Neri Oxman has all the answers


Michael Avedon

Michael Avedon

By Molly Langmuir 

The designer and architect Neri Oxman carefully makes her way up the steps to the stage of MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. It’s late February, and Oxman, a tenured professor at the school who wears a black top, black velvet pants, and high black patent leather stiletto, is nearly seven months pregnant. Onstage she gives the audience, assembled for an event celebrating the university’s new Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, a beatific smile.

“It has become increasingly challenging to differentiate between the man-made and the nature-grown,” she says, her hands loosely cupped around her belly. “In my [research] group, we believe in the future; we will not build our products and our architecture, but rather we will grow them.”

Since 2010, Oxman has directed the Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab, which is known for producing radically interdisciplinary work, but even in that context, her specialty is so novel she had to come up with a new term for it (she calls it material ecology). Technically, Oxman utilizes computational design and elements of architecture, 3-D printing, materials science, engineering, and synthetic biology to develop solutions “to problems that may not yet exist,” as she often puts it.

What this means in practice is that she has produced everything from a silk pavilion—a suspended dome of silk fibers spun by a robotic arm, completed by 6,500 live silkworms—to a design concept for a wearable digestive system incorporating photosynthetic bacteria that convert solar energy into sugar, which could be utilized, she once said, on Jupiter’s moons. Almost all her work contains a pristine, fractal beauty generally found only in nature. Oxman is often, by the way, compared to Leonardo da Vinci. She also has an uncanny resemblance to a movie star.

Even before receiving her PhD from MIT in design and computation in 2010, Oxman, now 43, had come to be considered one of the leading figures in her field. Since then her acclaim has only grown. Her 2015 TED Talk has been viewed over 2 million times. Last year, she won one of Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Awards. This coming October she'll receive SFMoMA's 2019 Contemporary Vision Award and in February 2020, she’ll have an exhibition dedicated to her work at MoMA.

Her approach has attracted the attention of Björk (for whom she produced a 3-D-printed Rottlace mask), fashion designer Iris van Herpen (with whom she collaborated on 3-D-printed clothes), and the Dalai Lama and Brad Pitt (who were both interested in an otherworldly-looking chaise lounge that turns one’s voice into a vibration). “It’s quite exceptional, the amount of attention that she gets,” says Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab. As the pioneering inventor and scientist Danny Hillis says, “I think we will look back and realize she saw the direction the world was heading earlier than other people." 

The Centre Pompidou in Paris, which has so much of its infrastructure visible on its exterior that it looks like an oil rig, is exactly the kind of building Oxman believes the world is moving away from. (She envisions, one day, buildings with a facade made from a 3-D-printed continuous layer of glass that both controls the temperature of the interior and harnesses solar energy.) But last spring, a piece by Oxman and her team was displayed there—a five-meter-tall structure called Aguahoja I, which looked a bit like a shrine made from a set of enormous, folded cicada wings.


The Mediated Matter group

Crafted from a series of 3-D-printed membranes, Aguahoja I was created using a substance that, depending on its concentration, could be solid or transparent, stiff or soft. But the material itself—a mixture largely consisting of chitosan, a crustacean- derived polymer (Oxman got her first batch via shrimp from the restaurant Legal Sea Foods); pectin (a fiber found in apples and other fruits); and cellulose (which comes from plants)—was water-soluble and biodegradable; chitosan, pectin, and cellulose also happen to be among the most abundant polymers on earth. Stick the membranes back in the ocean, and marine life would consume them to produce more chitosan.

As Oxman asks in her TED Talk, “So why are we still designing with plastics?” She meant the question rhetorically, but later I ask her why she thought we were still designing with plastic. “What makes [these issues] complicated are the vehicles we have in place to create and enforce policy,” she says. “To demolish plastics, we need to radically align our economic models with consumer good.” Despite her work offering the promise of a more perfect future, in other words, we remain mired in the problems of the present. Though, she adds, “It takes a village, not a lab. But we remain hopeful.”

