Neri Oxman
To Mother, Nature

The way that our species has moved through the world has always been guided by a mixture of strange rituals, behavioral patterns and preconceived notions. What path has this led us down? A flourishing species I hear you whisper? Perhaps.

But one that has also disregarded every conversation that nature has tried to have with us along the way. The results of this siloed existence are self-evident, just take your pick of the many threats that our civilisation faces today. It takes a truly divine imagination to challenge this, to build an invisible bridge deep into the future, someone that is able to introduce a series of new orthodoxies into our systems.
That has to be Neri Oxman, the American–Israeli designer, and the founding professor behind the Mediated Matter research group based out of MIT. Her brave and deeply intellectual work like many icons that have come before her, Buckminster Fuller, Antoni Gaudí and even Stewart Brand, has been able to showcase an unconventional style of thinking full of rich detail and anti-disciplinary thinking.

Oxman sees her lab like an incubating vessel, a Noah’s Ark of sorts, a place where as she points out her mission is to introduce, “a new design practice that can approach critical crises” like global warming, poverty and now COVID-19. Some of her projects feel more like unconventional art than commercially viable instruments. But this is more about inspiring us to use our science, not for the benefit of just us, but the betterment of everything, or as Oxman paraphrases the brilliant environmentalist, James Lovelock, the Gaia.
Take for example her silkworm project, Silk Pavilion I, where in a gallery setting, she is able to showcase the stunning ingenuity of the humble silkworm, by the mere act of tweaking its environmental conditions,  it is able to flourish under a whole new light; demonstrating the menu of solutions we can both come up with if we work together.

It is clear, we desperately need dream weavers at a time like this, ones who can combine the conservative knowledge of the past with cutting edge ideas to help us out of our dystopian jam. Let us look to the Neri Oxmans of the world, the shamans of innovation to awaken a spirit within us, to allow us the opportunity to envision a new world. One that benefits everything, and not just us.

It feels like your role more than anything is to help inspire us to dream and to think outside of the box, to go beyond the human realm of limitations. To challenge the systems we have designed for our societies. Would you agree with that?

We are all bigger than ourselves. We all have that capacity; to think, to dream, to question. Now more than ever, it is incumbent upon us to take a break and revisit the systems we have devised for ourselves and our environment, at least since the industrial revolution. With the threat of major invisible forces, the pandemic and climate change chief amongst them, there simply is no other way. Dreaming up the future is the best wakeup call we can ask for.

"Now more than ever, it is incumbent upon us to take a break and revisit the systems we have devised for ourselves. Dreaming up the future is the best wakeup call we can ask for."

You’ve said your goal with your lab Mediated Matter is to address manifold issues, “from curing Malaria to populating Mars.” using a mixture of design, technology, science and biology to do that. This is incredibly exciting but also hugely ambitious. 

On odd days—one atom at a time, on even days—one bit at a time, and one gene at a time all the time! The key to our juggling multiple projects of numerous scales at once is to apply a systems-view perspective: global warming does not differentiate between buildings, cars, packaging or infrastructure; its inevitable impact is all-encompassing. Our design solutions should, likewise be universally relevant and applicable.

To give examples; in two recent projects my team and I developed, Aguahoja and Silk Pavilion, we utilized architectural installations to respectively challenge the notions of decay and domestication across scales. Aguahoja explores the production and consumption of products that are programmed to decay over time and how such designs impact our daily lives. In Silk Pavilion, we explored the design of an architectural pavilion whose construction involved collaboration with domesticated animal species.

With Vespers, what originated as an artistic exploration of ancient death masks ended up in a new class of materials we named Hybrid Living Materials (or HLMs) which combines the living and non-living matter with organic and inorganic functional properties. With this project especially, a range of opportunities arose for pre-programming control over genes incorporated into 3D printed media. For example, we looked at creating a wearable interface, customized to fit the genetic make-up of its user, that integrated useful chemical substances such as vitamins, antibodies and antimicrobial drugs.  Other applications included smart packaging that can detect contamination or environmentally responsive architectural skins that can respond and adapt, in real-time, to environmental cues.

Of course, when you limit yourself to a single scale or product domain—packaging, wearables, buildings or cities—you end up with solutions geared towards narrow well-defined problems. It’s only when you’re operating through a systems-view that you can come up with a whole new way of doing things which can be applied to different areas of design.

In a system view, there is little room for categorical delineation: achieving world peace, eliminating poverty, or curing cancer. Instead, the designer authors systems to address manifold of issues, across scales and disciplines, from curing Malaria to populating Mars. A “product” is therefore viewed as a material (physical) entity designed with a specific ecological context in mind. The product is considered part of a system of interrelations between natural and designed environments, including interactions between the entity and the human body as well as the entity and its environment. By designing relationships between physical entities, the organisms that inhabit them, and the environment within which they are situated, our Group promotes and implements the science of Material Ecology.

You work primarily with ideas that can augment living matter, do you think humanity is ready to deal with such transformative technologies? I am not sure we’ve shown such maturity and responsibility handling such transformative technologies of the past.

