“Creating dynamic environments which embody the human presence drives me,” reveals Nassia Inglessis. It is with this ambitious undertaking that the Greek designer and engineer, founder of experimental design studio Studio INI, unveiled a kinetic outdoor installation during NYCxDesign, New York’s annual celebration of all things design taking place this month. On view May 17 through the end of the summer, the immersive “Urban Imprint” will swallow up the entire courtyard of creative space A/D/O by MINI in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Born in London of Greek parents, and with a childhood spent in Athens, Inglessis now splits her time between the two capital cities. In London, she has a studio at the prestigious art and cultural center Somerset House. Athens is where she develops prototypes and enlists fabricators. Interior Design sat down with Inglessis to learn more about her installation, her thoughts on the struggle to find personal identity in cities, and the unique place in India where you can observe a dance between body and matter.
Interior Design: What is your intention with the ‘Urban Imprint’ installation?
Nassia Inglessis: The work I do questions how we perceive and interact with our physical environment. With ‘Urban Imprint,’ I examine how we can reconstruct and reimagine the physical fabric of our urban environment. I say ‘fabric,’ but it is really quite synthetic with predefined boundaries. We navigate our cities in a design that someone else has imposed on us. It is as if we've been poured into a vessel of concrete and glass.
Whereas in a natural environment, you immediately become part of its ecosystem—our movement is in relation to changes around us. You leave your imprint as you walk through grass or tread a path through the forest. Instead of being something that we must adapt to, can an urban environment be something that adapts to us? That’s what I’m reconsidering with ‘Urban Imprint.’
Taking over the courtyard of A/D/O, we reconstructed it into a space that really comes alive once the human element is within it. When the visitor enters, the space takes form and shape around his or her presence and movement so that they inevitably leave their own imprint. The space created is both unique to the visitor and unique to the moment. The space also draws in the imprint of all the other visitors.
ID: What kind of materials is it made of?
NI: We take what are familiar structural elements—but usually static and quite rigid—and give them malleable form, new abilities, and new behaviors. That means we are using steel, but with computation design and digital fabrication tools such as laser cutting, we are making it movable and formable in three dimensions. Then we are using glass as a means of enhancing the perception of the transformation. A mix of concrete and rubber creates a skin to the environment which isn't rigid.
ID: You also intend the installation to be a ‘forward-looking approach to notions of personal identity in cities.’ Can you explain that?
NI: Well, if you think about our cities, we are in an urban environment that remains unresponsive to our presence, an environment that we must adapt to. In that kind of environment, the notion of self is sort of a muted self. This is why we live so much through digital platforms. There we can reinvent ourselves, and the notion of self feels boundless, with endless possibilities. On the other hand, this digital world is untethered to our natural instincts, which is in the physical environment, where often things can be triggered and we can experience things in all their richness.
I feel that creating the experience of an urban environment which does respond to your presence, which takes form in relation to you, is something that can be a starting point for reconsidering how they are made. Those that are adaptable could evolve.
ID: What have you completed recently?
NI: Last year at the London Design Biennale, my exhibit ‘Disobedience’ was a really strong symbol of a wall, showing how architecture does not need to be static or emotionally inert. We have new tools to make it malleable.
At the Victoria & Albert Museum at the 2017 London Design Festival, I presented ‘In Need of Transportation,’ exploring glass craftsmanship and basically reimagining how we work with glass with a combination of digital pneumatics and traditional glassblowing techniques.
As a research resident at MIT Media Lab, I worked on a project called Fiberbots , which looked at creating a swarm of robots inspired by nature's builders such as ants and bees. The bots can build around their body with fiberglass and resin, creating a new system of fabricators that can build these very adaptable and flexible structures. Part of my exploration of augmented materiality is looking at how we create new tools to form matter.
ID: In what kind of home do you live?
NI: I live mostly in southwest London, in a one-bedroom apartment. There's never much space in London, and that forced me to create my own very flexible environment, with mostly elements I designed and made. One of the first things I made was a completely foldable kitchen. Basically, the sink, stove, and chopping areas reveal and hide themselves behind a wall. It's also what I'm researching—that we have a need for transformation and we should make our living environments transformable.
ID: How do think growing up in Greece influences your design thinking?
NI: While I was born in London, both my parents are Greek and we moved back to Athens when I was four years old. I've always retained a very strong link with Athens, and now I spend between 30 and 50 percent of my time there. The city right now is in a very exciting stage of reinventing itself.
Athens enables the more maverick side of my work. It’s where I experiment with things that haven't been tried before—which are to many, perhaps, too precarious—like using tools in different ways. During a time of prototyping, this is something I need to develop a new idea or new concept. At this time of great unemployment in Greece, when there's a need for the industry to reinvent itself, a lot of fabricators open up more to new ideas and experimentation to bring in the work. Basically, I get more approval, from both workshops and technicians to, ‘Can I try this crazy idea in your factory on your equipment?’ in Greece.
ID: How does London compare?
NI: In London, I have endless inspiration, interaction, and diversity. It's a city that you never feel you've exhausted. No matter how many years you are there, you are always discovering. The creative community which I joined early on at Somerset House is also extremely exciting.
ID: How do you think your childhood and formative years influences your design thinking?
NI: I sort of became a combination of my parents. My father was an engineer and an avid tinker. From a very early age he taught me a love for materials, engines, and the combination of parts. My mother is an art historian and artist who brought me to museums and galleries—again at a young age. She helped me understand the cultural context of what we make.
During my childhood, I also spent a lot of time at the sea. The sea is the ultimate sort of blank canvas and free environment, where you adapt to nature's elements as they adapt to you.
My education was not the most conventional path to come into design or art. I started from science, with an engineering degree from Oxford University, before going to the Royal College of Art. What I saw in design and art was a way to carry out rigorous research, but with the challenge to make it relevant, interesting, and interactive. I see installations not as an end to itself but a means to an end—a means to more knowledge as a kind of informal experimental platform for experimentation. This pulls my future work.
ID: Is there a person in the industry that you particularly admire?
NI: In a more sort of theoretical way by just observing their work, Thomas Heatherwick is an amazing inventor in both the fields of design and architecture. However, I would also say a person who I've worked very closely with and continue to work with, Markus Kayser. We worked together on Fiberbots at MIT Media Lab. One of his most recognized projects is the Solar Sinter, which uses solar power and a lens to melt sand into an object. In his ability to reimagine the physical world and how we create within it and put that into action, he has been a great mentor to me.
ID: Have you traveled somewhere recently that had a strong impact on you?
NI: This past December I took the bold decision to not ship glass pieces to an exhibition in the south of India for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, but to create them and discover glass-making in India instead. What I found, in the north of India, close to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is, was Firozabad. This is a city where you can truly witness craftsmanship as a dance between body and matter, where you see glass blowers who basically throw glass objects from hand to hand. The creation process is entirely through movement and intuition. What is also amazing is that this is a place where true recycling happens. They use, mostly because it is more cost effective, glass collected from the entirety of India. It’s a place of reincarnation of materials, where existing matter is given new physical form and new life.
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