Nobel Textiles


What do you get when you pair five Nobel Prize-winning scientists with five textile designers? An innovative week of exhibitions and events that explore the convergence of science and design. Noble Textiles takes place between 14 September and 21 September at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and St. James’ Park. Conceived by Amanda Fisher of the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre and Carole Collet of the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, the intent of Noble Textiles is explained as follows:

Designers fundamentally shape the way we live, while science pervades the very fabric of our lives. Nobel Textiles involves a journey into the interface between science and design, a dialogue between leading researchers in both fields.

I find this opinion on both design and science fundamentally sound. However I would add, that although science is everywhere and in everything, people don’t necessarily realize this. By using design, scientists can convey the universality and simplicity of science and its principles to people through a medium that is inherently more recognizable and relatable.


The Noble Textiles exhibition is divided into five greenhouses in St. James’ Park that features The Fat Map Collection, Now you see it, now you don’t, Suicidal Textiles, Metabolic Media and Self Assembly.

The Fat Map Collection: Shelley Fox meets Sir Peter Mansfield

shapeimage_5.jpgThe Fat Map Collection considers how clothing is altered for different bodies. Ms. Fox has monitored changes in body fat content of six volunteers who participated in a controlled dietary and exercise program. The volunteers underwent an MRI scan prior to, during and after their program to determine their body’s fat distribution; creating a 3D MRI fat map that serves as the basis for the collection.

Shelley Fox is a UK-based fashion designer who specializes in advanced fabric techniques. Her experimental approaches to fabric treatment include scorching felt wool and burning cotton bandaging, which allows her to develop her own fabrics and prints.

Sir Peter Mansfield contributions to medicine has centered on his work with medical resonance imaging (MRI), for which he won a Nobel prize in 2003. MRI has replaced many invasive diagnostic methods.

This project brings health concerns to light using fashion. When MRI is implemented in mapping the body’s fat deposits it gives a far more accurate picture of a person’s health. A 3D fat map can show a person not only their subcutaneous fat, but also their internal fat which surrounds their organs. Although having too much fat of any kind is unhealthy, a large amount of internal fat is considered more dangerous. By combining this imaging technique with clothing that reflects the changes in one’s body, an individual can gain better insight on their health while benefiting from looking better. In this instance the saying “clothes make the man,” takes on a very different connotation.

Now you see it, now you don’t: Rachel Kelly meets Tim Hunt

shapeimage_2.jpgInspired by Dr. Hunt’s discovery of the disappearance and reappearance of cyclin in cells, Rachel Kelly uses imagery from sea urchins in her drawings and prints. In addition to transparent wallpapers with hidden patterns revealed in different lighting conditions, she has etched directly onto the glass of the exhibition greenhouses. Her designs are circular, mirroring the cycles through which our cells revolve1.

Rachel Kelly designs Interactive Wallpaper, which has been described as innovative, modern and elegant. Rachel’s philosophy on interactivity centers on the link between designers and customers.

Tim Hunt‘s work with sea urchin eggs revealed a host of suddenly-disappearing proteins, cyclins. Later found in many other organisms, cyclins, and the subsequently discovered cyclin-dependent kinases, control whether and when cells divide, their malfunction posing a risk of cancer. He was awarded a Nobel prize in 2001, and continues his work at the Cell Cycle Control Laboratory.

Translating a concept as universal as cell division to an interactive medium is quite brilliant. Cell cycling is, for the most part, a fluid process and its stages are often hard to capture, they’re ephemeral in a way. An interactive piece, such as this, brings attention to the varied and complex environment within our own bodies, many aspects of which have yet to be clarified or discovered.

Suicidal Textiles: Carole Collet meets John Sulston


The concept is inspired by apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death; deliberate cell suicide, which enables organs and limbs to develop. This process is crucial to the shape and function of every organism. Ms. Collet echoes this principle in her collection of garden furniture and textiles that will evolve with time; the final forms only to be revealed at the end of the apoptotic process. Using a combination of biodegradable and synthetic materials, portions of the furniture and textiles will slowly biodegrade to reveal different final forms. The process of biodegradation will also support C. elegans, which feeds on the bacteria that live in soil and compost2.

