Graceful, interactive surfaces and innovation from Alissa+Nienke
By Purva Chawla
Both intricate and blissfully simple.
Both fundamentally Analog in its construction, and extremely finessed, almost Digital in its appearance. Both playful and curiosity-inducing in its impact, and thought-provoking in its soul.
These are the many facets of Alissa+Nienke’s work.
The Eindhoven, Netherlands-based designers manipulate surfaces and materials in a distinct way; questioning and altering conventional production processes, and creating intensely interactive installations and objects.
While at the one end there are these designed elements—carefully hand-crafted paper, metal and porcelain surfaces generated by the duo of Alissa van Asseldonk and Nienke Bongers—on the other are the active elements—people and forces such as wind, light or sound.
It is the intersection of these two kinds of elements that produces the experience of Alissa+Nienke’s work.
In many of Alissa and Nienke's projects, people and moving air actively engage with designed surfaces; invoke graceful movement as air filters through them, or create changing reflections, as a person walks by. In others, Alissa and Nienke have gone even one step further. In their recent BioMirror project, can be found a visualization of recorded biofeedback or human data. In this project, such abstract and rattling concepts as stress (recorded via sensors) are visualized in elegant, gently moving or pulsating surfaces. The results are intuitive and fascinating. Suddenly, Stress–that monster under our beds–turns into a beautiful aesthetic experience.
This project exhibits a trait shared by many of this studio's works–the powerful transformation of stress or anxiety into curiosity and wonder. This transformation is a cause that the duo holds close to their hearts. Their recent Dangling Mirror project is motivated by this transformation as well and hopes to positively impact a larger audience.
Through both commissioned and self-initiated projects, the duo investigates the ways that they can use to achieve this transformation while maintaining a strong focus on materiality and tactility.
So where do the origins of this unique approach to surface design lie? And how are these simple, yet sophisticated creations constructed? The answers are to be found in our recent conversation with Alissa and Nienke. As part of our ‘Surface Innovation series', we chatted with them and investigated their process and projects. Here is what we drew from that conversation.
Editors Note: With their unique, investigative and elegant approach to surface design, Alissa+Nienke are an excellent emblem of this new series begun by us. It seems only fitting that the 'Surface Innovation Series' begins with a discussion of their work.
Alissa+Nienke: The start of an exploratory studio
Designers Alissa and Nienke were classmates at the Design Academy Eindhoven. During their internship period, the two had an opportunity to work together, and soon after, their professional partnership grew organically out of being colleagues and friends.
Both were drawn to the possibilities of working with surfaces and patterns at the time–an interest that drives their work to date. Nienke's graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven later became the precursor to Alissa+Nienke’s Mirabilia project. Mirabilia is an innovative, three-dimensional wallpaper, where a pattern of incisions transforms the surface of the paper into a tactile structure.
Through such work, and in their studio, Alissa and Nienke examine the world around them. They are driven by the intent to convey the same fascination and excitement that they feel in the studio, to viewers and users of their creations. The goal is almost always to surprise them.
On the other hand, they have consciously gravitated towards simple concepts and constructs. This means that anyone looking at their creations can comprehend them easily while being wowed and surprised. From these simple and tiny ideas–they scale things up, creating a large impact.
Interestingly, the investigative and probing nature of their studio has meant that Alissa and Nienke have generated a large materials laboratory of sorts. Each of their experiments and creations becomes a part of this cumulative library, and in turn gets incorporated into future projects.
The dominant approach in many of Alissa+Nienke's projects is to turn flat surfaces into three-dimensional objects by their manipulation of a surface. They often begin with studies in paper, and then translate these prototypes to other materials such as metal, porcelain or wood.
This is a challenging step for them–trying to recapture and rework the material characteristics of paper in another medium. All through this journey, they test the response of such surfaces and objects to forces such as the wind, and human interaction.
Dangling Grid and Dangling Mirror
Dangling Grid is a flexible, interactive–but analog–surface created by Alissa+Nienke. This experiment by them has yielded a surface that is sensitive to air movement–every rush of wind creates movement in the structure of the surface, as well as an ever-changing pattern that feels almost digital.
Made from light squares of patinated aluminum and brass, the surface is reflective, but also translucent, owing to the wind-induced movement of the many tiny pieces that make up its perforated whole.
Having received wonderful feedback for this experiment at Dutch Design Week in 2015, Alissa and Nienke are now working on an evolution of this project–Dangling Mirror. To the two designers, the format of a mirror felt like a fit and logical next step.
Another reason why they were drawn to a mirror format was its lack of ‘practicality.' Believing that the Dutch are surrounded by wonderful, and very practical design constantly, this project offered Alissa and Nienke the opportunity to show that something 'not practical' can be fun. They imagine that this mirror will be equally sought after in a home, or such locations as airports or hospitals–where long hallways need just such distraction and activation.
Released as a finessed interior product now, their previous research will reach a larger audience, having successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign and received support from material manufacturers. Dangling Mirror will employ the grid-like construct of Dangling Grid, to create mirrors that are sensitive to airflow, and stimulate curiosity.
Early experiments for Dangling Mirror were done in Plastic– which was difficult to develop further into a product–and then in Brass, which proved to be too heavy. The two designers are now actively working in tandem with a material manufacturer to create a light material that is sensitive to the effects of wind and movement, and best suited to their project needs.
This collaboration with manufacturers is symbolic of Alissa+Nienke’s approach, which involves constantly stretching the boundaries of production and making–by questioning, requesting, and working together with manufacturers.
Having created surfaces that interact and converse with viewers, the goal for Alissa and Nienke, was to take this a step further. Around this time, they learned of a research group known as the ‘Design Intelligence Group’ that was conducting their research at the Eindhoven University of Technology. The group's efforts were focused on capturing, quantifying and visualizing biofeedback.
Intrigued, Alissa and Nienke approached Prof. Dr.Ir. Loe M.G. Feijs, the professor, leading this group, to combine their research and to collaborate. Via this continuing collaboration with the Design Intelligence Group and Ph.D. student Bin Yu, investigations and experiments, the designers have delved into bio-data—such as stress–and translated it into tangible, moving surfaces. Using varying formations of paper, steel, and a biosensing platform, biofeedback is lifted from its clinical and mathematical existence and turned into a visual and sensory experience in the BioMirror project.
In addition to the projects discussed above, another exciting project (and material) is in the offing for Alissa and Nienke.
They have recently returned to working with porcelain–the first material they explored when they began their studio. With this upcoming project, the intent is to look at the relationship of porcelain with an interplay of light and shadows, using a sheet-like format of the material. Among the many inspirations behind this project, is an interest in traditional weaving techniques, and to translate these woven patterns into porcelain sheets. Seen, as a result, are patterns of perforation in the porcelain, which stream light through them.
For this project, known as Woven Light, Alissa and Nienke also wanted to scale up and use larger, less brittle pieces of porcelain. Searching for a material solution, they hit upon Keraflex. "Keraflex Porcelain is a green (unfired) tape based on ceramic raw materials and an organic binding matrix.” The highly flexible and thin (200 micrometers to 2mm), tape-like material can be molded into numerous forms. When fired in a kiln, Keraflex transforms into a translucent porcelain. For Woven Light, Alissa and Nienke have tapped into these qualities of Keraflex, while making the thin and fragile sheets stronger, and better reinforced, for their product.
In the future, Alissa and Nienke hope to see their work infiltrate public spaces and public projects in a large way. In places such as airports, they can imagine impacting the most number of people. This will help further their goal of further embracing a larger, architectural scale.
Readers, learn more about Alissa+Nienke's work here.