A/D/O by MINI | Studio INI melds analog and digital

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Installations

Studio INI melds analog and digital

Nassia Inglessis, designer of the Urban Imprint installation at A/D/O, applies technology to tangible materials to create human-centric experiences.

Disobedience was created for the 2018 London Design Biennale. Photo by Ed Reeves

“Are you sure this is safe?” I ask as I clamber onto an elevated strip of metal, flanked by vertical rods lined up like pointy sentinels along either side. But before I receive an answer, the weight of my body causes the platform to drop sharply – an action that triggers the rods to splay outward, as if an invisible field around me has pushed them away, and speeds my heart rate to double pace.

What I’ve stepped on is a full-scale prototype of Disobedience, created by design engineer Nassia Inglessis and her team at Studio INI, during a visit to their subterranean workspace at London’s Somerset House. The way my weight depressed the platform was entirely intentional, demonstrating how – like with many of the studio’s projects – the human body can influence the world around it, rather than the other way around.

In its final form, the Disobedience installation comprises a 17-meter-long kinetic wall, which was installed in the Somerset House courtyard as the Greek pavilion for the 2018 London Design Biennale. Visitors could walk through its center, and experience the two sides undulating around them as their footsteps altered the steel spring mechanism hidden below.

Studio INI creates its large-scale installations at workspaces in London and Athens

“I see installations a bit like an informal platform for experimentation,” said Inglessis, speaking meters from her latest project, Urban Imprint, as final touches are being made to the installation back at A/D/O in New York. “Each installation, I learn from how people interact with it.”

DisobedienceUrban Imprint and many of Studio INI’s earlier projects share a combination of interaction, spatial and material manipulation, and a dash of wonder. They all form part of Inglessis’ research into cognitive perception – the way we deal with information – and inform a human-centric approach to design, which began early in her career.

Inglessis was born in London to Greek parents, and grew up in Greece, but returned to the UK for her higher education. She originally studied engineering at Oxford University, where she enjoyed the “rigor of research,” but eventually wanted to apply her findings to real-world scenarios.

So she enrolled at London’s Royal College of Art, and concurrently set up Studio INI in the bowels of Somerset House. It was here that she created her first installation, Spine, which demonstrates how electrical currents move down the spinal cord using a chain of programmed lights.

The Spine installation mimics electrical currents moving through the body. Photo by Luke Walker

At the invitation of designer and researcher Neri Oxman, Inglessis then joined the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab. Here, she worked on projects from 3D-printing glass at an architectural scale, to programming swarms of “fiberbots” to wrap fiberglass around themselves as a form of digital fabrication.

“MIT Media Lab was where my two worlds came together – that of engineering and design, and even of art,” Inglessis said. “It gave me so much optimism, that there was a true dialogue between the scientist and the designer… There's appreciation on both sides and there's eagerness for one to collaborate with the other.”

But in general, she felt that too much effort and emphasis was being put into trying to “simulate or replicate the real world in the digital world” – through technologies like virtual and augmented reality – when perhaps the focus should be on exploring ways to heighten experiences in our current surroundings.

“I never felt that we are going straight into living in a headset,” said Inglessis. “I feel very much the need to think about it differently. Yes, we're making leaps and bounds in the intangible world and the world of simulation. But physical designs remain, in many ways, quite static.”

Inglessis' work with glass has been shown at London's V&A museum. Photo by Luke Walker

This led to the development of a body of work that Studio INI describes as augmented materiality. The team uses digital tools and computation to help improve and accentuate analog materials and systems, in turn aiming to elevate sensorial experiences for those who come into contact with them.

“It's not an augmented reality; it’s not a virtual reality,” said Inglessis. “It’s the idea that computation and digital fabrication can open up new capacity about how we make things; how we design physical systems; how we combine traditional mechanisms, like pulleys and gears, with new combinations of materials.”

With Urban Imprint, this involves a complex composition of springs, cables and pulleys – all disguised by a floor and ceiling made from a malleable concrete-rubber mesh, which pulls apart under compression or tension. As a visitor’s weight pushes down the floor, the ceiling expands upwards, creating a cocoon around the body as it moves through the space.

Other Studio INI experiments have included pneumatic manipulations of molten glass via hand sensors, and molding plastic over ropes to form a chair. Exploring the properties and limits of materials, and then pushing them using digital tools, has become a key component in the studio’s projects. But the driving force of Inglessis’ work is understanding how people can stretch the limits and boundaries of her projects, sometimes in completely unexpected ways, even further.

“I see my practice as an experimental design studio, which has research at its core,” she said. “Everything I design won’t start with a form, or even a material or a technique. It will start with an experience.”

When Urban Imprint opens May 17, 2019, the experience that visitors will encounter will be similar to the exciting and slightly unnerving sensations I had when testing the Disobedience prototype. Sensations created by realizing your body is causing the space around you to transform, combined with the uncertainty of how exactly that is happening. And it’s not until people are part of the structure, according to Inglessis, that this “augmented materiality” will take on its final form.

Urban Imprint will remain on view in the A/D/O courtyard until September 2, 2019.

Text by Dan Howarth.