Design practice and scientific methodology became increasingly intertwined in the twentieth century. This shift may have begun at the Bauhaus school in Germany, where designers, artists, and architects explored the relevance of industrial materials with an experimental curiosity. The question that arose then remains much the same today: with our ever-expanding empirical understanding of the universe, how do we retain a sense of beauty?
One example that comes to mind is Josef Albers and his experiments with color interaction. Advances in the quality and stability of mixed paint in the beginning of the century enabled Albers to control pigments with a scientific exactitude and his findings became more relevant as the distribution of paints increased throughout the century.
The increased control enabled Albers to isolate color as the only variable. The paintings are both legible as works of art and artifacts of scientific experiment simultaneously.
Another Bauhaus master very close to our hearts is Mies van der Rohe. At a time when structural engineering was making great strides due to industrial standardization and refined calculation, Mies ventured to give these new technologies architectural relevance.
In his Crown Hall, we can see the limits of the technology tested to give rise to a new architectural expression. In his inaugural address as Dean of the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Mies asks, “Where can we find greater structural clarity than in the wooden buildings of old? Where else can we find such unity of material, construction, and form?” The themes of clarity and unity appear to be the most essential to Van Der Rohe, and he sought to convey these in a time of changing materials, constructions, and forms.
Now you may think, “a brief analysis of the Bauhaus is all well and good, but what is the relevance to design today?”
Between the time of the Bauhaus and now, nearly one hundred years later, we have seen extraordinary scientific and technological innovations. If we maintain the Bauhaus assumption that science and design are interdependent, then these advancements must have extensive and reaching ramifications for the design world. Rather than dive into the depths of elaborating on this technological history (a dissertation or two of its own!) we would like to highlight work which exemplifies the relationship of scientific exploration and design thinking in today’s context.
In the past one hundred years, perhaps some of the most striking scientific developments have been in the fields of biology and computation. The dramatic improvements in the instruments related to these fields has placed us in a scientific environment unrecognizable to any Bauhaus master.
One designer who has been fast to embrace the new technological connections offered by this intellectual climate is Neri Oxman of MIT’s Media Lab. The experimental studio is focused on articulating the perpetually changing relationships between man, technology, and nature. Their projects challenge us to imagine new possibilities belonging to our time.
The Mushtari project by Oxman exhibits a relationship between synthetic biology, computer-aided manufacturing, and design. “Mushtari was designed to act as a potential ‘host’ environment for the coculture of engineered microorganisms that make up a synthetic ‘community.’ Synthetic biologists use disparate bacteria to capitalize on each microbe’s unique physiological specialties and evolved capabilities.” This experimental project is suggestive of future relationships between living organisms and designed objects. Some day these wearable designs may be able to harness the sun’s energy to produce nutrients for the wearer.
The Gemini project is an attempt to generate an amniotic experience in a variation of the chaise lounge. The outer shell is CNC-milled hardwood while the inner membrane is a combination of 3D printed materials responding to differing structural and acoustical needs by location. With its daring form and advanced construction, the project provokes us to consider Man’s relationship with nature in the 21st century.
Here at Maxine Snider Inc we find our answer to the question of science’s relationship to design in the continuing pursuit of delight in craft. We find that craft may always be improved; just like scientific understanding, it is to be built upon, iterated, and prodded. While science will continue to give rise to new traditions, we will continue to elevate our understanding of the timeless tradition of making.