One is never ready for novelty. This includes inventions such as the printing press, bioengineering and of course the “Novel Coronavirus”.

At its base, the ingredients for designing life from scratch are pretty straightforward: all you need is a carrier of genetic information that can enable growth, functional activity, and continual change preceding death, and reproduction–if you so care to procreate. Artificial wombs and embryos made from skin cells are already revolutionizing reproductive biology. But as a product designer you may not care about lineage: creating a life without reproductive functions will, for good or bad, result in the design of living objects, even when designed as non-reproductive humans, i.e., alive bots with intelligence and no shared ancestry: Blade Runners.

What can be measured doesn’t count. It is only when what you’ve created requires its own system of quantification that you know you’re innovating. Novelty also requires suspending one’s disbelief, letting go of perceived judgement in order to truly become experimental. Even if we’re not ready, particularly then, we must move forward with measured foresight.

In your experience, have you noticed in any of your projects any aspect of nature rejecting this ‘forced’ synthetic integration or does nature always find a way to evolve into a new product?

What a beautiful question. Our ‘synthetic integration’ as you call it, is at the core of what we do, and it is never forced. Quite the opposite, we have developed a system for working with nature that we call ‘templating’. Simply put, a template is a rule-based scaffold projected onto a natural system with the goal of guiding its growth in order to arrive at certain functional, structural or environmental conditions. The Langstroth hive—the vertically modular beehive—is a good example: the structure enables the bees to build honeycomb into frames which can be moved with ease and are designed to prevent bees from attaching honeycombs.

An environmental template, on the other hand, utilizes, for example, electromagnetic forces such as light to guide or inform material formation. In Silk Pavilion I we utilized environmental templating in the form of light and heat to guide the movement of silkworms over the surface area of the structure, thereby informing the organization and distribution of silk on the structure. Finally, a genetic template utilizes chemical compounds to inform self-assembly on molecular scales, thereby informing growth itself. The designer then acts more like a conductor or a gardener, seeking synergy between form and formation in a bottom-up manner. The point where the natural system can decode this rule-based system and challenge it is the point where the template breaks. Things then become very interesting.

We’re still very much in the conceptual and incubation phase of the digital biological revolution, the opportunities here are unfathomable, is there a particular aspect about this discussion we’re not having right now in society?

Being kind to others. Without it, we are lost.

Another interesting Israeli doing similar work to you is the nanotech pioneer, Oded Shoseyov, he said, “Something that bothers me is that most probably even after I am dead there will be all these wonderful things that nature has created and I never noticed them.” Do you ever think in those terms?

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” —Mary Oliver.

I understand and appreciate Prof. Shoseyov’s point, and have great admiration for him and his work. I’d love to present an alternative view to his, perhaps complementary: if we could notice everything nature has created we would live amongst answers, and not a single question to ask, or a wonderment to seek.

That we pass without noticing all wonders is the wonder! That nature is still bigger than us, that it is still mysterious, that after decades and centuries we are still ground-truthing the laws of physical science and the very nature of how we ourselves come into being. It is also what good stewardship is about, to make room for those who come after us and take joy, not sorrow, in discovering the wonders previous generations have missed out on.

"I believe that in order to design our way out of the environmental crisis we ourselves have created we must first learn to speak nature’s language."

Do you think we need to embrace this idea that there are levels of the unexplainable in nature and that this mystery can help us?

Mystery is the currency of novelty. It has its own reason for existing. I believe that in order to design our way out of the environmental crisis we ourselves have created we must first learn to speak nature’s language. I am a strong believer in the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock’s assertion that all living beings and their surroundings form a synergetic complex system that helps maintain and perpetuate the conditions of life on earth. The notion of self-regulation is key here: the sugar epidemic, global warming, the average height of the human species over aeons; those are all good examples. When we embrace these principles, notions such as monumentality will be challenged: a building designed to decay to fuel new growth becomes as monumental as the colosseum.       

Do you see nature as a menu or as a palette of sorts, or as an inspiration to mimic or both?

Recall Jorge Luis Borges’ “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” In much the same way I’ve always considered nature to be a library of colossal grandeur and cosmic scale. Except we borrowed too much without returning and we are now paying the price.

Gaia is at least 4.5 billion years our senior, we are therefore nothing but a blip in its arc. Yet, here we are threatening its survival. If nature is to us a 200,000-year-old Mother, we are her reckless children, testing her patience by burning coal and feeding the north pacific trash vortex. While we, the members of human civilization, keep busy growing up–fixing carbon and fighting the coal-burning culprits–Nature grows old and weary in all meridians, to the point where she can no longer mother. The big question is what does it mean to mother nature by design? And how can we create synergy between the planet and its people? And if we had to choose one or the other, whom would we save? And how?

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Silk Pavilion. 2013. A Bombyx mori silkworm deposits silk fibre on a digitally fabricated scaffolding structure. Photo: The Mediated Matter Group. Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group


From your Wanderers project to the Silk project, these are all impossibly ambitious projects that allow us to think of a future where the systems we create can start to think for themselves, where nature begins to have a conversation with us instead of us pillaging it. Do you agree with this assumption?

