital fabrication with the digital age? These musings simultaneously highlight the most problematic and productive sides of such innovation. On the one hand, there would, of course, be ethical dilemmas with a process such as printing human DNA, but on the other, there is a broad and non-hierarchical distribution of power among the public if it is given the opportunity to harness the digital revolution and social media. Oxman considers such radical advancements "a return to craft through complexity ... the digital fabrication revolution is the possibility to perform 'rapid craft'". Though this may be the world of artificial design, it is one in which craftsmanship has not been lost but is simply redefined. "Digital craft," Oxman says, moves "beyond its traditional description or meaning ... and may be reinterpreted as a set of instructions combining knowledge and application, matter and tools ... Today, rapid prototyping technologies offer this knowledge to the people. But there's obviously more to the notion of rapid craft than hitting the 'on' button. Therein lies the art."
Gravida (pregnancy corset), 2012 (image: Yoram Reshef)
Gravida's hard exterior armour shell (image: Yoram Reshef)