Designer Geoff Mann of Scotland Materializes Emotions

Tung Walsh for Newsweek

Geoff Mann uses advanced technology in his work, from motion-capture movie equipment to 3-D laser scanners to rapid prototypers that “print” entire objects. But that technology leaves him cold. “It’s when you can give technology soul that you start to do something interesting,” says the 32-year-old, in the soulful burr of his native land.

His most famous piece (“It got massive, massive press”) is a lamp that he made in 2005 for his Master of Fine Arts show at the Royal College of Art in London. (His entire display sold out within hours, to “famous people” whom he declines to name.) He’d been “thinking about motion and the intangible,” he says, and the most notable result was Attracted to Light, a title that is simply descriptive: Mann captured the flight path of a moth trapped inside a normal light fixture, then reproduced that path as a fluttering ribbon of rapid-prototyped plastic, deployed as a shade around a lightbulb.

Today’s technology, Mann says, can make us aware of properties of objects that we ignore when we concentrate only on their physical presence: we see the flying bug but not its trajectory; we see that a surface is slick, without noticing the details of its reflections—as in another piece of Mann’s called Shine. Mann took a silver candelabrum, like you’d see at a posh wedding, and scanned it in 3-D. Since the scanner couldn’t tell the difference between the real surface of the metal and the “spikes” of light created by the reflection of its own laser, it read the object as a strange amalgam of smooth and prickly. When Mann fed the digital file from the scanner to a 3-D printer, the result was a new candelabrum (above) that was like the original, only covered in a porcupine frosting of needles. (It is available in a limited edition from Joanna Bird gallery in London for about $27,000.)

“I don’t invent things. I just find a way to materialize objects from things that we can’t see,” Mann says. He has even “materialized” anger and angst. Last year, the Museum of Modern Art showed a video of his called Crossfire, in which we look down on a table laid with crystal and china, and hear sounds from the famous dining-room quarrel in the movie American Beauty. As the family’s cruel words fly across the room, Mann’s crystal and china deforms in reaction, as though emotion were a wind that even solid objects can’t resist. And then, as one final step, Mann took the video’s computer animations of that warped dinnerware and had his virtual housewares reverse-engineered out of real china and glass. Thanks to Mann, you can now buy actual plates contorted by Kevin Spacey’s screams.

Mann says he’s still mostly working out the wrinkles in his MFA show and teaching at the same Aberdeen art school he started out in. He has turned down offers to mass-produce his work. “I get bored, even making two of something.”

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