The first thing Oxman tells me when we meet in the lobby of the Media Lab a few hours after her talk is that the night before, during a bout of pregnancy-related insomnia, she had practiced her presentation, only to discover onstage that due to a technological glitch, her slides rotated through faster than usual. But she seems to find this amusing rather than a high-octane nightmare. Oxman, who speaks in a way that’s poetic yet enigmatic, and who describes her students as being like her family and herself as “an introvert doing a really good job in public,” comes off as passionate but not easily perturbed. (This is true online, too, even if in programmed form: Her email auto-reply begins, “Greetings and gratitude for your message.”)


Santiago Felipe + Getty Images

Oxman was raised in Haifa, Israel, a cosmopolitan city bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and Mount Carmel. Even as a child, she had an inborn sense of equanimity. “She took life head on—curious, inquisitive, and determined,” says her younger sister, Keren Oxman. “She was also very beautiful but was not pre-occupied with it.”

The girls’ family was close-knit. Their parents were both well-known architects— Rivka Oxman specialized in digital design, while Robert Oxman studied the history of architecture and modern design—and their home was modernist, with ocean views and fluid interior spaces. Oxman often spent time at her grandmother’s house nearby, which was engulfed by a garden. “She taught me how to count clouds, pick mushrooms, and press flowers,” Oxman says of her. “She cultivated in me a sense of wonder.”


By high school, Keren says, Oxman was already fascinated with the biological world, but also had an impeccable eye for design and aesthetics. “Her room was always extremely organized,” Keren says. “Her closet, too. Her drawers, everything.”

Scouted on a bus, Oxman did some modeling in her teens, then was drafted at age 18 into the Israeli Air Force, where she served for nearly three years. She began medical school, but dropped out not long after her grandmother passed away. “I wasn’t self-realizing as I had wished for,” she says. The next week, architecture school entry exams were being held, and Oxman signed up. “I sat for three hours and drew and drew, and I just fell in love with the idea of entering architecture school,” she says.

She began studying at Technion Israel Institute of Technology, then transferred to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. “She was one of the first to write algorithms for her designs,” says Michael Weinstock, her thesis adviser. “She had a formidable work ethic. I used to wonder, Does she do anything else?” Oxman graduated in 2004, and the next year began her PhD at MIT.

Since then, Oxman has produced a wide-ranging body of work, though there are common elements. “Nearly everything we create is part of the natural ecology and interacts with the ecology,” Oxman tells me in her lab, which that day is filled with students and bikes, and has shelves displaying items both natural and man- made. It looks like a high-tech curio shop, though her office is sparse, with color-coded books on the shelves. (If she could, she says, she would live in a white cube.) “We think about decay just as seriously as we think about growth,” she says.

There have so far been few practical applications. “But I believe the influence, more than the immediate application, is where its importance resides,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the department of architecture and design at MoMA. Starchitect Bjarke Ingels, a friend of Oxman’s, points out, “As designers and architects, we give form to the future. Or we give form to the future we’d like to see happen. It’s about the life we want to live.”

Oxman tends to exist exclusively in the highbrow quadrant of culture. She listens to Beethoven, Schubert, and jazz. She watches old-school cinema. “Give me Fellini, and I’m on it,” she says. She has a flower press (which isn’t necessarily highbrow, but does make her sound like the heroine of a nineteenth-century novel). Asked in a 2017 interview with TheEditorial where she gets her news, Oxman responded, “I’ve always preferred the gossip of the planets to chin-wag.” What’s an event she looks forward to? “New moons.”

When it comes to any of the more material facts of life, Oxman says she tries to take the benefits they offer and disregard the rest. Has her appearance ever led people to discount her intelligence? “No,” she says. Though if they did, she adds, “I would just fly over it.”

It’s weird to imagine this type of person interfacing with tabloid culture. But that’s what happened a year and a half ago, when Brad Pitt came to visit her lab. Paparazzi photographers hounded Oxman, and she ended up on the cover of Us Weekly alongside an image of Pitt. “Secret Love Trips!” read the cover. Inside, a “source” declared, “Being around Neri is intoxicating, as if you are flying high above the mountains.... Brad is glowing around her.”

