Photo courtesy of Mike Siegel

This article first appeared in 2009 when I was writing for the MIT graduate student run news magazine The Graduate. However the website is no longer available and as far as I can tell The Graduate does not currently exist (perhaps it will be revived in another form someday as it has in the past). I really enjoyed working on these articles so I will be posting them on my blog over the next month. They mostly focus on groundbreaking work of graduate students at MIT.

At only 33 years of age, Neri Oxman’s list of accomplishments and accolades is exhaustive. The graduate student in the School of Architecture was most recently commissioned for an exhibit, Neri Oxman: At the frontier of ecological design, currently on display at the Museum of Science here in Boston, that highlights the unique biological influence in her design. She has been variously described as an architect, engineer, biologist, and computer scientist for her work that melds these myriad disciplines. She is intelligent and thoughtful, gracious and warm, and highly photogenic as a quick google image search of her name will prove.

Although an architecture student, Oxman’s work is a thing of art.  Taking inspiration from the natural world, she transforms nature, using computer algorithms, into impossibly complex, organic, three dimensional forms.  Her models are based on the fine structure of butterfly wings, bones, cells, informed perhaps by her earlier pursuits in the field of medicine.

For example, Raycounting, featured at last year’s Design and the Elastic Mind Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, resembles a cartilaginous carapace, a landscape of light and shadow created by a double curvature of its walls forming thick and thin areas of varying opacity.  It is one of Oxman’s pieces from the exhibit that are now a part of MoMA’s permanent collection.

Raycounting - Photo Courtesy of Neri Oxman

Her designs are also shaped by their purpose.  One of her most provocative pieces yet, Beast, is a fluid, corporeal chaise lounge straight out of the depths of Pan’s Labyrinth.  It is a single surface comprised of “cells” of materials whose flexibility, curvature, and stability change and respond to the human body at points of pressure.

Beast - Photo courtesy of Neri Oxman

And because working towards a PhD in design computation is not enough, in 2006 Oxman formed Materialecology, an interdisciplinary research initiative, as a further outlet for her creativity.  The works previously mentioned arose from this project.  “Materialecology is a cultivated, intellectual working environment.  It’s an online journal to collect my thoughts and work,” explains Oxman.

While working, Oxman disciplines herself to switch between different modes of thinking during her day.  Mornings are spent writing, while afternoons are reserved for the physical process of making.  Nights are dedicated to generating algorithms and computer modeling.  And like most MIT students, Oxman notes she “spends many hours in front of a computer.”

To construct these highly imaginative forms, Oxman has created a new way of 3D printing.  Known as FAB.REcology it moves beyond tradition methods of 3D printing by mixing materials to create structures whose density varies from region to region.  This creates effects of light, and allows dense, structural support to be built directly into the design.  This idea may one day revolutionize building and construction.

For her work on Materialecology and FAB.REcology, Oxman has been honored as one of the 100 Most Creative People by Fast Company magazine and appeared on the cover of the issue.  She was also the winner of the first ever The Earth Awards hosted by the inimitable Charlie Rose.

Oxman’s choice of MIT to pursue her graduate degree was deliberate.  She felt drawn to MIT for its “culture of making and thinking and its great interdisciplinary spirit. I feel liberated by its unstructured nature.”

At the moment Oxman’s work is on a small scale, but she hopes to live to the day when ideas like hers can be implemented in full scale in the design of buildings.  “This is difficult now,” says Oxman, “because the construction industry is so far behind in advancements in materials.”  She points out that, “there is a mismatch between the scale of knowledge and the scale of application.  The smaller the product, the more advanced the design.”  For example, moving from a building, to a car, to a medical device, there is a similar movement to more sophisticated technology and materials.

For now, Oxman is transitioning from designing on the scale of furniture to the scale of building components.  She wants to build larger, but is adamant she will do this “without compromising the values and the science.”