‘My house is more sensitive than my husband!’

Imagine having a floor that is always clean because little cloths have been silently wandering around all day, sensing dirt and wiping it up... or a lawn growing on your living-room floor.

holon design museum exhibit 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
holon design museum exhibit 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Imagine living in a time when your house, office or workspace is not only “smart,” but actually sensitive to your physical and emotional needs. Imagine coming home hot and clammy from an afternoon of shopping in the withering summer heat: Your welcome mat senses your discomfort, and tells the house to lower its internal temperature.
Envision flopping down on a neutrally flat sofa or easy chair, which immediately expands and adjusts its shape to whatever way you want to sit. Your floor, by the way, is spotlessly clean because little robot-like wiping cloths have been silently wandering around the house all day, sensing dirt and wiping it up.
And that coffee cup you carelessly tossed down onto the very edge of the dining table as you hurried off to work in the morning was saved from shattering by the tablecloth, which “thoughtfully” billowed itself around the cup to keep it from breaking on impact or falling off the table.
You can, of course, do little more than imagine living at such a time, because that time has not yet arrived.
A group of bright, mostly young and mostly Japanese designers want you to be patient just a little while longer, however, because all of this – and much, much more – is just around the corner.
A fascinating exhibit at the Design Museum in Holon provides us with just a tiny glimpse of what can be achieved when product designers explore the technological possibilities provided by artificial fiber.
The exhibition, entitled “Senseware: Tokyo Fiber,” is directed by Kenya Hara, 52, one of Japan’s foremost graphic designers, author of the book Redesigning Design, and organizer of such groundbreaking earlier exhibitions as, “RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century” (2000), and “HAPTIC – Awakening the Senses” (2004).
The current “Senseware” exhibition, Hara says, is not about showing off new products – indeed, most of the items on display are not commercial products – but to demonstrate the human potential of the latest artificial fibers.
“I think that these new kinds of artificial fiber can be like the sensing membrane of your house. Like your skin functions to let the environment communicate with you through the senses of feeling and touching, these fibers will create a membrane that allows you to communicate with your immediate environment – your home, your office, and so on.”
According to Hara, this will create a situation in which your home or workplace will have, in effect, a “skin” that is able to “feel” you.
“For example, Japanese people take off their shoes when they enter the house. Many other people go around their homes barefoot, or wearing only socks. If the surface of your carpet had a good sensor, it could feel your body. The human body can transmit a lot of immediate information, your body temperature, your blood pressure, your pulse and heart rate, along with many other types of information.”
For Hara, it is up to designers to use the technology of artificial fiber to design human-sensitive environments.
“If it is possible that your carpet, or some other sensitive surface in your home, can pick up this information – directly from your body – then these are the types of surfaces that we must design. Traditional design must change in order to accommodate these new technological possibilities.
“I’m not talking about something far in the future. I think that these new intelligent artificial fibers are creating these possibilities. We can now begin to realize the concept of communication between human and house.”
Artificial fibers are, of course, not new. Rayon and acetate, made from wood, were both discovered in the mid-19th century, with successful manufacture dating from 1910 and 1924, respectively. Nylon was the first popular synthetic fiber, discovered just in time for World War II. Manufactured as a replacement for silk, nylon became the wartime material for women’s stockings, thus establishing the major use of artificial fiber as material for clothes. Polyester, for better or worse, followed in 1953, ushering in the almost universal use of artificial fiber for all kinds of clothing.
But now, Hara says, “Japan’s artificial fibers have become much more advanced and hi-tech, enabling them to transcend the area of clothing and find a broader range of applications. Japan has both the technology and the delicate sensibility needed to be a leader in the development of artificial fibers, and the result is the emergence of innovative advanced fibers one after another.”
Among Hara’s examples of these innovative fibers and textiles are ultra-fine nanofibers that are only 1/7500 the thickness of a human hair; a carbon fiber that is tough, strong and – at the same time – elastic and surprisingly light; electro-conductive fibers that can conduct electricity like metal; as well as intelligent fibers that are as fine as animal tissue or cells.
“The question is, what sort of applications can we find for them?” he says.
“Artificial fibers are currently hinting at dramatic developments that will make them into a completely new ‘senseware,’ acting like skin cells that provide the sensors to create an interface with our environment.”
With this in mind, Hara invited some 15 innovative designers to participate in the current exhibition, including people working in architecture, interior design, product design, fashion design, car manufacturing and even flower art. He got them talking with representatives of seven of Japan’s hi-tech artificial fiber companies, and eventually began the process of matchmaking between fiber and designer.
