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5 reasons why Neri Oxman is more important than Brad Pitt right now

The MIT professor is on the bleeding edge of synthetic biology, digital fabrication, and bioengineering

MIT professor and synthetic biology pioneer Neri Oxman
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last week, Page Six reported that Neri Oxman—the American-Israeli MIT professor, TED speaker, and synthetic biology pioneer—has been “spending time” with actor Brad Pitt.

Since then, tabloids have gone wild with speculation about this supposed relationship. Now, Oxman and Pitt are on the cover of Us Weekly. To which I say, proximity to a Missouri-raised actor is the least interesting thing about Oxman. She’s a more relevant celebrity in her own right than Pitt is. Here’s why:

1. Neri Oxman is designing entirely new ways of thinking

At MIT, Oxman established the Mediated Matter Group, a department that explores how biological systems and processes can inform the manmade world.

This doesn’t mean merely copying nature; it’s about imagining entirely new methods of digital fabrication, engineering, design, and construction. She invented the term “material ecology” to describe her way of thinking.

For example, Oxman was fascinated with the way silkworms can create strong three-dimensional cocoons using a single material. So she and her team “hacked” 6,500 of the insects to create a human-scale pavilion.

The point of the experiment wasn’t about whether or not the buildings of the future would be made from silk. Rather, it aimed to gain a deeper understanding of fiber-based structures and how they could become materially and structurally optimized by observing some of nature’s most ingenious builders at work.

2. Oxman is a ridiculously creative artist

Oxman trained as an architect and a computational designer (meaning using programs to design things), but her work is pure art.

She has pieces in MoMA’s permanent collection, like a chest plate inspired by spiders and a Greek myth. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art owns an Oxman Gemini chaise, designed in collaboration with fellow MIT faculty member W. Craig Carter and the 3D printing company Stratasys.

The undulating piece is meant to feel womblike and reflects sound inward. (Supposedly, this is the chair that captivated Pitt so much that he had to arrange a meeting with its designer.) She also has work at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston; the Pompidou Center, in Paris; the Museum of Applied Arts, in Vienna; and at the Smithsonian.

Oxman’s Gemini chair is made from milled wood and 3D-printed surfaces.

3. Oxman is poetic perfection

People who work in technical fields often speak about their work in dull, mechanical terms. Not Oxman.

When she describes the inspiration behind her designs, it’s pure poetry. Take the Gemini chaise that Pitt fell in love with:

“[Gemini] recapitulates a human cosmos: our body—like the Gemini constellation—drifting in space. In this project, we explore interactions between pairs: sonic and solar environments, natural and synthetic materials, hard and soft sensations, as well as subtractive and additive fabrication.”

Oxman is fascinated with organic systems and the potential for them to be manipulated. For a series of works called Wanderers—conceptual 3D-printed wearables—she mused about the situations that “interplanetary pilgrims” would encounter and the tools they’d need to survive:

Traveling to destinations beyond planet Earth involves voyages to hostile landscapes and deadly environments. Crushing gravity, amonious air, prolonged darkness, and temperatures that would boil glass or freeze carbon dioxide, all but eliminate the likelihood of human visitation. Wanderers explores the possibility of voyaging to the worlds beyond by visiting the worlds within.

The inventions that this provocation yielded are similarly poetic. Oxman named a wearable air purifier Qamar, the Arabic term for the moon goddess Luna. She also modeled the design on the moon’s surface.

She imagined that food might be scarce on this type of adventure and so she designed a garment that could grow its own, with bacteria:

“Saturn is known for its vortex storms forming where there is a steep latitudinal gradient in the speed of winds blowing across the planet’s atmosphere. Named after the Roman god of agriculture, its Arabic name—Zuhal (زحل)—reflects the planet and the mythology, representing fertility and growth. The wearable is covered with a dense hairy texture responding to Saturn’s vortex winds with intricate structures characterized by high surface area to volume ratio.”

These are examples of how she thinks scientifically and technically, but in ways that captivate our imagination.

Neri Oxman designed a mask for Bjork that riffs on the Icelandic musician’s musculoskeletal system.
Getty Images

4. Oxman is a go-to collaborator for other creatives

When Björk needed a headpiece for her Vulnicura tour, the musician called upon Oxman. The two collaborated on a mask that riffs on Björk’s own muscular and skeletal system. The sinuous black-and-white piece is equal parts haunting and mesmerizing.

5. Oxman defies any singular definition

Oxman builds things, but she’s not just an architect. She creates furniture, but she’s not just a designer. She designs systems, but isn’t just an engineer. She seemingly upends any rules we thought the physical world has imposed—i.e. using 3D-printed glass to create glass vessels that throw light in ultra-specific ways.

She herself eschews any labels:

Considering Pitt’s interest in architecture and his budding efforts as a furniture designer, he stands to learn a lot from Oxman professionally and creatively.

And if theirs is a romantic relationship, well, it’s proof that a graying middle-aged divorcée with six kids can find true love—and someone more than stylish enough to accompany him on the red carpet.