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Inner Glow: Textile and architecture-fibre space collaboration using new glow materials

When we started to discuss this article, a research project that revolved around taking garment scale fibres and applying them to architectural space seemed well suited for this edition. The human body was the common ground for the multidisciplinary team that worked together to extend the use of long life phosphorescent materials (glow-in-the-dark) beyond their original design intent. The innovation and experimentation using this material assisted in the development of a common conceptual language that was used from design development through to fabrication.

Working together to conceive a space that would be made using glow fibres saw us bat ideas back and forth in order to find common design and fabrication ground. The human body became the reference point for the decision making process simply because it was something that both architecture and textile design disciplines have a connection to.

Installation with lights off.

Photograph: Shannon McGrath

Installation self-illuminating.

Photograph: Shannon McGrath

Stills from film documenting moving through self-illuminating glow installation.

Photograph: Julien de-Sainte-Croix

Stills from film documenting moving through self-illuminating glow installation.

Photograph: Julien de-Sainte-Croix

The conceptual framework established that the appearance of the immersive space would be dependent upon the qualities of the fibres. The fibres were embedded with glow-in-the-dark-properties (known as long life afterglow phosphorescence). These ‘glow’ properties opened up the potential for passive lighting design that could expand the use of the materials beyond the novelty use typically seen in glow toys. This opportunity to expand its use lies in improvements made to the material that increase both the longevity of the glow (growing from several minutes to 8 hours after short exposure to any light source) and the nanoparticle size (which allows the particles to be embedded in substrates as fine fibres). These two advances meant that we could experiment with what a self-illuminating fibre-space might look like.

As designers we typically decide on the desired light levels and appropriate luminaires. This is often in contradiction to the way we actually see which is through contrast or, as Michelle Addington describes, is based on ‘relative differences of stimuli within the field of view. The difference may be in luminance (light levels), colour, texture, orientation, or movement’ [i]. In other words, contrast is more important than light levels alone.

The light levels in the glow are never as strong as artificial lighting and work because of the contrast between the material and its darkened surrounds. To work with this material spatially, the glow elements of our project needed to be arranged in close proximity to the body to enable the eye to pick up on the distance between the elements and then navigate through the space.

With an understanding of how the eye might operate around the glow materials, we needed to decide on structure and form. Working with a fine fibre scale that we couldn’t coat to strengthen meant that we had to rely on tension and repetition to define the space and produce form.

The result was a space that lay between architecture and garment. It became a ‘wearing of space’, which brought about a ‘push-pull’ relationship between the body and the fibres. The body would come close to touchable fibres, brushing past them, while at other times they would be a backdrop to a niche of space, distant from the body.  The ‘push-pull’ was dictated by the amount of glow used, so when the space was close to the body there was minimal glow, and when there was greater distance the glow amount increased. The installation was exhibited at RMIT’s Design Hub and at Craft ACT in Canberra. In these locations there was a linear movement allowing for a journey that illustrated the type of space that this material could produce.

The focus on the body extended to the fabrication. Fabricating seamless three dimensional garments is where textile design is most progressive. There are many academic practitioners trying to understand how to use the three dimensional knitting machines to produce more than just garments. The challenge is trying to work with the restrictive template system of the knitting machinery so that other three dimensional forms can be explored.

These templates are of a variety of garments, where the only changes can be in graphic pattern, size and material used. Therefore the construction of the glow space needed to rely on altering these templates as much as possible to create something that could replicate space. The solution lay in taking a tube (central to most of the templates) and patterning it with the glow material to reduce the amount of glow needed, while also ensuring that the pattern correlated with ‘push-pull’ of the space. The result was 140 sleeves acting as columns, swaying around the body.

The investigation into applying idiosyncratic materials to architectural space allowed us to think about the connection between architecture and the human body, simply because there was no other common starting point. The body became the pivot point of all decisions, from sensory to fabrication, allowing for the realisation of a passive lighting alternative.

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Footnotes

[i] Addington, M (2003) ‘Energy, Body, Building’ Harvard Design Magazine, spring/summer, Boston, pg. 2