Editor’s Note: Watch Neri Oxman’s full profile this Sunday on CNN’s “The Next List”
Who: Neri Oxman, designer, architect, artist and founder of Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab.
Why you might know her: Oxman was named one of the most creative people in design by Fast Company magazine. She is pushing the limits of what it means to erect a building and believes one day soon we'll be able to "print" our buildings using 3-D printers.
Her artistic medium: At MIT’s Media Lab, Oxman experiments with different printable materials – everything from concrete to silk. She’s also repurposed a robotic arm into a 3-D printer. “How can we reinterpret 3-D printing in a way that suggests a new design language?” she wonders. Oxman plays with different gradients in her materials, with a goal of printing, for example, concrete that can go from porous to dense. “That concrete can be many things,” she says. “That concrete can become a transparent window.”
Her design inspiration: Oxman thinks about architecture and design in completely new ways. Her muse for all of it is nature. Take the spider, which generates a different silk for different purposes: building a web, creating trailing routes, capturing their prey, wrapping their eggs. Oxman believes that in a way, spiders are like a multi-material 3-D printer. “One cannot separate the spider web’s form from the way in which it originated,” she says. “Nature doesn’t divide between the architect, the engineer and the construction worker. These are processes we’re interested in and want to explore.”
Why she matters: The traditions of building construction in many ways are very old-fashioned,” says Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “The way that Neri has used the 3-D printer proposes … the possibility of a different way of making things. Can we also think about buildings that will be made through a process of 3-D printing – that will make our houses, that will make our cities?”
Oxman as artist: Many of Neri’s “experiments” with 3-D printing and materials are so beautiful they wind up in permanent collections in museums around the world. “I don’t see her work as art – I see her work as architecture and design,” says Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator for Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “You can see her work as art if you look at the object itself, but in truth, it comes from very serious studies and from serious examination of data and figures. What is distilled at the end is an object, that if divorced from all the background, can be considered art. But in truth it’s an experimental study.”
Her roots: Oxman grew up in Haifa, a city in the north of Israel, until she left for the Israeli Army at age 18. Both of her parents are also architects. “I grew up in a modernist house, in a modernist culture. There was a love for modernism everywhere – the furniture, the books, the food, even the cutlery,” she says. “So I learned very early to appreciate the value of design and the value of architecture.”
Something you might not know about her: She's a medical-school dropout. “It was one day, I remember it clearly – it was a hot day in Jerusalem, and I left class and called my father and announced to my parents I was going to leave medical school,” Oxman says. “I don’t think I would have made for a good doctor. It was not meant to be, and it took me a long time to realize that.”
Her life philosophy: “There is a very beautiful expression in the Hebrew language that’s borrowed from spoken Torah… ‘All is predicted and permission is given at any point to change anything,’” she says. “I think I live by this idiom in the sense that there is always a goal there is always something to look forward to in life and my creative search and that goal is there … and when I look at it I know it can change at any point and I give myself permission to completely reconsider it every time I look at it. And that’s a very empowering and invigorating way to live life for me ... that maintains an openness toward anything that I choose to pursue.”