The results speak for themselves. There is fashion designer Kosuke Tsumura’s Cocoon Cradle, a rockable baby cradle made from a fiber called Felibendy. This non-woven fabric provides a new-born baby with a cushioning cradle that is both soft and firm at the same time – soft where it has to be soft, and firm at the center, like a silk cocoon.
Top Italian product designer Antonio Citterio joins the exhibition to contribute Moshi-Moshi, a flat sofa made of a stretch fabric called Finex that allows the sofa to change shape and produce a back support – and then become flat and smooth again when the back support is no longer needed.
Using a carbon fiber called Tenax, artist Shigeru Ban presents a super-strong and super-lightweight chair that is so thin it is almost invisible when viewed sideways. Carbon fiber is also the medium for artist Jun Aoki’s Thinbeam, another super-strong, ultra-thin creation in the form of a very long, very narrow light fixture beam, supported at only one end and stretching across a room without breaking or bending.
A particularly appealing item is “Fukitorimushi,” an intelligent wiping cloth contributed by the Design Company of Panasonic. Made of a fiber called Nanofront, this cloth, placed over a small floor-hugging moving robot, has sensors that detect dirt, and super absorbent fibers to wipe it away. The cloth-covered robot is designed to move around the house freely, as if it were a living person.
Speaking of robots, another crowd pleaser is Hiroo Iwata’s Robot Tile, made of something called, simply, New Conductive Fiber. These large moving floor tiles, that look more like sofa cushions than tiles, allow you to use your own legs to walk around the virtual spaces of video games and virtual worlds like Second Life. The tiles are capable of moving in all directions, but provide a floor only in the area directly under your feet.
When you start to walk, the tile you are standing on slides in the opposite direction from the direction you are walking in, returning you to your original position. The tile then moves around in front of you, ready to provide the next bit of floor. This is repeated constantly, enabling you to walk any distance without actually moving from the spot that you started from. And when you change direction, the tiles move round to the new direction, so you can walk in any direction you like – again, while actually remaining in the same spot.
Perhaps the most visually striking item in the exhibition is flower artist Makoto Azuma’s Time of Moss. Using Terramac, a biodegradable fiber made, according to the product description, from “plant-derived polylactic acid,” Azuma has created an enormous floor-level planter for crabgrass and moss, transforming the center of the exhibition site into a green mossy wetland. At the time of our visit, a young Japanese woman was actually watering the moss and grass. Terramac will make it possible for anyone who so desires to have a nice bit of lawn growing inside the house, on the living room floor.
Among the other items on display are Kashiwa Sato’s “Breathair” toy building blocks and cushions that are 95 percent air; architect Kengo Kuma’s translucent concrete blocks for house construction – concrete that lets in light; Theater Product’s intelligent, billowing tablecloths; and Nissan Design Center’s Smiling Vehicle Stretch Fabric which is, in fact, a stretch fabric to put over your car to make it appear to be smiling.  
Of course, in addition to the many very clever items on display, this exhibition has the proverbial elephant in the room – the thing that everyone can see, but no one wants to acknowledge is there.
As the visitor enthuses about the seemingly unlimited possibilities presented by artificial fiber, he or she cannot help but feel afraid – very afraid – of the consequences to the environment. Terramac, which is designed to completely biodegrade within 10 years, obviously poses no problem. But a super-strong chair or table that can keep its shape for 500 years may be doing so around 490 years longer than anyone really wants it to.
Hara says, “The source of all these artificial fibers is mainly petroleum. But there are other sources, like carbon and plant material. Some of the material is biodegradable. Some is not. As for the material that is not biodegradable, we don’t really know how long it will stay in the environment. This material, if not recyclable, can be disposed of by being burned – under well-controlled, safe conditions.”
As far as the future is concerned, this exhibition suggests that theuse of artificial fibers may suggest one more, rather surprisingoutcome – the possibility not only of the human body communicating withsenseware, but of senseware communicating with the body in new andunexpected ways.
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, journalist Keiichiro Fujisakiwonders whether artificial fiber might have the capacity to awakenunknown senses.
“Those new materials are capable of arousing latent feelings andsensitivity by incorporating a variety of levels of time, transformingour outlook on nature, giving outlines to air, changing and filteringlight, sensing people, sensing things, fighting gravity, expressinglightness, creating a sense of happiness in the midst of our dailylives, or giving a feel for the fertile potential of non-uniformity.”
“Senseware” is showing until September 4 at the Design Museum,8 Pinhas Eilon Street, Holon. Monday and Wednesday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.;Tuesday and Thursday: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.;Saturday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday: Closed. Tel: 073-215-1515.