Skylar Tibbits Says Materials Science Will Make Our World Less Digital and More Wonderful


Things Fall Together: A Guide to the New Materials Revolution is the latest investigation from the designer and director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Laboratory on the impact of research into new materials on design.

Luke T. Baker

A series of physical spheres oscillating on a table illustrates the process of self-replication, including growth, encapsulation and division. This project demonstrates cell division through simple materials rather than robotic or biological systems. Courtesy of Self-Assembly Lab, MIT

When we imagine what the materials, design, and manufacturing of the future will look like, it’s easy to imagine digital smart homes filled with data-mining furniture, assembled by sophisticated robots, and upholstered in biometric synthetic fabrics. But a new book by Skylar Tibbits, designer and director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, suggests that ongoing developments in materials science are poised to make our world much less digital and much more wondrous. Things Fall Together: A Guide to the New Materials Revolution, forthcoming from Princeton University Press, envisions a not-so-distant future where flat-packed furniture takes shape when unpacked, buildings adapt their design to become more efficient over time, shoes and stents mold to contours of our bodies, and roads built with self-healing concrete repair potholes on their own. It’s a world where materials inspire new forms and enable entirely new ways of living.

Tibbit Blanket
Courtesy of Princeton University Press

Tibbits offers a radical shift in thinking about materials as passive substances that we humans bend and build into the things around us. Instead, it aims to show how they can function as active agents, even collaborators, in the design and manufacturing process. By developing products and structures around the specific properties of materials (such as stiffness, conductivity, or the ability to expand or contract) and “programming” them taking into account interactions with factors such as heat and humidity or the forces of physics, we can activate their full potential to grow, transform and improve. Tibbits makes the case for a materials-driven approach where form and function are symbiotic, the medium (not the manufacturer) guides the final design, manufacturing is decentralized, and nothing is meant to serve a single purpose and permanent. This, he says, is the way to create smarter, simpler and more sustainable solutions to our most complex problems, from coastal erosion to waste reduction.

Many of the smart materials and active objects detailed in the book remain in the realm of the lab, but it’s the more concrete examples that architects and designers will find most relevant. Innovations such as granular blocking (where small gravel particles form stable structures when packed and contained in a simple net) are creating promising possibilities for temporary architectures or for construction with limited resources or few workers. qualified. Another of Tibbits’ projects incorporates geometric shapes on the ocean floor that direct currents and redistribute sand deposits to restore the coastline of the Maldives, islands that are drowning with rising sea levels. a minimally invasive and ingenious tactic that, unlike barricades, works with nature, not against it. The Tibbits Self-Assembly Lab also shows how furniture can be made, not by people or even robots, but by themselves. A simplistic chair is constructed when individual Tetris-like limbs, each implanted with magnetic nodes at junction points, find and connect as they float in a reservoir of water.

09 Vertical Skylar Tibbits Image
A number of unique components tumble through a tank of turbulent water, eventually self-assembling into a chair. This process was designed using custom geometries and nodes that encode the correct assembly sequence. The process was filmed for seven hours, after which the fully assembled chair was complete. Courtesy of Self-Assembly Lab, MIT

The material future that Tibbits presents is enticing, but it recognizes that the advancement and adoption of innovative new materials will require a fundamental philosophical shift in the design process itself. Such breaks in the way we think about aesthetics, authorship, business, and manufacturing seem impossible to enact, even when we take into account our industries’ contributions to waste, consumerism, and inequality of opportunity. work. However, books like things fall together should be required reading for students and experienced designers. It’s time for these ideas about material intelligence to leave the lab; mingle with designers, architects and engineers; and begin to find their way into reality. Not just as conceptual explorations, but as part of the fabric of our daily lives.

You can also enjoy “5 technologies shaping the future of design”

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