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THE DESIGNER
NERI OXMAN INTERVIEW

FEBRUARY 2017 AT MIT MEDIA LAB

1. How did you feel when you first received the offer from Lexus International?

When Lexus approached us at The Mediated Matter Group, we were working on an ongoing project developed by the team, for 3D Printing optically transparent glass. We initially launched this technology in 2015 and have since then been working to redesign it from the ground up in order to enable architectural scale glass construction. This technology was looking for a project (rather than the other way around—a project that looks for a technology), and there was Lexus!

2. How would you interpret the theme “YET”?

YET is an interesting word because it carries meaning only in context: ancient yet modern. Because of this, it denotes a whole (a meaning) that is greater than the mere sum of its parts (a set of words). It is a curious word—a word that is a form of wording—articulating connections between other and often contradicting words: fast yet slow, hard yet soft, dark yet light, progressive yet authentic, timeless yet timely. The term, therefore, can be viewed as a grammatical device creating synergy between two descriptors that otherwise do not fit together, or that appear to be ambiguous: an old sight and yet somehow so young. So, to us, the word YET represents wholes that are bigger than the sums of their parts that can contain what on the surface may appear as a contradiction or an irreconcilable ambiguity. It brings things together rather than set them apart.

3. How would you relate the theme "YET" to your installation?

For us at The Mediated Matter Group the theme of YET was particularly inspiring because it implies transcendence from a ‘world of parts’ to a ‘world of wholes’.

There are two ways to think, by example, about the design and construction of a building, a wearable, an airplane or a car. The first is to consider each of these design objects as a machine: an apparatus—made of parts—that uses mechanical power, where each part has a defined function. When put together, the parts can perform a particular task, like the utilitarian act of flying (airplane) or driving (car) or, well, living (building). The second is to consider it as an organism or ‘a being’—a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts, one that transcends the act of flying or driving to the experience of flying or driving: a signature door sound, the smooth stirring of the wheel, the quality of view; the soul of a sound, the animated quality of a mechanical device, the gift of transparency. When those parts come together, they generate an experience that cannot be broken down into its components. In fact, as soon as you break it down into components it ceases to exist. This approach, we believe, is rooted in the legacy of every great company that cares about design.

Nature also works in synergetic ways: it is efficient yet effective, it is functional yet beautiful, it is timeless yet timely, it is constant yet cyclic, it is consistent yet adaptive, it is sustainable yet ecological, it is balanced yet responsive. All things created by nature can be perceived as wholes that are bigger than the sum of their parts.

For our installation, we wanted to create an experience that was holistic and non-compositional, both in terms of the new enabling technology developed for its design, and its design output. And the synergy between the machine and the organisms, the mechanical and the alive, is what ended up guiding and inspiring us.

4. What’s special about using 3D Glass Printing technology?

In short, we can print optical lenses in architectural scales.

Blowing, pressing, and forming methods for glass—amongst others—have all aimed at achieving increased glass performance and functionality. However, the ability to tune the optical and mechanical properties of glass at high spatial resolution in manufacturing has, overall remained an end without a means.

The additive manufacturing of glass enables us to generate structures that are geometrically customizable and optically tunable in high spatial resolution of manufacturing. We’ve also experimented with color gradients in the past, and have been considering ways by which coloration may affect environmental performance, specifically solar radiation for energy harnessing. Because we can design and 3D print components with variable thicknesses and complex features—unlike glass blowing where the inner features reflect the outer shape—we can control solar transmittance. In other words; unlike a pressed or blown-glass part—which necessarily has a smooth internal surface—a printed part can take on complex surface features on the inside as well as the outside; such features could act as optical lenses and provide complex light caustic patterns.

This capability enables the printing of complex optical lenses, transmissive optical devices that can focus or disperse light beams by means of refraction. The current project allowed us to better understand the design constraints imposed by the printer, including the angles, the turning radius of the motorized printing apparatus, at which it may be possible to print—and still maintain—structural integrity. The group is also working to better understand the mechanical and optical characteristics of the printed objects.

