Between the Chisel and the Gene: Neri Oxman’s Organic Design

Time series of filling a sidepiece of Mushtari with chemluminescent fluid, part 2, by Neri Oxman

Time series of filling a sidepiece of Mushtari with chemluminescent fluid by Neri Oxman
Time series of filling
a sidepiece of Mushtari with
chemluminescent fluid
By Neri Oxman
Image by Jonathan Williams and Paula Aguilera

Neri Oxman argues in her 2015 TED Talk that “the world exists between two design cultures, one that is designed for nature and the other made by her.” With nature as her muse, Oxman’s atypical approach dictates that the designer’s job is to grow, rather than assemble new technologies.

As founder of the Mediated Matter research group at the MIT Media Lab, Oxman rejects traditional philosophies of design that break complexities down into their smaller parts rather than letting them grow organically, as occurs in nature. In taking this artificial approach to design, she argues, we limit our potential to produce harmonious objects.

In Oxman’s world, technology and nature work hand in hand to inform one another and create a symbiotic relationship. She combines computational design, additive manufacturing, and synthetic biology, dubbing her approach “Material Ecology.” With the help of her student team, Oxman has designed objects, products, and tools across scales—from a giant robotic arm 3D-printer with an 80-foot reach that will one day print entire buildings to nano-scale graphics made entirely of glow-in-the-dark microorganisms.

Oxman’s latest project, “Wanderers: An Astrobiological Exploration,” takes the idea of the passive wearable device (think fitness trackers, e-mail alert goggles, and data bracelets) one step further by creating a wearable that can generate food, energy, light, and oxygen and put it directly into the body. These prototypes—the world’s first 3D-printed photosynthetic wearables embedded with living matter—are designed to connect with the body and “have a symbiotic relationship” with it, Oxman explains.

With the view that interplanetary travel is not too far off in the future, she designed four different wearables to help Earthling bodies adapt to extraterrestrial atmospheres.

Designed from 190 feet of 3D-printed tubes, Mushtari (meaning “huge” or “giant” in Arabic and meant to be worn on Jupiter) consists of coils that look much like a human intestine. Synthetic microorganisms create bright, fluorescent colors and produce fuel in the sun: sugar or biofuel that the human wearer can then consume for energy. “Such functions will, in the near future, augment the wearer by scanning our skin, repairing damaged tissue and sustaining our bodies, an experiment that has never been attempted before,” Oxman says in her TED Talk. Once completed, it will be a pioneering example of how a 3D-printed device will be used to create a “photosynthetic wearable piece.”

The project may sound more sci-fi than FitBit, but it is Oxman’s precise goal to push the boundaries of design and the traditional subcategories that lie within it. Experiments like “Wanderers” are equal parts biology, industrial design, architecture, and technology. But perhaps the most striking innovation is that the human hand is not confined to merely drawing inspiration from nature. According to Oxman, “In the end, it is clear that the incorporation of synthetic biology in 3D-printed products for wearable microbiomes will enable the transition from designs that are inspired by nature, to designs made with and by nature, to possibly designing nature herself.”

This article originally appeared in the Body issue. For more inspiring stories about women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and The Journey of a Female Sommelier: From Paris to New York.