Israeli-born, she studied as an architect but then turned to technology, joining MIT for a PhD in Design Computation. It was there that she soon became very interested in 3D printing design and materials research.
Working as an associate professor of Media Arts and Science at MIT, she created the Media Lab Mediated Matter group, whose aim is to question the ways in which objects and buildings are manufactured.
Oxman’s radically innovative vision stems from the idea that materials are the new software and are becoming programmable, thanks to 3D printing. “Think of human skin: it is unique and continuous yet its qualities change gradually, only where it is needed. Now imagine objects or architectures made of a single material that is both solid and soft, transparent and matt, porous and dense, but only where it is required. And envisage a shape that does not stem from function but from the environment.”
For Oxman, the future will start when we will “design specific multitask materials that copy nature: concrete could thus be like tree bark, porous on the outside and solid in the inside” (this is no vision: Oxman has already developed such concrete; it is light but resistant and flexible). “Houses could be like cocoons, woven through one filament that becomes solid when it’s building a supporting wall but that could also be soft (for instance, when it creates a floor where you could walk barefooted).”
According to Oxman, all of this is possible thanks to 3D printers. Not the traditional ones that deposit layers of a specific material, following the input of a digital file, and realise only mono-materic objects. Oxman designed several new types of printers. One mixes acrylic materials and deposits them at variable densities, thus creating continuous surfaces with different physical qualities. She used it to make a chaise longue.
“The shape was not pre-designed: we just told the machine what forces to take into account when the person sits and it made up the form itself. The final result is a chair that perfectly supports a person in a relaxed position.”
At the Lisbon Triennal of Architecture, Oxman has recently presented some printers that ‘invent buildings’ that grow between buildings. “They work in groups, with no file: they sense the environment and talk to each other, then make up what to build by themselves. In the future, they could be used to create structures in hostile environments or in complex surroundings.”
Many of Neri Oxman’s creations have been called art. In general, though, her work is somewhat difficult to grasp, from the aesthetic point of view. Would you, for instance, want her chaise longue that looks like a bathtub in your living room? “Form is nothing in my work,” she admits.
“My research is all about materials ecology: a new discipline that does not study the relationship between living creatures and their habitat but between objects, people and environments. I believe that a whole new way of designing, and making things is just at its dawn.”