Neri Oxman’s installation exploring the possibilities of melanin

Through digital fabrication and design computation, the pigment could sustain and enhance the planet’s endangered biodiversity.

For the XXII Triennale di Milano, Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group designed an installation as part of Paola Antonelli’s Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival.

Called Totems, the installation is part of a long-term project initiated by Ravi Naidoo and Design Indaba that was first introduced at the conference last year.

Biodiversity on planet earth is under threat, with extinction rates estimated between 100 and 1,000 times their pre-human level. The Mediated Matter Group has been in search of materials and chemical substances that can sustain and enhance biodiversity across living systems, and which have thus far endured the perils of climate change.

mediated matter group totem

Melanin is one such substance, enabling biodiversity at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels. It is the ‘universal pigment,’ found in skin, hair and eyes as well as in feathers and butterfly wings. It has been found in fossils from some 160 million years ago, and today can be chemically synthesized with modern techniques.

It represents unity in the diversity of life on earth.

In preparation for the project, the team studied the biosynthesis of melanin in the natural world and translated the processes into a set of chemical design protocols. Melanin was then created in three ways: chemical synthesis, extraction, and bacterial synthesis.

The pigment can be extracted from bird feathers and cuttlefish ink, then purified and filtered in a series of steps. Core to the research is digital fabrication and design computation with chemical reaction dynamics, resulting in a ‘chemical Totem.’

mediated matter group totem

The installation features a demonstration of melanin production on an architectural scale for deployment in specific environmental contexts, and will manifest as an environmentally responsive melanin-infused glass structure.

It is designed to contain multiple types of melanin including the replication of natural melanogenic process observed on site and biological synthesis or extraction processes performed at the Lab.

A first-of-its-kind biologically augmented façade, the structure is designed to mirror and protect endangered species on site and to celebrate the diversity of life on our planet.

mediated matter group totem