International Women’s Day: Highlighting Neri Oxman’s Outstanding Career

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One of our inspirations is Dr. Neri Oxman. Her work has taken science, design, and architecture to uncharted territories with her “living” designs. 

Dr. Oxman is a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. 

She received her Ph.D. in Design Computation as a Presidential Fellow at MIT. Prior to MIT, she earned a diploma from the Architectural Association after attending the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and the Department of Medical Sciences at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.   

She is the award-winning computational designer and artist who coined the term material ecology. Or, in her own words in her 2015 TED Talk, “Form follows pheromones.” 

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Material Ecology and Neri Oxman

Dr. Oxman is the founder of material ecology, which marries the technological advances of computational design, synthetic biology, and digital fabrication (3D printing). She uses this technique to create compostable structures, glass objects, and clothes (often from a single piece of silk). 

Her story begins with shrimp shells. They ground the shells to produce chitosan paste, which they combined with a variety of chemicals to produce different colors, textures, and opacities. From this, she and her team could create structures of all sizes that were 100% recyclable. When the parts are ready, they’re left to dry and find a form naturally upon contact with air. 

Next, Dr. Oxman, along with her collaborators at Harvard and MIT, embedded genetically engineered bacteria to capture carbon and turn it into sugar. She guided their process with chemicals and pheromones. This was the first time she was able to generate structures that seamlessly transitioned from beam to mesh, and if scaled even larger, to windows. 

She learned that she could take living objects and grow them into something sustainable, beautiful, and usable on a scale that the world has never seen before. This is all done currently through 3D printing by using apple pectin, moss, mushrooms, and other biodegradable materials.

Her Dream of Breathing Life into Design

In Dr. Oxman’s own words, “If the final frontier of design is to breathe life into the products and the buildings around us, to form a two-material ecology, then designers must unite these two worldviews.” 

Her dream is to unite the modern world of design and architecture with material ecology — a sustainable and renewable building material. She wants to herald in a new age of design and creation that takes the work from nature-inspired design, to design-inspired nature.

Until material ecology is more widely available, this means ushering in a new era of sustainability in every industry, from clothing to custom home building

Her Distinguished Career

Dr. Oxman’s work is featured in the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian. 

She and her team have also won a myriad of awards. Among Oxman’s awards are: 

  • Graham Foundation Carter Manny Award (2008)
  • International Earth Awards for Future-Crucial Design (2008)
  • HOLCIM Next Generation award for Sustainable Construction (2008)
  • METROPOLIS Next Generation award (2009)
  • 40 Under 40 Building Design+Construction award (2012)
  • BSA Women in Design award (2014)
  • Vilcek Prize in Design (2014)
  • Emerging Voices award from the Architectural League of New York (2015)
  • Innovation by Design award from Fast Company (2015).

She also earned numerous titles over the years, including: 

  • “Revolutionary Mind” by SEED Magazine (2008)
  • ICON’s “top most influential designers and architects to shape our future” (2009)
  • Esquire’s “Best and Brightest” (2009)
  • FASTCOMPANY’s “most creative people” and the “10 most creative women in business” (2010)
  • Named to Carnegie’s Pride of America (2014)
  • ROADS’ 100 Global Minds: The Most Daring Cross-Disciplinary Thinkers in the World (2015), 
  • Cultural Leader at the World Economic Forum (2016)

How Her Work Will Change Architecture 

Architecture was always present in her life. Both of her parents practiced and taught architecture and her childhood home was filled with custom framed posters and reproductions of the work of artists and architects my parents collected over the years. 

Her interest in architecture grew as she did, but she quickly discovered that her passion extended to science, design, and sustainability. Marrying them all together was the obvious choice. 

Now her work allows designers and architects alike a new avenue for materials. They don’t have to rely on traditional glass, steel, or wood. Thanks to her work, future architects and designers may be able to commonly use composite structures with multiple properties―mechanical, optical, chemical, and even biological―that can be constructed as a single system without an assembly line.

For more evidence of this, in 2018, Dr. Oxman and her Mediated Matter group at MIT created a swarm of small robots that rapidly build high-strength structures. The structures are tubular and made of winding fiberglass. Dr. Oxman and her team hope that this could eventually be used as an alternative method for creating architectural-scale structures efficiently, even in remote environments.

With innovations like this, Dr. Oxman continues to inspire us at Urban Design Associates. Her work continues to break the boundaries between sustainable and practical, and we strive to be as sustainable as possible to live up to the expectations set by Dr. Oxman and her team. We can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.