By Molly Langmuir
The designer and architect Neri Oxman carefully makes her way up the steps to the stage of MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. It’s late February, and Oxman, a tenured professor at the school who wears a black top, black velvet pants, and high black patent leather stiletto, is nearly seven months pregnant. Onstage she gives the audience, assembled for an event celebrating the university’s new Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, a beatific smile.
“It has become increasingly challenging to differentiate between the man-made and the nature-grown,” she says, her hands loosely cupped around her belly. “In my [research] group, we believe in the future; we will not build our products and our architecture, but rather we will grow them.”
Since 2010, Oxman has directed the Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab, which is known for producing radically interdisciplinary work, but even in that context, her specialty is so novel she had to come up with a new term for it (she calls it material ecology). Technically, Oxman utilizes computational design and elements of architecture, 3-D printing, materials science, engineering, and synthetic biology to develop solutions “to problems that may not yet exist,” as she often puts it.
What this means in practice is that she has produced everything from a silk pavilion—a suspended dome of silk fibers spun by a robotic arm, completed by 6,500 live silkworms—to a design concept for a wearable digestive system incorporating photosynthetic bacteria that convert solar energy into sugar, which could be utilized, she once said, on Jupiter’s moons. Almost all her work contains a pristine, fractal beauty generally found only in nature. Oxman is often, by the way, compared to Leonardo da Vinci. She also has an uncanny resemblance to a movie star.
Even before receiving her PhD from MIT in design and computation in 2010, Oxman, now 43, had come to be considered one of the leading figures in her field. Since then her acclaim has only grown. Her 2015 TED Talk has been viewed over 2 million times. Last year, she won one of Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Awards. This coming October she'll receive SFMoMA's 2019 Contemporary Vision Award and in February 2020, she’ll have an exhibition dedicated to her work at MoMA.
Her approach has attracted the attention of Björk (for whom she produced a 3-D-printed Rottlace mask), fashion designer Iris van Herpen (with whom she collaborated on 3-D-printed clothes), and the Dalai Lama and Brad Pitt (who were both interested in an otherworldly-looking chaise lounge that turns one’s voice into a vibration). “It’s quite exceptional, the amount of attention that she gets,” says Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab. As the pioneering inventor and scientist Danny Hillis says, “I think we will look back and realize she saw the direction the world was heading earlier than other people."
The Centre Pompidou in Paris, which has so much of its infrastructure visible on its exterior that it looks like an oil rig, is exactly the kind of building Oxman believes the world is moving away from. (She envisions, one day, buildings with a facade made from a 3-D-printed continuous layer of glass that both controls the temperature of the interior and harnesses solar energy.) But last spring, a piece by Oxman and her team was displayed there—a five-meter-tall structure called Aguahoja I, which looked a bit like a shrine made from a set of enormous, folded cicada wings.