Generative Geometry: Q&A with Jesse Louis-Rosenberg of Nervous System

<p>Jewelry and housewares bring out the scientific beauty of nature.</p>

Kathleen Flood

Nervous System is a design company and online store that integrates art, science, and technology into their intricate, nature-inspired pieces using computer simulation to personalize and actualize the final product. We caught up with Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, one-half of the design duo, to talk about Nervous System’s processes, latest works, and how they’re using technology to their advantage.

The Creators Project: Can you briefly tell me about how your lifestyle brand came into formation?
Jesse Louis-Rosenberg: It started when me and my partner, Jessica [Rosenkrantz], were in school. She was studying architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and I was at MIT. It stemmed from work that we started doing in generative architecture, in the context of her school. Basically, it was sort of an accident. When Jessica was making models [for a project], they were laser cut out of chip board or something, and pieces were curling up on her desk. People would walk by and ask, 'Is that a bracelet?' And she said, 'Uh, I guess it could be a bracelet.' We made some out of polystyrene on the laser cutter, put them on Etsy, and that’s how we started.

Because of your mathematical and scientific backgrounds, when you guys are designing, is it to solve a problem in some way?
I would say there's certainly an element of problem solving. I think each project is a little bit different. There's a lot of looking at scientific papers and deciphering them and tweaking things to work a certain way.

A lot of your work is inspired by nature, what is the creative process behind translating organic inspiration into code?
There is a large research component studying natural processes and how they are simulated. It's a pretty fun way of learning and doing science, looking at everything in terms of: 'How can I use this to create something?' Once we have a sense of the technical side, the question is, how do we work with this process? How do we limit it, control it, interact with it? How do we realize it and create a solid object? That aspect is perhaps the most typically artistic. Then there is the design phase of actually choosing specifics of shape, proportion, etc.

Reticulate earrings

Can you explain the programs you use in making the interactive applets on your website that allow customers to design their own pieces, and a little bit about why you chose to implement them?
For the actual applets themselves, we just use Processing. There are a few third party programs that we use when sketching or post-processing files. We use MeshLab, which is an open-source mesh editing utility that implements a smattering of algorithms to deal with meshes. We primarily use it in reducing mesh sizes. Netfabb, which has a free version, is another mesh processing software that is geared toward preparing models for 3D printing. We use it to make sure that 3D files are printable and to fix any minor mesh errors. The only software we use in any design capacity is Rhinoceros, the standard 3D modeling program in architecture.

How long have you been implementing these applets?
Pretty much from the get-go, but we've had some technical problems along the way. The newest ones where you can make rings and bracelets have been by far the most popular. We're more interested in people having a way to access art and get a better sense of what we do than making custom stuff and selling it, so we've been a little bit neglectful in making it work seamlessly in terms of buying.

Are all your products laser-cut or 3D printed? What kind of materials work best with these high-tech fabrication processes?
All of the fabrication techniques we use allow for the creation of one-of-a-kind designs at the same cost as identical ones…but they aren’t necessarily high-tech. Many of our flat stainless steel pieces are made by photochemical etching, which is actually an old technology. We have one laser cut product, our Radial Necklace, which is made out of industrial felt. Our silicone rubber pieces are water jet cut, which is sort of similar to laser cutting, but it uses a high-pressure stream of water mixed with a grit. Water jets are great because they cut with abrasion, so you can cut anything from rubber to glass. When we work on something, we tend to ask what material we want to work with and what fabrication processes can we use with that material. The exception would be 3D printing, which is only available in specific, usually-patented, materials, and only a couple of those are suitable for products.

Radial Necklace II

Why do you release your open source code, if at the end of the day you're a retail store?
I guess there are multiple reasons, one is just a belief in giving and openness, and ultimately, I think we're interested more in our products and the art behind it than we are in making stuff to sell. It's just something we're not worried about at all. We're the sort of people who are interested in making code and changing code and those tend not to be the same people who visit factories in China.

Can you tell us about what you're working on now?
I guess we're working on a lot of different things…we have some porcelain plates and cups that should be out soon. We've also made an iPad app that we'd like to make available. It's essentially a part of the Cell Cycle applet on the iPad except a lot of the functions are done with touch, so it's a lot more fun to play with.

When would something like that be available?
Most likely sometime in January…. or whenever I find the time to finish it. We mainly need to add the ability for people to save and order the designs they create with it. The more people who ask me about it, the more likely it is to get done.

What do you think is the most innovative characteristic about your company?
I think the most exciting thing is taking our process, which is this experimental, abstract exploration that you might only see in an art gallery, and creating everyday objects that everyone can enjoy. In addition to pushing the boundaries of what people are doing with computation and design, we are making affordable products. We use the combination of rapid manufacturing and computation to create one-of-a-kind and customer-generated pieces.

[Photo credits from left to right: Full Moon necklace in gold; porcelain Reaction cup; Undergrowth earrings; Radiolaria brooch; porcelain Reaction plate; Cell Cycle rings]