I couldn’t agree more.

In the context of our own work, we have been defining a range of possible relationships between designers and the natural world. At the far end of this range is the notion of mimicry, learning through imitating nature if you will (Imaginary Beings). We then moved to create platforms that enabled us to “collaborate” with members of the natural world (Silk Pavilion). And today, through the use of tools such as synthetic biology we can design the environment itself, help nature heal if you may. Our evolving relationship with nature from emulation to augmentation is consistent with the “mother nature” (n.) metaphor which now invites and questions our ability to mother (v.) nature by design.

What is the material you have invested most hope for in the world, to not only disrupt but from a sustainability point of view and why?

This is a bit like asking for your favourite child. I love them all in equal measures, and through (their) distinctly unique expressions. I have always prioritized formation over form, and materiality over the material. This is the reason I named my research group at MIT ‘Mediated Matter;’ matter—not material—as a way to denote that materials are vehicles for design expression and expression of the design intention.

From a ‘sustainability’ point of view (and I don’t love that word), we have naturally invested much time and resources in natural materials and working with organisms.

Totem project courtesy of Mediated Matter


In Aguahoja I, for example, we demonstrated that we can build with biodegradable materials whose properties we can tune digitally, including their lifecycle and rate of decomposition. These biopolymers, composed of the most abundant materials on our planet—cellulose, chitosan, and pectin—were robotically fabricated to create composites with functional, mechanical, and optical gradients across length scales ranging from millimetres to meters. In life, these materials modulate their properties in response to heat and humidity; in death, they dissociate in water to fuel new life. In this project, we demonstrated that organic compounds can be temporarily diverted from their natural resource cycles to participate in the construction and maintenance of ecological niches and be designed to programmatically degrade to continue the natural resource cycles that produced them, the cycle of life without waste.

In Aguahoja II, we utilized materials sourced from organic waste streams and augmented them with properties that enabled them to communicate with other organisms who are considered symbionts within their ecological niches. We utilized different wavelengths of light (color) as well as various tastes and smells (cinnamon, turmeric, beetroot powder, matcha, etc), and surface features (roughness and stickiness) to attract pollinators, repel pests, and engage in other designed symbioses between organisms of the same or different ecological niches. For instance, ecosystems with many butterflies and moths attract other invertebrates, which can improve the overall health of an ecosystem. 

"What was the end goal of the Ninth symphony? Or the Sagrada Familia? Or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? I don’t think I live by concrete end goals nor do I consider a ‘big win’ aspirational."

Everyone thinks so idealistically about working with biological systems, will there not be a waste with design as well, how do we have a responsible conversation around this?

With empathy.

As with any new technology or field of science, there are risks and rewards that must be weighed and reassessed over time. The ability to manipulate biological systems has evolved some of the best enabling technologies out there including gene synthesis and sequencing and microfluidics with applications ranging from biosensors to synthetic life, space exploration and drug delivery platforms designed to reprogram bacteria to sense and respond to a particular cancer state.

But as with any other form of matter, there is waste and degradation. Having a responsible conversation around the challenges that such technologies bring should not end with their eradication. Rather, they should facilitate responsive and responsible research and application.

You have likened your lab to a Noah’s Ark of sorts to include material scientists, biologists etc. More industries should incorporate cross-functionality into their systems, why don’t they?

Because they can’t out-metaphor this image. Cross-disciplinary or cross-functionality only works if you don’t need to cross if you can fuse the disciplines (or blow them up, to use a friend’s expression.) The Ark is at once a way of selecting a team (I think of the Group as Noah’s Ark. Two of each so that we can procreate intellectually speaking), but it was also built as a vessel to save the representatives of all species from the [divine] flood.

Similarly, I like to think of both the team and our work as a prototype for a new kind of design practice that can approach critical crises (e.g. global warming, poverty, cancer, and now COVID-19) through design without being reductive. What are the kinds of materials and structures we need to survive the set of crises (ecological, cultural, technological) that surround us?  Another way to say this: if the world were to perish abruptly, and we had to rush to our wet lab, grab what’s in the fridge and the incubator and save it in the Ark, what would we save? How can we mother nature by design without harming Nature’s way? What might the types of projects be that can save the world from itself? Aguahoja? To achieve this, we need new models of design and designing, new forms of collaboration that are anti-disciplinary. Hence, Noah’s Ark as the ultimate ‘vessel metaphor’ for how we run our Ark.

What is your end goal with your work? What would a big win look like?

What was the end goal of the Ninth symphony? Or the Sagrada Familia? Or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? I don’t think I live by concrete end goals nor do I consider a ‘big win’ aspirational. My team and I are driven by a sense of wonderment and a desire to bring the built environment closer to nature. A corset, a new building type, a death mask, a master plan; the scale or application domain doesn’t drive our work; rather, it is a way of being, which brings us back to your first question.

Neri Oxman’s Material Ecology opens virtually on the 14th of May at MOMA