The term ‘material ecology’ was coined by Oxman to create a framework for understanding a new discipline which combines engineering, computational design, art, synthetic biology and 3-D printing to create environmentally-sustainable—and often environmentally responsive—new materials and biocomposites.
There is also the radical Totems project, first commissioned as part of the XXII Triennale di MilanoBroken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival in 2019, which features rectangular prisms of clear resin structures injected with liquid melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives colour to human skin, hair and eyes, and is found across the animal and plant kingdoms—in the brown skin of ripening fruit, feathers, fur and butterfly wings. The substance shields humans from the sun’s UV radiation and also has wider protective properties, such as protecting microorganisms from high temperatures, chemical stresses and biochemical threats. Today it can be chemically synthesized with modern techniques. Someday, Oxman proposes, melanincould be infused inside glass and used to produce environmentally responsive facades that vary with the time of day or the season.
At the heart of the exhibition stands the 9.5-meter tall Silk Pavilion II (2020) made by 17,000 silkworms which have laid their silk to completely cover the structure inside and out. Custom-made for the show, the design is the second version of the Silk Pavilion Oxman created in 2013, and uses a jig machine that rotates the structure. Like a live performance silkworms move across the pavilion to lay silk more evenly.
The work challenges the traditional production of silk, highlighting how the material can be made more sustainable and humane, with still maintaining relatively high levels of control over fibre-distribution. While silk is conventionally manufactured by boiling alive the silk worm in their cocoon, Oxman “hires silkworms as her construction crew,” explains curator Antonelli in a MoMA interview, inspiring sustainable and ethical sericulture practice with silk worms, but also more sustainable cultivation of other living beings exploited by humans for their products, such as bees for their honey. “It is in my mind a vision for cohabitation where the single-family house is not human-centric but is nature-centric. Humans, organisms, materials, the environment, they’re all appropriated and referred to in synergy and harmony. They’re all part of the design process,”Oxman states for MoMA.
That’s the beauty of Oxman’s designs. They present an optimistic vision of the future where sustainable design solutions are found to our intractable modern problems in the fusion of technology and nature, and are grounded in a respect for the natural world.