Formalizing Infinite Properties: Beyond Functionalism in Design

Laia Mogas Soldevila | Silklab

These materials and methods were developed at the Tufts University Living Materials Silklab, led by Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto, and are part of a current effort to bridge science, technology, and art with design and the fabrication of living material everyday products. They were commissioned and supported in part by the Art and Science seed fund from the Office of the President at Tufts and by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and were performed in collaboration with the Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

The world of advanced materials is a highly competitive arena, but there is one company that could never fail. (…) That company is Life, and its materials the most advanced on the planet. — Phillip Ball [1]

Re-programming Function

In the late 1800s, the architect Luis Sullivan aimed to reinvent ornament, moving away from artifice and toward forms true to matter, in defense of a re-integration of form and function [2], [3]. Such integration is inseparable in nature’s structures but has long been dissociated in design and engineering. This is because we are still heirs to the Industrial Revolution’s mottos of standardization, homogenization, modularity, redundancy and repeatability [4]. The emphasis on design and fabrication according to single-function parts and assemblies stands in opposition to the continuous growth and multifunctional property adaptation found in nature [5]–[7]. Biological constructs, such as seeds, branches, and trees, adapt to external stimuli by growth-induced material property variation, resulting in forms that are indissociable from their materiality [8]. The forms in forests are a result of materials and shapes that must attune to combined environmental requirements spanning optical (translucent to opaque), mechanical (flexible to tough), or structural (porous to dense) properties. In contrast, the conventional processes with which we design consumer products are lacking the tools to better understand the properties of matter, as well as a robust integration of formal decisions with the possible functions of the materials themselves [9], [10]. This limits designers’ imaginations when it comes to devising material-based forms or inventing new functions to augment everyday objects.

Today, there is a new way to re-program function, which design needs to catch up to.
Learning from the functionalization of biomaterials in biomedical disciplines, we can transform the properties of natural matter and propose new unforeseen function within forms. This can permit design processes that are not only material-aware, or driven by material behavior, but which also embody infinite capabilities towards the future of programmable matter, beyond Sullivan’s functionalist dreams and today’s synthetic smart materials research. Moreover, we can do it with green chemistry and sustainable outcomes. Importantly, strategies to formalize multiple surprising properties within the same object could present us with new solutions, such as, for instance, beams with internal structures informed by load-responsive chemical sensing, windows with optically graded nanogeometry surfacing informed by sunlight incidence and the required reflectivity, furniture with physically aligned polymer chains in patterns informed by shape stress lines, and garments with soft-to-hard fiber networks informed by comfort needs and impact distribution.

Augmented function products that heat up with light, change opacity in response to touch, show color with chemistry, or curl with steam, are developed by architect Laia Mogas and engineer Giusy Matzeu at the Living Materials Silklab (
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