Nature is a frequent muse for designers, with the organic world informing all manner of form, pattern, and color. Massachusetts-based Nervous System takes that inspiration to the next level with designs that digitally replicate the cellular composition of plant and animal life. Since founding the company in 2007, designers Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg have developed complex computer algorithms that mimic the growth process of natural organisms, from algae and amoeboid protozoa to coral and dendrites. They then capture the resultant forms in surprising materials—such as felt and rubber—using high-tech fabrication techniques to create an elegant and affordable custom jewelry line. Now the designers are focusing their combination of computational science and high style on lighting.
In July, Rosenkrantz and Louis-Rosenberg released Hyphae, a line of one-of-a-kind lamps designed to look like the intricate vein structure of leaves. (“Hyphae” refers to the branchlike vegetative growth of fungus, which also resembles the delicate pattern visible in a leaf.) Fabricated out of white nylon, the 5.3-inch-by-8-inch lamps have a sculptural feel and are reminiscent of the fragile remains of a deteriorating autumn leaf. The impression when lit is sublime, creating interplay of light and shadow that looks like moonlight through a forest. “Lighting is always fun to play with because you get the effects of the form that we designed and the light casting shadows. It allows something to be small and have a large effect,” Rosenkrantz says.
The designers wanted dramatic shadows from the branching pattern so they chose to use three LEDs rather than just one lamp (with the added bonus that the LEDs use a combined total of 3.6W of power and have an estimated life of nearly six years of continuous use). The base of the lamp is a laser-cut acrylic plate with three nonslip rubber feet and, because each is unique, an inscription of the lamp's production number.
The inspiration for Hyphae came several years ago when Louis-Rosenberg read a paper titled “The Role of Elastic Stresses on Leaf Venation Morphogenesis” in the journal PLoS Computational Biology. Louis-Rosenberg is a math whiz who met Rosenkrantz in 2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where they were both undergraduates. She was studying biology and architecture and the two started dating. “We lived in the same dorm, which is how we met. He wasn't that interested in design in the beginning,” Rosenkrantz says.
The PLoS article outlined a theory of how leaves form their veins, and this prompted a search for existing computer algorithms to test that theory. Louis-Rosenberg and Rosenkrantz discovered the work of Adam Runions of the Algorithmic Botany group at the University of Calgary. Runions had developed a simulation that mapped the way leaves develop their internal structure. “It was an elegant model,” Louis-Rosenberg says.
But it needed work in order to turn it into a 3D design object such as a lamp. For one thing, Runions's algorithm was slow. Most simulations take days of computer crunching to produce a final result. Rosenkrantz and Louis-Rosenberg needed the algorithm to spit out final forms in a matter of hours, so they adapted the original model. “We played a lot with the structure inherent in the algorithm and we added some parameters that would optimize it,” Louis-Rosenberg says.
With the program streamlined, it now takes just 10 to 20 minutes to “grow” a custom Hyphae lamp. Each fixture is unique, since the algorithm produces a different result each time, as in nature. The computer runs the algorithm and the veins develop to form a singular three-dimensional shape. The computer file is then sent to Shapeways, a fabrication company in New York that uses selective laser sintering to 3D print the lamp, a process normally reserved for prototypes.
Hyphae is their first foray into the creation of a 3D object, and it required special consideration when speccing a material. “You are limited with the materials you can use with 3D printing,” Rosenkrantz says. They chose nylon because it is inexpensive yet durable for a consumer product and it stays cool when exposed to the heat of a lamp. “We're really interested in having affordable designs that are all one of a kind and individually designed,” Louis-Rosenberg says.
Denise Sprengelmeyer is the owner of Modern in Portland, Ore., a store specializing in contemporary designs. She started selling Nervous System jewelry last summer and plans to carry Hyphae. She says the design process wows her patrons: “From planting a computer ‘seed' and creating vein formations, then producing the pieces via a 3D printer—it is quite impressive.”
Nervous System is now expanding with a line of housewares and a second line of lighting set to be released this fall. Could furniture be next? “We are moving more in that direction,” Rosenkrantz says.