Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Neri Oxman – form-finding, not form-making

I’m in Providence, Rhode Island today speaking at BIF-5 – the Business Innovation Factory’s fifth annual storytelling conference. I’ll be doing my best to blog when not on stage.

Neri Oxman tells us a story about an art critic visiting Jackson Pollock. Seeing no models or photos in his studio, he asked, “Do you work from nature?” Pollock replied, “I am nature.”

Oxman tells us that she’s interested in process, not product, method, not merchandise, systems, not segments. This means moving from the idea of artist as a God, creating immaculately from the vision in the mind, to an approach based on form-finding, not form-making. This is about “letting material tell its own stories.”

Her working method involves looking at natural specimens, bringing them into digital domains and then back into the physical with design outputs. We tend to produce objects by modeling, analyzing and then fabricating. But nature combines these projects together. “I move to space, I lose 15% of bone mass in two weeks – I get pregnant and gain it back. Nature produces bone using these three processes at once.”

She shows a textile she developed via a process that allows a designer to pick certain solutions from an evolutionary algorithm, rather than explicitly designing solutions. A similar project led her to build a structural skin using a stiff black material and a soft, white, light-transmitting material – the structural material is able to adapt thicknesses to the load, creating highly custom solutions to problems. This material was used to create a Chaise lounge which was designed around the pressure map of a user’s body against a surface. The chair was generated via 3D printing and mixes softness and stiffness in a way that’s customized for a particular user.

Oxman suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, and complains about the non-customizability of the splints that are available to the general public. Working with materials scientist Craig Carter at MIT, she drew “pain maps” of her hands and was able to design custom splints that provide great stability and flexibility.” The key is to design from the materials and the form of the user, not from the artist’s pristine vision.

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