In her live-work loft, down a service road in a post-industrial pocket of North London, Rachel Wingfield sits me down to explain the “frustration to innovation” trajectory taken by her experimental spatial laboratory, Loop.pH. It started during her textile-design studies—first at Loughborough University and then at London’s Royal College of Art. She found the decorating process infuriating. “I wanted the prints to have a function. I wanted them to move. I used therma-chromatic inks with different temperatures and all the colors would change. I was always looking at ways of animating patterns.”
A long-held curiosity about seasonal affective disorder steered Wingfield toward eco-mimicry, developing textiles that change in appearance as they react to shifts in the environment, from electroluminescent wallpaper to sunlight-simulating pillows. Twelve years ago she teamed with Mathias Gmachl, an athletic Austrian with a surfer’s mane and a background in music, who joins us at the small bistro table. Together they launched Loop.pH, becoming partners in business as well as life (they now have a two-year-old son), and developed the Digital Dawn window blind, which has a reactive surface that brightens as ambient light wanes.
In barely a decade, Loop.pH’s projects have grown exponentially in scale and influence, shifting away from smart textiles we live with to smart environments we live in. The major turning point was the 2006 installation Sonumbra, three towering columns that flared out overhead, each embedded with technology that made them pulse with verdigris luminosity. Rather than printing electronics onto fabric to form the giant parasols, Wingfield and Gmachl developed a weave of electroluminescent fibers called archilace. These smart composite fibers—essentially yards of sea-cabling bundled with fiber-optics—capture energy from the sun, becoming a living mesh that the designers can use on a large scale.
“While some designers would use it for luminous clothing, we looked at archilace as an architectural membrane,” Wingfield tells me. “That was our jump from domestic to architectural design.”
Archilace has become Loop’s calling card; they use it to create everything from temporary domes to simulated trees. To top up their supply they buy fiberglass thread in three-mile drums from Europe or source luminescent wire from China. “We work with stuff that’s readily available in large quantities,” Gmachl says. “When you’re working on a tree, you’re going really big.” Their niche innovation has had such widespread impact, Wingfield has found herself teaching bobbin lace-making to architects in Denmark.
It’s the rather literal brilliance of their craft that gives Loop.pH such undeniable crossover appeal. This winter they worked on set design for British electronic group Clean Bandit, and last fall they inflated a giant aluminum bubble under a highway ramp that offered a star-simulating light show inside.
A few years back, French utility company EDF hired them to articulate their biomimicry research with an “Energy Orchard” of self-luminating trees. The couple grafted biometric skins to the branches, which merged with the bark to harness the trees’ energy and capture its carbon intake. As a result, the trees glowed at night like so many squids or fireflies—the suggestion being that these “living lights” could one day make street lighting redundant. Their follow-up was a window curtain of transparent tubes that sucked up liquid algae and captured the sun’s energy to process biofuel.
Earlier this year, a different kind of energy orchard rose from the canals of Amsterdam. For Arborescence (above), Wingfield and Gmachl waded through the canals with nearly 10,000 loops of archilace to build a genetically altered mangrove. The idea was to replace traditional street lighting with a cluster of bioluminescent water-born trees.
“We were basically changing the genetic makeup of these trees to imagine a park of the future,” Gmachl says. “What might it look like? How does it feel to see a tree glowing at night? Is it a good idea, or did we cross a line?” Wherever that line is, the two feel comfortable straddling it.
“Our outlook is a bit fragmented between utopia and dystopia,” Wingfield says. “A lot of speculative design is also fairly disturbing, because the stories you tell do become real.”
Still, the sci-fi world is where they’d ultimately like to be. “With the algae,” Wingfield says, “we used micro-organisms pumped through a material and photosynthesizing to create energy, instead of creating the energy with our old electronic textiles. That pretty much completed our 10-year transition from Digital Dawn.”