Never before has the line between self-expression and science been more blurred. It used to be that you were expected to lean to one side or the other—right brain/left brain, realist/idealist, and so forth—but perhaps they’ve always been one and the same. Maybe the proper tools to realize and embrace that notion didn’t exist.
The perfect example of this ever-evolving dichotomy of disciplines is designer, architect, artist, philosopher, and fashion-tech innovator Behnaz Farahi.
“I often find myself in strange spots between different disciplines.”—Behnaz Farahi
Someone who holds two masters’ in architecture is an architect, right? But Farahi is also working on a doctorate in media arts—so it’s hardly surprising to find her answer to the question, “What do you do?” just as ambiguous as the intersection of her interests.
“I often find myself in strange spots between different disciplines,” Farahi says. “Ultimately, I call myself a designer—an interactive designer—and perhaps creative technologist. What I find interesting is combining design with interactive technology to come up with new scenarios, functions, or stories for an object.”
But it’s important to note that Farahi’s journey began strictly as an architect. “I spent about eight years as an architect, and I never wanted to come out,” she says.
But then she took a walk in the park. And in that park, she found herself mesmerized by a group of children playing in an interactive fountain. “The kids were absolutely loving it,” Farahi says.
As she focused on how enthusiastic they were while interacting with the space, “that set off a spark in my mind that made me start to think about the future of public spaces, future of entertainment, and future of design in general, which was moving toward creating more engaging experiences,” Farahi says. “That’s when I started to look outside the world of architecture and more into the world of interactive technology.”
Farahi experimented with technologies and materials such as depth-sensing cameras, stretchable fabrics, motorized Leap Motion devices, and shape-memory alloy springs (most notably in her installations The Living Breathing Wall and Breathing Wall II). It wasn’t until 2015’s Synapse that she started experimenting with 3D printing. In this case, it was a 3D-printed helmet that responded and illuminated accordingly to the brain activity of the wearer.
The idea behind Synapse, according to Farahi’s site, was to “explore the possibilities of multimaterial 3D printing in order to produce a shape-changing structure around the body as a second skin.” This theme has reverberated through her subsequent projects, 2015’s Ruff, a 3D-printed wearable designed in conjunction with Will.i.am’s studio; Caress of the Gaze, an interactive 3D-printed wearable that responds to other people’s gazes, created as part of the Autodesk Pier 9 Residency Program; and 2016’s Aurora, in which Farahi returned, in part, to her architectural roots, designing “an interactive kinetic ceiling that responds to corporeal movement below.”
Farahi’s fashion tech is fueled by a fascination with natural systems. “In my work, I look at nature as the main source of inspiration,” she says. “Any natural system is able to respond to its environment in very active ways, both to internal and external factors. Let’s take, for example, a plant: Plants are responding constantly to their internal, as well as their environmental external, stimuli. That’s really inspirational for me.” Her most recent works, 2017’s Bodyscape and Opale, embody those fascinations in striking ways.
In what Farahi describes as “an interactive 3D-printed fashion item inspired by the behavior of the human body,” Bodyscape combines printed SLA materials with gyroscopes and LED lights that illuminate in flow with the movement of the wearer, pulling focus to the fluidity of human body movement. The piece, worn almost like a poncho or coat-of-arms, was based on Langer’s lines, topological lines of skin tension discovered in 1861 by the anatomist Karl Langer.
“I was trying to sort of blur that relationship between human and nonorganic objects to create something more empathetic,” Farahi says. “We tend to project life into objects—for example, giving a name to our car, which gives it character—so I wanted to play on that notion of projecting life onto other objects. That’s what I want the audience to feel: that it is alive.”
Whereas Bodyscape focuses on responding to internal stimuli (the body’s natural movements as the “self”), with Opale, the focus shifts to external stimuli, the “other.” In what could be seen as an evolution of Caress of the Gaze, the dress she creates for Opale is Farahi’s first all-out departure from 3D printing into more expansive realms of fabrication technologies. Here, she experiments with soft robotics, fiber optics, and facial-tracking technology using a camera that can detect an onlooker’s facial expressions. This combination allows Opale’s fibers, which are inspired by animal fur, to respond accordingly.
“After Bodyscape, I really wanted to push to the edge of the material in other mediums,” Farahi says. “I was really intrigued by research on soft robotics and use of silicone.” For Opale, she took that intrigue and ran with it. “First, the fibers were placed in a laser-cut acrylic sheet; then, everything was placed in the back of silicone,” she says. “In terms of the density and heights of the fibers, all this information came from data captured by analyzing human body curvatures.”
And the result is nothing short of mesmerizing. As the onlooker feigns anger, the bristles respond by standing up tersely on end like a threatened cat. When the onlooker displays sadness, the fibers begin to droop sullenly, and so on. “The idea behind this project evolved around the notion of emotion and motion—how you can design something that can address the emotional changes in social interaction, that sort of harmony or mirroring of emotions,” Farahi says.
Although she is the first to say that “a lot of the work that I do sounds speculative,” Farahi is also quick to add that “one day, it’s going to be just normal. Our daily jacket or coat will have cameras embedded inside that not only understand our gender and age but also understand where people are looking, or your sports apparel will have built-in sensors in the fabric that can understand your posture and the speed of your movements.
“The exciting part,” she continues, “is that the material is going to be intelligent, it’s going to be active, it’s going to configurable, and that is very exciting for the future of the material computational world that we’re going to live in.”
Farahi remains intent on pushing the envelope of what is possible in combining architecture, design, fashion, art, and interactive technologies into everyday personas, forcing a reimagining of what is and what could be. Needless to say, it’s intriguing to see what she comes up with next.