Carole Collet is a trained textile designer who specializes in the areas of textile print, research and development, sustainable design, and intelligent textiles. She is also the Course Director of the Textile Futures masters program at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

John Sulston aided in the discovery of the genetic mechanism controlling programmed cell death. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002. Programmed cell death plays an important role in development and protection from diseases like cancer.

Programmed cell death is purposeful, but as a concept this isn’t intuitive. We’re raised to believe that death is a bad thing. Demonstrating this principle in furniture that degrades, changes shape and ultimately reaches a final and functional form, is ingenious. These little deaths then become a part of the development process and ultimately play a larger role in the stability and growth of the whole.

Metabolic Media: Rachel Wingfield meets John E. Walker


Metabolic Media is a system of modular textile architecture for urban food production. Using a construction system based on weaving and lace-making. Rachel Wingfield is creating textiles on an architectural scale from new composite materials that reflect the relationship between energy and structure, mirroring ATP, which stores and releases energy. Ms. Wingfield is using energy harvesting technologies including dye-senistised solar cells, and compostable ‘seed’ cultery which challenge the way we look at energy and food production in an urban environment3.

Rachel Wingfield researches and designs environmentally responsive textiles inspired by biological systems. A central thread in her work is growth and biomimicry, mimicking nature to improve design.

John E. Walker, the scientist with the unfortunate name, has been instrumental in unravelling the mechanisms of biological energy conversion in cells. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1997 for his work describing how enzymes make ATP. This energy molecule is used to drive processes in organisms that range from bacteria to ourselves.

ATP is a universal energy-giving molecule that is continually renewed in our bodies. Creating textiles that can be used to support agriculture, that can in turn provide energy, is inspired. Ms. Wingfield successfully draws a parallel between sustainable energy in a biological context, to that in the environmental context.

Self Assembly: Philippa Brock meets Aaron Klug


Philippa Brock has created a series of large jacquard woven pieces based on Aaron Klug’s research, which involves creating 3-dimensional models of viruses from 2-dimensional information. Ms. Brock is exploring methods of transforming 2-dimensional weaving approaches into 3-dimensional models — creating self-folding/forming experimental textile pieces4.

Ms. Brock designs woven and printed textiles for high-end clients on the international market. Her works incorporates yarns within the CAD/CAM woven textiles industrial production method. Currently, she is researching and developing smart textile systems, which include conductive fabrics that incorporate stretch, touch and heat sensors.

Aaron Klug won the Noble Prize in 1982 for his pioneering work in the development of crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes. Crystallographic electron microscopy is a method in which a sequence of two-dimensional images of crystals taken from different angles are combined to produce three-dimensional images of the target.

The parallels between design and science are very evident in this project. As scientists working in the modern age, we often take for granted that the 3D structure of common proteins of interest or that of biological features has already been found. However these 3D forms, such as that for DNA, were painstakingly put together from 2D data. The same can be said for weaving a fabric. One starts off with essentially a 2D object, a thread, then through the use of a loom a textile is generated. Textiles are 3D objects, with texture and weight, that can be appreciated on an aesthetic level. This parallelism brings attention to the beauty of miniscule topographies in the human body.

Further Reading:

  1. Rachel Kelly. Nobel Textiles: Marrying Design to Scientific Discovery. 2008
  2. Carole Collet. Nobel Textiles: Marrying Design to Scientific Discovery. 2008
  3. Rachel Wingfield. Nobel Textiles: Marrying Design to Scientific Discovery. 2008
  4. Philippa Brock. Nobel Textiles: Marrying Design to Scientific Discovery. 2008
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About Dapper Alchemist

The Dapper Alchemist is an amalgam of my interests in science, design and (men's) fashion.

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