A Portrait of the Parachute as a Young Man

A portrait of the author in free fall.
The author in free fall.

I recently went skydiving for the first time. It was amazing. Possibly the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life. Before the actual jump, there was the half hour ride in a tiny Cessna aircraft that unfortunately gave me plenty of time to think and overthink about the incredibly complex device I was strapped into and the 18-year-old skydiving intern who I saw preparing it earlier in the day. As we climbed higher and higher to the proper altitude, I couldn’t help but stare out the tiny open window, toward the small island that seemed to be descending from me like a Google maps zoom-out. There was no doubt in my mind that the jump would be exciting  but contrary to the teenager’s claims, I felt like it was I who was going to be totally sick, bro. While trying to make reassuring small talk with the perfect stranger to whom I was about to attach myself and leap out of an airplane, I learned that his pack not only had a backup chute, but a backup ripcord, and a backup backup in the form an onboard computer that would release the parachute should he lose consciousness. I felt better. I don’t think I’m alone in trusting a computer more than a teenager. The jump went perfectly: I shouted the obligatory “GERONIMO!” and leapt into the void. It was truly awesome. That is, it actually filled me with awe. The experience didn’t feel so much like falling as it did floating. I was just suspended in air, looking over a beautiful island in the Caribbean. Once I took that first step out of the airplane, there was no worrying about backpacks or parachutes or Google maps or even safe landings. It was just so peaceful. A couple days later, once I had time to process everything, my thoughts returned to that backpack. Whose insane idea was that? Who was the inventor that made it possible for me to survive a fall of 10,000 feet? Some quick research told that that I owed my life to a Russian actor named Gleb Kotelnikov, who created the first parachute more than 100 years ago.

[read the early history of the parachute at Design Decoded]

Design Decoded: The Architecture of Drones

drone architecture
Gramazio & Kohler, Flight Assembled Architecdture, FRAC Centre in Orléans, France, 2011-2012                               (image: François Lauginie via Gramazio & Kohler)

Drones can’t just destroy, they can build. Although the military uses of drones are widely debated, less discussed are their potentially revolutionary civilian implications. They aren’t yet widespread, but drones are being used by hobbyistsphotographersfarmersranchers, and they may even herald an entirely new type of architecture. Last year, Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler, in collaboration with Raffaello D’Andrea, developed “Flight Assembled Architecture” – an experimental concept structure that employed small, unmanned aerial vehicles programmed to build.

Created as an installation for the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France in early 2012, the project models a speculative construction system that integrates robotics, digital fabrication, engineering, and design. Several small robotic “quadrocopters” lift 1,500 foam blocks into a complex cylindrical tower standing more than six meters high. The tower is a model for a speculative future habitat that would stand more than 600 meters tall and house 30,000 inhabitants. It makes sense to illustrate such a revolutionary concept with a skyscraper – after all, the skyscraper wouldn’t be possible if architects and engineers hadn’t embraced technologies such as steel construction and elevators. Construction drones are the bleeding edge of speculative building technology and they’re perfectly designed to create high-rise buildings in urban areas where construction can be incredibly difficult and costly. As Kohler noted in an essay for the architectural journal Log, “the conditions of aerial robotic construction are entirely liberated from the bottom-up accessibility of material, man, or [existing] machine.” These robots can create buildings without erecting scaffolding or using cranes. Drone-built designs aren’t beholden to current construction limitations and their use opens up a new possibility of architectural forms.

[continue reading on Design Decoded]

Design Decoded: The Drones of World War I

kettering bug drone
The Kettering “Bug” (image: The United States Air Force)

Military aviation was born during the years preceding the World War I, but once the war began, the industry exploded. Barely more than a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully completed the first documented flight in history –achieving only 12 seconds of air time and traveling 120 feet– hundreds of different airplanes could be seen dogfighting the skies above Europe. Mastering the sky had changed the face of war. Perhaps due to their distance from the fighting, the United States trailed behind Europe in producing military fliers but by the end of the War, the U.S. Army and Navy had designed and built an entirely new type of aircraft: a plane that didn’t require a pilot.

