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Felecia Davis: An Architect Inspired by Textiles

A researcher with a creative bent looks to textiles for structural innovation
Threads #225, Spring 2024
The practical application of an algorithm tool led to the creation of the sculptural Black Flower Antenna, a knitted receiving antenna, which was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: courtesy of Cathy Braasch.

Architect and innovator Felecia Davis’s trajectory from sewing as a little girl to engineering textiles for building use reveals a creativity as flexible as the materials she studies. In her research and teaching, Davis explores ways to understand and harness the properties of woven and knit structures to revolutionize the human environment.

The associate professor at Penn State connects art, science, engineering, and design through the worlds of architecture, textiles, and computation. As head researcher at the Stuckeman Center for Design and Computation, and director of SOFTLAB in the Stuckeman School, Dr. Davis has shown her work around the world, including at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2023, as well as the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Her background is in engineering, and from a young age she knew she wanted to be an architect. When she got to graduate school at Princeton, she started looking at textiles for her thesis. She’d grown up working with fabric with her mother, sisters, and aunts, so it was a natural progression for her.

Felecia Davis
Photo: courtesy of Felecia Davis.

As she designed a folded structure, she realized she couldn’t use a traditional beam-and-column architectural configuration to hold it up. The support had to be part of the fabric she was using to fold the structure out of. At the time, there were no tools to create that kind of design. She was looking at nontraditional ways of working with structure—and knew that these methods would not be able to be done by “hand.” Instead, she would need the aid of a computer to make calculations; this is where computation came in.

In her thesis, Davis explored how textile thinking could contribute to developing structures that could take compression. Since then, her continuing work looks at methods of creating building materials that can be manipulated similarly to fabric. She is investigating “alternate ways of using strands and threads and guiding forces through very specific parts of material.” Her studies bring together the hands-on knowledge of a fabric lover with the vast and complex corpus of information that high-level computing can deliver.

Computational Design and Textiles

Davis wryly explains that computational design is a relatively new field, and “nobody ever wanted to define it because we wanted to make sure that it was open enough to include things that we hadn’t considered before.”

Loosely defined, though, computational design is thinking about and understanding the way people (and animals) make things. Design computing attempts to grasp the rules behind the way different species construct things in their environment.

“As people, we understand when we go to put something together, there’s a set of things that we think about . . . based on what we’ve grown up experiencing on this planet, Davis explains. “We use these intelligences to make something.”

Textiles can be the medium of a design, and computational textiles are those created by methods gleaned from how humans and other species build things in their worlds. This is an enormous body of information and knowledge.

Davis shares a selection of her many interesting projects, which touch on emotions and the built environment; algorithms for designing large-scale knitted structures; and potential links between traditional African hairstyles and building materials that can withstand tension and compression.

Textile Mirror

While working on her doctorate, Davis interned one summer at Microsoft Research, where she worked on “e-wearables.” Her group’s project was understanding how design could help people become more aware of their emotions.

Her Textile Mirror is a “self-reporting device,” via a smartphone app. Despite its name, the piece isn’t a mirror in the standard sense: It is a textured, folded fabric wall panel, laced through with nitinol wires, which have a “shape memory.” Via sensors in a smartphone or, alternatively, in a wearable garment, “we fed biorhythms into the mirror, which would then either crunch up when people were stressed or become more flat and smooth when they were less stressed,” Davis says.

closeup of self-reporting Textile Mirror
Having a rough day? The self-reporting Textile Mirror makes viewers aware of stress, as it crumples into deeper texture in response to a wearable sensor. Microsoft Research, Redmond, Washington. Collaborators: A.Roseway, M.Czerwinski, Erin Cherry. Photo: courtesy of Microsoft Research.

Watching the mirror change texture helps people gain a better awareness of their emotions. The changing texture of the mirror, from rough and bumpy to smooth, provided a picture of what one might think our insides look like while experiencing various levels of stress. A user could then try to modify their emotional state to attain a smoother mirror.

trained nitinol wire
Felecia Davis sews trained nitinol wire into the emotion-responsive Textile Mirror project. Microsoft Research, Redmond, Washington. Collaborators: A. Roseway, M. Czerwinski, Erin Cherry. Photo: courtesy of Microsoft Research.

The Black Flower Antenna

At the Stuckeman Center SOFTLAB, a computational textiles lab, Davis and her team work on projects in two general areas.

“One is looking at textile as something that is in conversation with its environment and your body,” says Davis. The Textile Mirror is an example.