The Mediated Matter Group—in collaboration with MIT’s Glass Lab directed by Peter Houk, and MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering—released the first glass printer in 2015. Since then we have been hard at work on the next generation of the printer. Our second-generation glass 3D Printer builds upon previous efforts by The Mediated Matter Group related to additive manufacturing of optically transparent structures, introducing a fundamental restructuring of the platform’s architecture and process control informed by material properties. Our aim was to create a high fidelity manufacturing platform capable of producing glass structures with tunable yet predictable mechanical and optical properties. Given the relatively high working temperatures and viscosity of the build material, the manufacturing process required fundamental insight into the thermodynamic behavior of glass in the context of the platform. This new manufacturing platform provides a digitally integrated thermal control system across the entire glass forming processes, and is combined with a novel 4-axis motion control system; enabling more efficient flow control, higher degrees of spatial accuracy and precision, and a faster production rate with continuous deposition of molten glass, of up to about 30kg.

5. What is the most challenging point of this project?

The project contains multiple challenges. It is technically challenging because—for the first time—we are deploying optically transparent 3D glass printing for architectural scales. The most challenging aspect of printing glass at that scale, and in general, is that in order to tune the mechanical optical properties of glass, one has to operate, treat and contain glass at a very high temperature. In order to flow glass well enough so that it can be extruded through a nozzle, the material must be kept at a temperature greater than 1000 °C. To achieve this, the printer must be equipped with separate heating chambers for each stage of the manufacturing process: melting, flowing, annealing, etc.

One of the hottest places on the planet—where temperatures of 57 degrees Celsius have been recorded—is Death Valley, California. Imagine what it means to print glass at around 1000 degrees Celsius! And we do it with a team of glass experts—some of which have blown glass for decades—who are trained to handle this material with great care.

In order to build the printer, we had to design and engineer individual heating chambers, as well as software and hardware components for each phase of the manufacturing process: for melting the glass, for flowing the glass and for annealing the glass. To every process a dedicated chamber, to every chamber a temperature range. So the technical challenge defines the nature of the project, and also its culture: how to design the perfect fireplace?

The second technical challenge to controlling heat was controlling light. With the support of brilliant engineers on our team we were able to implement a motion control environment—as well as a sophisticated interface—for controlling a dynamic light source contained within each column and mediated through the printed glass.

The third—and perhaps most humbling challenge—was not as much a technical challenge as it was about creating a community of people coming together from very different fields—architects, product designers, mechanical engineers, software engineers, chemists, material scientists and so on. Members of the team came from various industries and academic departments; and were brought together to debut our new glass printer and its first architectural scale embodiment.

6. What would you like all visitors in Milan to see, feel or experience with your installation?

The verb (flying, driving, etc.) without the noun (airplane, car, etc.)

We wanted to convey the experience without the utilitarian functional object, the journey without the vehicle. We wanted to express what it would be like to fly or drive through a starry night without the actual machine. For the “LEXUS YET” exhibition we imagined an almost endless row of wheel-like reflections, made of light, whose motions we would control to direct the movement of people in space; an all encompassing experience of what it might feel like to bathe in the light of the moons or the planets, a cosmic caustic experience.

We explored the theme “YET” through the lenses of light, matter and space. On light: light has a dual physical nature: it is a particle YET a wave (Einstein believed light is a particle (photon) and the flow of photons is a wave). We wanted the visitors in the exhibition space to experience this duality not through the mind, but through the experience itself. On glass: glass is the material through which light is reflected and refracted, it is ancient YET modern. In this exhibition, we are giving it a new interpretation through 3D printing. On space: the combination of light and matter would hopefully create the experience of being grounded YET suspended; the sensation of being supported YET being able to move effortlessly through light. A cosmic form of caustics.

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