"This Woman Makes Chairs That Will Hug You" - Esquire article re: Neri Oxman
This Woman Makes Chairs That Will Hug You
MIT designer Neri Oxman shows the lifeless things in your world — clothing, walls, chairs — can be alive and adapt. That makes materials the new software.
She lives in a converted knob factory a few blocks from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neri Oxman's apartment — a series of cold white walls and clean right angles — has all the warmth of a parking garage.
Which is just a little ironic. "This apartment is the antithesis of everything my work celebrates," says Oxman, thirty-three, who is finishing up her Ph.D. and teaching at MIT.
Come back in twenty years and, if Oxman has her way, her world will look very different — buildings will be curvy and organic, echoing the structure of, say, pinecones or human skin. But more than that, the buildings will practically be alive. They'll move and adapt. Carbon nanotube walls will breathe through pores that change sizes. Chairs will reshape themselves to fit your body as you sit down. Clothes will have information from your DNA encoded in them and literally grow as you do.
Back in present-day Cambridge, where buildings remain lifeless, Oxman is in front of her huge computer screen. She clicks on an image of her best-known work: Beast — a chaise longue that looks like a small dinosaur. It's made from eight materials of varying flexibility. It hugs your body, reacting to each movement. One design magazine compared it to a "really excellent lover."
"We're not only designing form," she says. "We're also designing behavior, and that's what I see as a super big deal."
Oxman was born to two architecture professors in Israel. (She still has a trace of an accent.) She went to medical school but decided against a career as a doctor and ended up at MIT's media lab doing a mishmash of design, architecture, art, and computer programming.
But the med-school anatomy came in handy. One of her big inspirations? Human bone. Bones get thicker when a woman is pregnant and thinner when people are in outer space. It's exactly this process she's trying to mimic with her latest project: composite walls made of rubber, plastic, and other materials. They're designed to react to structural and environmental factors like weight and wind, forming columns and windows in the ideal places. (She's collaborating with MIT materials-science professor Craig Carter.) Another? Leopard spots. She's designed anti-carpal-tunnel gloves with customized patterns of stiffness inspired by animal coats.
Oxman splits her time between designing algorithms on her computer and building prototypes in an MIT basement filled with scary-looking machines: water-jet cutters and printers that spit out three-dimensional forms. So far, her work isn't ready for general consumption. Most pieces are housed in museums like MoMA or the Boston Museum of Science. She says she'll let others mass-produce from the processes she invents.
"We're going from an information era to a material era," she says. "The information will be embedded in the material itself. We won't all be looking at screens all the time."