What does tech do well? And what can we do well with our hands?" These questions occupy Lisa Marks as we go over her presentation a few hours ahead of the announcement of the Lexus Design Award 2019 winner.

“It’s really easy to say everything needs technology…the new thing is wearable technology. New technology in conductive threads can make really soft sensors and it does amazing things. But we need to think a little bit more about when we are using it," she says.

Later that evening, the American industrial designer’s algorithmic lace bra, made for post-mastectomy women, was announced Grand Prix winner after a long process that involved 1,548 worldwide entries. Marks is a graduate from the Parsons School of Design and a faculty member at the Georgia Institute of Technology, US. I found her win particularly intriguing for she is the only one among the six finalists who was not driven by the motivation to be environmentally sustainable—a keyword on almost all architecture and design platforms today.

Finalist Ben Berwick’s origami solar panels.
Finalist Ben Berwick’s origami solar panels.

In response to a call for “Design for a Better Tomorrow", other finalists presented proposals significantly larger in scale and scope. Turkey’s Rezzan Hasoglu proposed new architectural uses for naturally abundant desert sand by binding it with non-toxic materials, and Filipino architecture graduate Jeffrey E. Dela Cruz presented a portable housing solution for low-lying flood-prone areas. There was Russian industrial designer Dmitriy Balashov, whose “Green Jet Blast Energy" project makes it possible to collect the energy generated by an aircraft taking off, and Chinese product designer Shuzhan Yuan’s “Hydrus" emergency treatment equipment for offshore oil spills. Australian architect Ben Berwick presented an origami solar panel that can be used as a window blind, giving apartment residents the option of harnessing solar power or greater (and creatively patterned) internal illumination. Berwick tells me he has been inundated with inquiries by interested parties—from museums to architecture firms—since the announcement of the finalists in January.

Unlike these proposals, Marks’ custom design can benefit only a small pool of women for now, owing to its time-intensive handmade aesthetic and high cost of production (“though not much more than a high-end La Perla set," she quips). Although it employs a machine-generated pattern—Marks specializes in combining craft research with algorithmic design to help craft communities—it is relatively low-tech. All anomalous for what I expected would warrant recognition by an award presented by an automobile brand.

Lisa Marks.
Lisa Marks.

“The Lexus Design Award is more reflective of our bearing as a design company than an automobile company," Koichi Suga, the company’s chief design officer, tells me in an interview. Lexus has been taking part in the Milan Design Week (9–14 April this year) with interactive installations for 14 years; the award is seven years old—I ask how it feeds back to what he does at the Toyota headquarters in Nagoya, Japan. “It’s about a shared philosophy. A shared commitment to human-centred design," he says.

As luxury car sales hit lows in many parts of the world, one big new innovation is self-driving cars. Toyota has announced it will use the Tokyo Olympics 2020 to showcase these. But Suga is keen to divert the focus from pure technology. “We are studying how the perception of a car itself will change. We tend to humanize a car. It’s possibly the only tech we emotionalize like a partner or a pet. So the question is, how do you express things differently? How do you make a better connect?" As one of the youngest luxury car brands, he sees the brand’s role as that of a challenger. “So we changed our design direction to what we call Brave Design. Our designers must make brave proposals," he says.

Lisa Marks winning design gives the illusion of symmetry for post-mastectomy women.
Lisa Marks winning design gives the illusion of symmetry for post-mastectomy women.

The Lexus Design Award, launched in 2013, is organized like an international design competition that targets emerging creators. Mentors this year included celebrated Spanish artist-designer Jaime Hayon, and the judges included Yoshihiro Sawa, president, Lexus International, and British architect David Adjaye. Finalists work with mentors to create prototypes of their designs and exhibit them during one of the design calendar’s most important international events.

Over the years, the Milan Design Week itself has evolved from a trade fair for furniture and lighting at a convention centre on the outer edges of the city to a week-long celebration of design concepts at various venues. The finalists’ presentations were at one such venue—Superstudio Più on Via Tortona, a street buzzing with collateral events.

“Of the 1.7 million women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, 50-60% of those who have mastectomies forego reconstructive surgery, creating a great need for comfortable apparel for intimate moments, and allows women to adorn their bodies and celebrate their new shapes," Marks said in her presentation.

Using 3D lace, her bra prototype is seamless and has a higher stitch concentration under the breast to provide support since women with mastectomies can’t tolerate seams and underwires. A similar concentration at the top of the bra gives an even visual between cups and a symmetric look regardless of volume. Depending on each woman’s preferences or needs, once the decisions are made, it is mapped on to the body and turned into a pattern. The next step is completely traditional, using bobbins to braid and twist lengths of thread.

It uses traditional bobbin lace methods.
It uses traditional bobbin lace methods.

“At this point, I would like to find an existing lingerie company to partner with. I am not looking to start a lingerie brand," she laughs.

Marks specializes in parametric modelling and “was doing a lot of handicraft" as a hobby. One didn’t lead to the other but came together for a single vision. “There are always two different ways to come at a project. In this particular case, I started with an exploration of the craft, not knowing what it was going to be. And through developing mathematical modelling into three-dimensional lace, it became like…okay, what’s the best use for this? So I didn’t necessarily have anybody who was complaining of any particular problems. But more just looking at who could need customized lace? Who needs seamless lace? And those two things really led to one user."

When you hit upon the right design, it often fulfils different functions, she points out. Marks hints at an anticipatory design approach rather than one that solves problems. She created a product and found the user it would work for best, underlining the design award’s first criteria: anticipate (the other two are innovate and captivate).

The award also has an India edition—all entries are automatically forwarded for consideration for the global award. The Indian winner this year was CleaneRAT, a sewer maintenance robot designed by Monto Mani, Yogansh Namdeo and Ujjal Hafila from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru, an Internet of Things-powered sewer inspection and de-clogging system that can be remote-controlled with a mobile device. Its aim is to empower and provide dignity to people who work in the maintenance of sewer lines.

CleaneRat and Marks’ project confirm the focus on human-centred design that Suga speaks of so glowingly. In a way, it also resonates with the Japanese concept of omotenashi, or anticipatory hospitality, that the Lexus team likes to throw into just about every conversation.

Human-centred design (HCD), though around as a formal theory since the late 19th century, is coming into renewed focus.

HCD spilled over to the main Lexus presentation in collaboration with the Japanese design duo Rhizomatiks as well. Titled Leading With Light, the choreographed exhibition used beams of moving lights and trained robots. A single dancer with a ball directs how the light moves: an artistic interpretation of the brand’s latest illumination technology—an intelligent headlight that blocks out the blinding headlights from an approaching vehicle, which I imagine would be very useful on Indian roads.

When I ask Sawa, president of Lexus International, about preparations for the self-driving car, he says that while things might not scream high technology on the surface, very sophisticated and refined technological advancements lie just beneath. Much like a seamless brassiere.

The writer was a guest of Lexus at the Milan Design Week.

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