Continue reading on Design Decoded

Design Decoded: Diller Scofidio + Renfro Design ‘The Art of the Scent’

diller scofidio art of the scent
Installation view of The Art of the Scent exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York.                          (original image: Brad Farwell)

While walking through the Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition “The Art of the Scent (1889-2012)” my mind was flooded with memories of a nearly forgotten childhood friend, an ex-girlfriend and my deceased grandmother. It was a surprisingly powerful and complex experience, particularly because it was evoked in a nearly empty gallery by an invisible art form—scent. It’s often cited that smell is the sense most associated with memory (both are processed by the brain’s limbic system), and the iconic fragrances exhibited in “The Art of the Scent” are likely to take visitors on their own private jaunts down memory lane. But it might not lead where they expect.

Like any art form or design discipline, the creation of a scent is the result of experimentation and innovation. Yet, perfume and cologne are rarely appreciated as the artfully crafted designs they are. “The Art of the Scent” is the first major museum exhibition to recognize and celebrate scent as a true artistic medium rather than just a consumer product. The 12 exhibited fragrances, chosen by curator Chandler Burr to represent the major aesthetic schools of scent design, include Ernest Beaux’s Modernist Chanel No.5 (1921); the Postmodern Drakkar Noir (1982) by Pierre Wargnye ; and Daniela Andrier’s deconstructed fragrance Untitled (2010). Perhaps most significantly, the exhibition begins with the first fragrance to incorporate synthetic raw materials instead of an exclusively natural palette, thereby truly transforming scent into an art: Jicky (1889), created by Aimé Guerlain. Unfortunately, this fragrant historiography will initially be lost on the average visitor because while scent may indeed be the best sense for provoking memory, it is the worst sense for conveying intellectual content. When we smell something—good or bad—our reaction is typically an automatic or emotional response. Such a reaction doesn’t lend itself particularly well to critical analysis. The greatest challenge facing Burr, who wrote the “Scent Notes” column for the New York Times and the book  The Emperor of Scentwas to get visitors to move beyond their initial emotional responses and memories and to think critically about scent design. And the greatest challenge facing exhibition designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro was to figure out how to present an invisible art.

 [continue reading on Design Decoded]

Design Decoded: The Fisher Space Pen Boldly Writes Where No Man Has Written Before

space pen patent
Patent #3,285,228, The Fisher Anti-Gravity Pen (image: Google patents)

The following post is excerpted from Design Decoded.

The Fisher Space Pen was created by inventor, pen manufacturer, and (brief) JFK political opponent Paul C. Fisher. Fisher had been an innovator in the pen industry for years, even before he started his own company. His mastery of the ballpoint pen can be attributed in part to his experience working with ball bearings in a airplane propeller factory during World War II. Fisher also invented the “universal refill” ink cartridge, ultimately leading him to create the very first “Anti-Gravity” pen, the AG7, which was patented in 1966 and famously used by astronauts during the Apollo space missions. However, it’s a popular misconception that NASA invested millions of dollars into the development of the zero-gravity writing instrument. They didn’t. Nor did the space agency approach Fisher to develop a pen for use by American astronauts. According to a 2006 piece in Scientific American, the truth is that Fisher had been working on the design for years and had invested $1 million into the pen’s development. But Fisher wasn’t dreaming of astronauts writing postcards from Earth orbit, he was just looking to make a good pen that worked without leaking. After years of research and prototypes, he created what he believed to be the perfect pen – a pen with ink that wasn’t exposed to air and didn’t rely on gravity so it wouldn’t leak or dry up; a pen that could write underwater and function at temperatures ranging from -30 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Fisher’s breakthrough was perfectly timed with the space race and he offered the pens to NASA for consideration. After two years of testing, it was approved and Fisher’s pen accompanied Apollo 7 astronauts into space.

[continue reading on Design Decoded]