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Produced in collaboration with Stratasys, the Lazarus death masks are designed to contain a user's last breath.|||
Produced in collaboration with Stratasys, the Lazarus death masks are designed to contain a user's last breath.
05 Mar 2020

At MoMA, Neri Oxman proposes sustainable futures for design

Words by  Photo by Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group

Material Ecology collects the American-Israeli designer’s pioneering projects, which create sustainable materials for architecture and design based on nature

Since the turn of the century, the American-Israeli architect, computational designer, academic, inventor and artist Neri Oxman has stood at the bleeding edge of new design materials and methodologies. Material Ecology, a new exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), presents a chance to explore her career to date. 

The term Material Ecology was coined by Oxman to describe a new discipline in which advances in computational design, synthetic biology and 3-D printing are combined to create environmentally-sustainable new materials. 

In 2015, Oxman and Mediated Matter invented a process for 3D-printing glass. Courtesy The Mediated Matter GroupIn 2015, Oxman and Mediated Matter invented a process for 3D-printing glass. Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group.

Influenced by structural and systematic patterns found in nature, as well as its aesthetic allure, Oxman’s practice imagines groundbreaking ways of pushing art and architecture forward.

Born in Haifa, Isreal to architect parents, Oxman initially enrolled in medical studies before switching to architecture, graduating from Techinon in Haifa and London’s Architectural Association. In 2005, she moved to MIT to work on her PhD, where in 2010, she was made an associate professor. She has led the Meditated Matter Group at MIT Media Lab since, an interdisplinary research team focusing on ‘Nature-inspired design and design-inspired Nature.’

View through Silk Pavilion apertures as the silk worms skin the structure. Photo: The Mediated Matter Group. Courtesy The Mediated Matter GroupView through Silk Pavilion apertures as the silk worms skin the structure. Photo and courtesy of: The Mediated Matter Group.

The exhibition at MoMA, which was curated by Paola Antonelli, gathers many of Mediated Matter’s projects to date. Cross-disciplinary in inception and varied in outcome, these can sometimes seem fantastical. They are also often aesthetically beautiful, a far cry from dry exercises, and push the capabilities technologically such as 3D-printing to their as yet most advanced forms.

The first series of Vespers explores the death mask as a cultural object. Photo: Yoram ReshefThe first series of Vespers explores the death mask as a cultural object. Photo: Yoram Reshef

Oxman and the Mediated Matters Group have initiated design processes based on the observation of slime moulds, crustacean shells and the flow of human breath. They have constructed sheaves of compostable chitin based on the shells of shrimp, had silkworms weave a geodesic dome-esque canopy and created ‘wearables’ for use in outer space. For Björk, they made a mask based on the singer’s own facial tissue.

As outlandish as Oxman’s ideas can seem outlandish from afar, they have resulted in numerous significant innovations. In 2015, for instance, Oxman and Mediated Matter became the first researchers to learn how to 3D print transparent glass, a process with numerous applications in the design of architectural facades.

Aguahoja I is a pavilion made entirely from natural materials. Photo by and courtesy of: The Mediated Matter Group. Courtesy The Mediated Matter GroupAguahoja I is a pavilion made entirely from natural materials. Photo by and courtesy of: The Mediated Matter Group. Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group.

The Fiberbots, which she unveiled in 2018, are robots able to swiftly build tubular structures by winding fibreglass filaments around themselves, opening up the potential for self-constructing buildings. Aguahoja I, a robotically-fabricated pavilion made from materials taken from insects, bones, trees and apples, proposes the use of biomaterial in architecture on a previously unseen scale.

Existing at a unique crossroads between design, science and biological research, Oxman's experiments may yet transform the future of architecture and design.

Neri Oxman: Material Ecology is at MoMA, New York until 25 May.

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