Narrative from the human body–The 'Body-Scapes' collection by Jessica Smarsch
I am a firm believer in the fact that narrative can elevate the experience of design objects; Making it richer, more meaningful and long-lasting. In Jessica Smarsch’s Body-Scapes blankets, this narrative is compelling and easy to perceive, even at the surface.
In this project, Jessica's work captures and represents the movements and embodied emotions of the human body. No wonder then, that at first glance, the Body-Scapes blankets seem to exhibit a sense of motion.
Jessica's method is a unique one: Using a custom software that she developed along with two others, she translates muscle movements made by the human body into graphic patterns. These computer-generated patterns are then woven into blankets. The body movements are captured over some days, with the help of a physical toolkit that accompanies the software, and are associated with specific daily activities that become a ritual of sorts.
I find it intriguing to learn that this digital snapshot, of sorts, actually helps bring the human element back into the current industrial way of creating textiles.
Jessica also visualizes the tension of human muscle fibers, through the fibers and weave of her textiles. Owing to their patterns and the way that they are woven, Jessica's textiles, created on the Jacquard loom, have a human imprint on them.
This human imprint can first be sensed in the rhythmic, graphic patterns on these blankets and through their texture. Looking at the blankets, I see that each bold, but soft design and each face of these double-sided blankets is unique. There is also the unexplainable feeling that I am looking at a language of sorts. A language that I am as yet unaware of–a language of the future.
Beyond imbuing these blankets with meaning, there is also the simple fact that with Body-Scapes, Jessica has elevated the blanket–an object that we take for granted, and rely on only for its warmth, and reliability. Suddenly, a blanket is an object we can have a conversation with and about. It is no longer static, and speaks so innately of the human body, it becomes of immense value.
Just a few days shy of the London Design Festival of 2016, I spoke with Jessica, wanting to learn more about her beautiful and intriguing creations. The Body-Scapes blankets will be seen at two locations at the festival. As part of designers' collective Form&Seek, Jessica's work will be seen at the London Design Fair from 22-25 September this week. The Body-Scapes blanket collection will also be shown at Mint during LDF, where individual blankets are available for purchase.
Read out to learn about our chat with Jessica:
MD: Jessica, what will you be exhibiting at the London Design Festival this year?
Jessica: I will be showing Body-Scapes–a collection of three reversible, double-sided blankets. The blankets are jacquard woven with double and quadruple weaves in linen and wool, with a cotton fringe.
The concept for this collection originates in the system I developed during my Masters at the Design Academy Eindhoven. For this system, I developed software in collaboration with Marco van Nieuwenhoven and Sami Sabik, in which movement from a user is translated into a graphic output.
Today hand-made processes have largely been replaced by industrial machines, and while these machines are far better at producing large quantities of consistent outcomes, textile making by hand has been cited by many as a meditative process. The idea for my thesis at DAE, therefore, came from the desire to bring the mind-body processes of rhythm and repetition back into the (industrial) design process.
The software combines user preferences with data from the muscles to output graphic patterns; those patterns are translated to woven constructions using opposing fibers to create tension and texture in the textile, visualizing the tension of the body’s muscle fibers. These final designs are woven on the industrial jacquard loom.
For Body-Scapes, this software system was used in combination with a ritual: a daily intuitive walk was taken every day for 20 days. Before and after the walk, I created one pattern, using body movement as a form of expression. Embodied emotions were performed using a modular toolset, which was designed in tandem with the original system to encourage the user to move in different ways. The software visually captured and quantified the effect of the daily action.
The entire process yielded 40 patterns over the 20 days, and the first prototypes showed a before-and-after graphic representation of 6 of these days. For the final Body-Scapes collection, three blankets were finalized for production, representing six moments of the process in total; each blanket represents two individual moments from the daily ritual.
MD: How does your work respond to the broader Form&Seek theme of 'De-Construct/Re-Construct’ for this year’s LDF?
Jessica: In this project (Body-Scapes), I de-construct the industrial process by returning to the very fundamental aspects of textile making. I use an alternative method (digital interaction) to reintroduce qualities from the hand process into the industrial. In this way, I reconstruct the industrial process, re-introducing the body into the making and production process.
MD: What are the primary materials and techniques you have employed in the Body-Scapes project?
Jessica: The main components of this process are on the one hand intangible (the act of ritual and performance) and digital (the software interaction). The physical material – the textile blanket – is the result of testing and creating sample outcomes on the industrial loom. There are nearly infinite ways that a graphic pattern could be translated into woven results.
This translation was inspired by the connection between muscle fiber and textile fiber, and the inherent quality of each to relax and constrict. Therefore, many trials were performed on the loom to create the final construction of the blankets, and a unique weaving process creates the double-sided effect. The final blankets are woven in continuation on the loom. I finish the pieces by hand, removing the weft fibers to create the fringed edges.
MD: Are there any geographic or historic roots to the Body-Scapes project?
Jessica: No specific geographic location is tied to this project, other than the idea of “home.” Something significant in this project was the fact that the daily walk always began and ended from my home, and that process was a design process, but also a personal process of developing mindfulness and finding a peaceful personal environment, both in my physical surroundings as well as within myself.
In addition to this, I studied the historical links between ritual, performance, and design and was inspired by how actions and ritual were used to communicate to the spirits and how these actions were often translated as literal symbols onto the created objects (textiles and ceramics). The focus of my study was on European folk civilizations, though similar examples can be found in cultures all around the world.
MD: What reaction to this collection of blankets are you anticipating (and hoping for) from viewers at the London Design Festival?
Jessica: Besides a positive reaction to the physical design product, I hope that people are curious by the story behind the blankets and that it causes critical reflection not only on how we design but also how we perform in our daily lives and work. How can we integrate our whole selves fully into our everyday actions, rituals and work?
MD: What was the most challenging part of the making of Body-Scapes?
Jessica: The most difficult part of this development process has been introducing such a concept to an industrial partner, who is used to working with standardized production. While we did finally achieve a successful outcome, it took many small steps together to find a way for the concept to maintain its story, the textile to retain its look and to be a functional end product. The textile mill considers it “almost handmade” due to the way it has been developed and how it is produced.