In fact, Oxman had been dating hedge funder Bill Ackman for seven months. He’d contacted her after two friends, one of whom was former New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz, who’d known Oxman for years, suggested it. “The match was explosive, in the very best sense,” Peretz says. (Oxman and Ackman both told me they’d traced their respective lineages to nearby Eastern European towns. “There was this connection that was beyond time,” Oxman says.)


Soon Ackman was regularly visiting Oxman in Cambridge. “I called her Miss Too Good to Be True for a while,” he says. “But over time, I’ve come to realize there is a spiritual, magical quality about her.” (He even credits her with foretelling the comeback of his firm, which has struggled but this past year has been up 40 percent.)

“People regularly fall in love with Neri,” he says. “Men and women, from all walks of life.” As for what actually happened with Pitt, “The Hollywood press is the most fraudulent press in the world,” he says. “They have pictures of Neri saying she’s on the phone with Brad; meanwhile, I’m talking to her while she’s dealing with the paparazzi.”

Oxman admits the experience was challenging, but said that once she decided to treat it as an anthropological experiment, it became revealing and amusing. She invited one of the photographers camped outside her home to share her Uber to work. “He was going to make it there anyway,” she says. She also walked around one day carrying The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a famous textbook. “I thought, Instead of talking about what purse I carry, they might as well learn something,” she says. (About Pitt now, Oxman says, “He’s an incredible human being, and I consider him a good friend.”) In January, she married Ackman, at which point she was already pregnant with their daughter, who was born last spring.


Mediated Matter group

Oxman and I meet up for the second time a few weeks before her due date at a café around the corner from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She and Ackman, who is reportedly worth $1.1 billion, have been renting a place nearby while the apartment he recently bought, a 13-room penthouse, is being renovated by Pritzker-winning architect Sir Norman Foster. The past year, during which Oxman has been on sabbatical, has been a period of major change. Beyond the pregnancy and the marriage, she has relocated to New York (she still expects to continue her affiliation with MIT), where she is planning to open up a novel kind of architecture and design practice.

“The idea is the only client will be nature,” she says. (She’s still working out how it will make money. “Exactly,” she says when I ask her about it. “Good question.”) And she’ll continue pushing forward with other projects as well, including a series of 3-D- printed pieces, called Totems, in which liquid melanin is encapsulated in translucent tubes.

Oxman imagines the pigment could one day be incorporated into buildings’ exteriors, enabling structures to have a “skin” that tans in the sun. And Totems also explores melanin’s dual aspects—the substance both enables earth’s biodiversity (it’s present in a wide array of species) and has resulted in so much human suffering. “Occasionally she does admit she’s overwhelmed,” says Ackman about Oxman. “So we now have evidence of humanity. She is not a cyborg character.”


Oxman has long talked about her work in relation to motherhood. As she said in her February MIT talk, “Using this single word, mother, changing from a noun into a verb, we enter a world, an era, where through computation we mother nature by design.” But when I ask whether her pregnancy has impacted her research, she smiles almost sheepishly. “One thought I had was, How dare I talk about mothering nature without experiencing this,” she says. “What was I thinking?”

Because she so often works with living materials, it’s easy to see why one might describe it this way. As Hillis has argued, the world is moving into a period when “artifacts are simultaneously artificial and natural; they are both made and born.” Oxman’s work, he believes, is emblematic of this approach and its promises. Yet he also cautions: “What are we to think about this new relationship with our technology and with each other?” he wrote in 2016 in the Journal of Design and Science. “Should we fear it or embrace it? The answer is both. Like any new powerful force in the world, like Science, it will be used for both good and evil.... Recognizing this does not absolve us from our responsibility, it reminds us why it is important. We are remaking ourselves, and we need to choose wisely what we are to become.”

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