The other area focuses on tension structures, or fabric structures that shelter people, such as tents that provide shade in hot climates. The lab makes designs for a tent, a tool, or a method that facilitates the creation of such structures. All aspects, from drawing to scale models, are part of their innovative work.

“We might make an app or a way that you could simplify moving a flat design to a three-dimensional one on a knitting machine,” Davis explains. “So, we might make a tool that makes it easier for a designer to draw a three-dimensional model of a fabric tent structure, for example. And then use algorithms to predict its size and shape and its ultimate end shapes.”

black flower antenna sculpture
The sculptural Black Flower Antenna, displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, employs knitting and computational technology to form a knitted receiving antenna. Core team: Thomas Dimick, Berfin Evrim, Jamie Heilman, Niousha Keyvaninejad, Farzaneh Oghazian, Allan Sutley, Lee Washesky, Steve White Sr.Photo: courtesy of Germane Barnes.

Davis offers this garment analogy: You’re knitting a sweater for a specific person, and it needs to be the correct size. However, everyone knits stitches that are a slightly different size and human stitches are, ultimately, not all the same size. You need to figure out the right stitch gauge, taking into consideration how much the sweater will stretch when you’re done so that it fits the person correctly.

“What we were doing was making a tool to understand the shape of a kind of shelter and how big it would be. And we were doing that for knitting, which is tricky,” Davis explains, because, knitting produces materials with more stretch than weaving does.

Farzaneh Oghazian, a PhD student, developed the algorithm tool for her thesis. The practical application of the tool was tested in the Black Flower Antenna. Oghazian and Davis used tubular knitting machines to create sculptural objects.

The sculptural Black Flower Antenna, displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Photo: courtesy of Cathy Braasch.

“You can make something three-dimensional that’s tubular. So, it’s seamless,” Davis says. “The fewer seams that you have, the easier you can draw it three-dimensionally.”

Once you determine how many stitches are in your digital drawing. the algorithm enables you to “figure out how it’s going to stretch without ever having to flatten it out,” she says.

Then the group looked at how to use machine learning to make larger versions. This tool makes it possible “to understand how that material was going to relax and shape out into its final shape; we could begin to scale it up.” Their current projects are relatively small, but the algorithm can help envision building-sized versions.

“The thing about textiles is they’re not traditional. You don’t typically learn about them in an architecture program.”
—Felicia Davis

The Dreadlock Series

Another of Davis’s innovative projects is “The Dreadlock Series,” a part of the Hair Salon: Black Hair as Architecture exhibition at the University of Houston, Texas. For The Dreadlock Series, Davis worked with Penn State students Ian Danner, Aysan Jafarzadeh, and Hiranshi Patel. The project looks at the culture of Black hair and using it to think about architecture, Davis says. They used a knitting machine to create cords, which they then felted. They dubbed the resulting net-like fabric a “dreadlock,” and this led to considering other building typologies that could come from hairstyles.

Davis drew inspiration from Ron Eglash, who explores African hairstyles as a way of connecting with students of color in mathematics.

the Dreadlock Series’ Pop-up Rose Building Column Structure
Inspired by traditional Black hairstyles, the Dreadlock Series’ Pop-up Rose Building Column Structure is made of knitted wool. It explores how textile building materials behave under tension and compression. Team: Ian Danner (textile designer and fabricator), Hiranshi Patel (CAD designer and fabricator), Aysan Jafarzadeh (graphic designer and code developer). Photo: courtesy of Felecia Davis.

Davis says, “I was really thinking about people who hadn’t been engaged within STEM, as well as about math and connecting art with hair practice. I wanted to pick . . . a place that people might not normally think of for architecture because it offers a really relevant and timely way of talking about culture, materiality, sustainability, and race, all in one place.

“It was a really great way of making an ­integrated fabric that had a way of guiding forces down through the material—kind of like cable nets —guiding a greater tension, or compression, if you use the material and add resin to it to form both thick and thin parts within one material.”

Continuing Research

Davis is writing a book to explain what computational design is and how textiles relate to it, as well as to architecture and social justice.

“The thing about textiles is they’re not traditional. You don’t typically learn about them in an architecture program . . . Even in engineering, they don’t teach about it . . . And there are many other topics that are not necessarily taught or accepted or understood within architecture . . . but may relate to it, for example, indigenous practices or the practices of people that haven’t really been acknowledged in the history of architecture. So, this book is a way to talk about that,” Davis says.

This professor is making a career out of building links between architecture, textiles, and the full range of humanity that makes and lives with them.

–Vanessa Nirode is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

From Threads #225


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