Dr Lindsey Goff reviews the Nobel Textiles Debate

The Fabrics of Life: Nobel Textiles project began in 2006, marrying scientific discovery to design. The aim, explained Amanda Fisher (Director, MRC CSC, London) who conceived the project, was to communicate the excitement and creativity of scientific discovery in a very direct way to the public. She had realised that scientists were not always very good at blowing their own trumpets and had the idea of recruiting designers, whose products speak straight to us, to help them. 

Five Nobel scientists were each paired up with a textile designer, but not randomly, Carole Collet co-developer of Nobel Textiles and Course Director of MA Textile Futures at Central Saint Martins, played matchmaker, looking for compatibility between the scientific discovery and the designer’s expertise.  Then it was up to the Nobel Laureate to inspire and up to the designer to create. To examine the design prototypes resulting from their year and half long dialogue, a debate was held on 16th September 2008 at the ICA in London; a kind of public couples-counselling session.  Five designers and two of the participating scientists, Sirs John Sulston and Tim Hunt, were on the panel and science writer and broadcaster, Vivienne Parry was in the chair.  Kiki von Glasow’s films documenting the creative journey of each pairing gave us fly on the wall insight throughout the debate.

On their first date there was a lot of talking and much sketching as each described their trade, the scientist explaining details of their discovery, and the designer quizzing them exhaustively. Tim commented that it is ‘unbelievably difficult to explain this stuff to people who don’t know’, starkly illustrating Amanda’s original realisation.  Carole had encouraged John ‘to visualise his discovery’ and sketching played an important role for all in the process of clarifying ideas and concepts. Aside from graphic representations, both he and Tim admitted to ‘nano’ role-play to help the intellectual process, for example imagining what it would take to be a molecule in a chemical reaction. 

Designer Shelley Fox declared she had been nervous of first meeting Sir Peter Mansfield, conscious that she belonged to the seemingly frivolous world of fashion and he having made such a difference to mankind.  But once the pairs clicked it became clear that there was more of a common language between science and textile design (if not art as a whole) than perhaps either party had at first expected. This became apparent through graphic illustration or the use of shared words like  ‘pattern’, replication’ and ‘unzip’ .

From the vast stock of potential, the designers alighted on an aspect of the science that sparked their creative imagination. What emerged were not superficial or literal designs, a criticism of previous sci-art ventures, but an in depth understanding of the science by the designers. That’s quite an achievement given the perceived rift between these two cultures and the scepticism and trepidation expressed by some participants at the project’s outset.  But did their products translate this understanding to a wider audience?  All the products were exciting and firmly planted in everyday life- all the better for evoking a human response, something not often associated with science-speak.

Within a series of specially constructed greenhouses, decaying garden furniture made from a painstakingly woven, ‘suicidal’ textile reflected the process of programmed cell death in a tiny compost heap worm; the Fat-Map Collection, a series of 'doctored' dresses was inspired by magnetic resonance body imaging; a large-scale architectural textile that stores energy mirrored the role of ATP, the molecule that fuels our every move; laser-etched glass reflecting the sudden disappearance of the molecule cyclin before cell division, transformed an entire greenhouse into a lantern; and three-dimensional woven textiles echoed the arrangment of our genetic material within body cells.

It was the latter, Brock’s woven self-assembly textile, that perhaps most immediately communicated the project’s aim. Brock and Klug shared a passion for 3D structure, and so hit it off right from the outset. She had realised with glee how RNA folding in Klug’s model organism, Tobacco Mosaic Virus, had the same principles as the Whipping Cord Technique that she used in her textiles. The construction of this fabric, rather than the scientific language used to describe molecular assembly, might actually capture the attention of the otherwise science dispossessed.

This project recruited design to help explain science; it didn’t set out to expose similarity or difference between science and art.  But what emerged from Nobel Textiles is that the process that designers and scientists go through - their absorption and tenacity, and the languages they use - are not in fact worlds apart.  It was part of the deal for the designers to understand the science, but through the collaboration the reciprocal had also happened.  Nobel Textiles was an ambitious project, especially for the designers whose end product would be in the spotlight; all rose to the challenge and enjoyed it. From it came mutual respect and appreciation across the faculties, which can only help to smooth the way for a long and fruitful marriage.

See www.nobeltextiles.co.uk for more information.