The Mediated Matter Group’s installation Totems on display at the XXII Triennale di Milano prognosticates a future when designers will use laboratory synthesized melanin – the ‘universal pigment’ found in skin, fur, hair, and eyes – as an architectural resource to build glass windows that deepen or lighten in response to the sun like our own skin.
Designed for Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, Totem’s melanin-focused architectural application was initiated by Ravi Naidoo of Interactive Africa, but first proposed in 2018 by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group at Design Indaba in Cape Town. Oxman and her MIT team have developed numerous “living materials”, bio-inspired designs responsive to their environment, including melanin-impregnated material activated into varying colors with exposure to UV radiation (sunlight).
The synthesized pigment merges digital fabrication and design computation with chemistry, resulting in a ‘chemical Totem’ – thus the name of the project – a reaction initiated by tyrosinase, a mushroom-derived enzyme that leads to color formations that change and deepen as the sun reaches its zenith.
The melanin-impregnated material is now proposed as an architectural element: melanin-infused glass. Designed to contain multiple types of melanin sourced from a variety of samples, including human hair, cuttlefish ink, mushrooms, bird feathers, and other sources, the bio-inspired material is currently represented in a small series of spherical objects featuring a single or multiple connected channel filled with liquid melanin, each showcasing a wide range of colors with their own unique light absorption properties. The hope is in time, liquid melanin would be incorporated into larger sheets of glass and used as transparent architectural surfaces as responsive and adaptive to the elements as our own skin.