Neri Oxman is an award-winning architect, designer and artist, as well as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, where she leads the Mediated Matter research group. Beyond her polymath résumé, however, she is known for her pioneering work, which uses technology to create new materials, objects and construction processes.
Oxman recently shared with us her creative and design process and how 3D printing technology has helped bring her ideas to life, allowing her to not only design complex shapes, but to quickly iterate during the design process and optimize the structure and aesthetics as she goes.
We had a chance to catch up with Neri and asked about her boundary-pushing vision, process and work. And, of course, her use of 3D printing.
Where do you find inspiration and how do you factor in technology like 3D printing?
I find inspiration in everything and consider every day and phase of the moon a blessing! Being grateful enables one to assume a bigger identity while continuously challenging the status quo.
Printing is perceived as a technology designed to enable the creation of three-dimensional objects with material being added consecutively, in a layer-by-layer fashion. But beyond the know-how associated with this technology, it offers ways to link the creation of shape with its construction method, bringing us back to age-old craft traditions that preceded the industrial revolution.
How has 3D printing enhanced and advanced how you bring your artistic vision to life?
The quest to create a ‘charmed’ material, which can transform as a function of desired structural and environmental conditions, has been at the core of our work since the very beginning, actually since 2002 when we began implementing printing as part of our design process. 3D printing is one of several methods that enable the creation of an object in an additive manner. Although still far from biological growth, additive manufacturing — especially multi-material 3D printing— enables designers to combine the creation of complex geometrical shapes with equally complex material compositions.
The ability to leverage scale and material composition enables the creation of artifacts that approach natural structures in both resolution and complexity. Objects are no longer assemblages of discrete parts with homogeneous properties. Rather, like organs, they can be computationally ‘grown’ and 3D printed to form heterogeneous and multi-functional constructs.
How has your creative process evolved since you incorporated 3D printing?
In the context of my team’s work, we like to think that rather than choosing materials and technologies to work with, they chose us. We like to work with systems of materials rather than materials.
When we choose a material system, it becomes easier to ‘hack’ its properties across scales. Selecting a material system is directly linked, in our work, to the technology we create to process it. We take great joy in working with age-old materials such as silk, biopolymers and even glass, generating new ways by which to give them shape.
What are some examples of co-creation with Stratasys?
Monocoque was the first project we’ve worked on. It was one of the earliest examples of design at the intersection of computation and multi-material 3D printing to create a structural part that was at once stiff and soft, varying its material composition as a function of its anticipated loads.
With some objects in the Imaginary Beings Collection we were able to push the boundaries of bitmap printing. In collaboration with The Mathworks, we came up with new ways to compute and manufacture bitmap textures that enable property variation at scales native to the resolution of the printer. Most recently, with the third and final series of Vespers, commissioned as part of Naomi Kaempfer’s intriguing New Ancient Collection, we explored combinations of living and non-living components, integrating chemical signals into the resins we used for printing. Such signals enable the 3D printed part to communicate with cells living on the surface of the print. In this way, the print can embody pre-programmed control over genes expressed on its surface.
Think about the implications: Chemical substances such as vitamins, antibodies or microbial drugs could be integrated into a wearable interface customized to fit the genetic makeup of its user. Other potential uses include smart packaging that can detect contamination or environmentally responsive architectural skins that can respond and adapt, in real time, to environmental cues.
How has your relationship with Stratasys influenced your work?
I am grateful for the companies and organizations I’ve nurtured relationships with over the past decades, Stratasys being one of them. The quality of such relationships contributes to being able to effectively realize projects. It has been fun to witness the relationship evolve throughout the years, as projects increased in scale, geometrical intricacy and material complexity. Such challenges are often coupled with high levels of motivation for problem-solving and for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, on both sides.
When challenge is met with insane levels of motivation you know you’re working with the right kind of people. That’s been my relationship with Stratasys and I remain proud of what we’ve accomplished together.
What’s next? What do you hope to try that you haven’t yet attempted?