Basalt’s Nicholas Jacobson and his computer, unlikely fashion pioneers
May 23, 2016
When you start a career in architecture and then get a graduate degree in the cutting-edge field of computational design and artificial intelligence, you don't expect your work to land on the red carpet, in the glossy pages of Vogue or into the glitzy field of high fashion. But for one creative local, that's how this spring has gone.
Nicholas Jacobson, 32, is one of the brains behind the Basalt-based startup Para Labs, a design studio investigating data-driven architecture. In early May, New York socialite Lisa Marie Falcone wore a dress fashioned from thousands of small circular mirrors, made with Para's design program, to the tony Met Gala.
"It's weird, but it makes total sense," Jacobson said.
In graduate school at Harvard, Jacobson and partner Jared Friedman first used their program for skyscrapers — exploring how they might build taller and with appropriate materials determined by generative algorithms. A classmate asked if Jacobson might be able to improve surgical tools with the same computational approach. That inquiry led him to design a program for a series of scalpels and such, made to the precise needs of doctors for specific cuts, which can be fabricated instantly during surgery on 3-D printers.
New York fashion designer Zaldy Goco heard about this medical breakthrough and contacted Para Labs, much to Jacobson's surprise, to make a dress for Falcone in the same way. The idea — inspired by this year's Met Gala theme of "Manus x Machina" — was to make, in Jacobson's words, "a design without designers — a design that emerged solely from her body."
"He said, 'If you can design with constraints and you can do that with different materials, could you do that with a dress?'" Jacobson said. "I thought, 'Sure, we could easily do that.'"
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In a conference room at The Aspen Times, Jacobson opened his laptop and walked a reporter through the process of making the groundbreaking dress. It began with 3-D scans of Falcone's body. With a mathematically precise understanding of the body's curves, he and Friedman used a series of equations to explore how to cover it, digitally draping a dress over her.
"It's not a designer's eye looking at it and thinking, 'It needs to be bigger here and smaller there' — we're actually responding to data," he said.
Goco wanted the dress made of circular mirrors. So they plugged that in, and the program determined the size of circles according to the planarity of her skin, shifted colors according to lighting and adjusted the fit to how she might move. Goco would send sketches, which Jacobson would plug into his program, and then a laser cutter would custom-tailor sections of the dress.
On May 4, with flashbulbs popping and high society gawking, the designer-less dress and Falcone made their way down the Met Gala red carpet.
Though data and equations drove the design, Jacobson blanches at the term "artificial intelligence" for this work.
"The art is not lost there, because the data has to be interpreted," he said. "The artist then becomes someone who is an editor of constraints rather than someone making a whimsical design."
Jacobson first settled in Aspen in 2009 after graduating from the school of architecture at the University of Wisconsin amid the doldrums of the recession when firms were shedding employees rather than hiring recent graduates. He made his way to Aspen with the idea that the industry would bounce back more quickly here than elsewhere (and that he could do some skiing in the meantime). Jacobson went to any architect who would meet him and offered to work for "a minute, an hour, a day, whatever time they had." He got freelance work with the likes of Harry Teague and Bill Poss.
But without gaining career traction in the ailing industry, he opted to go back to school — studying design technology in a cross-disciplinary program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Harvard Business School. After earning his masters in spring 2015, he returned to the Roaring Fork Valley and founded Para Labs with Friedman who, for now, has stayed behind in New York.
Along with the obvious lifestyle pluses of living in Aspen, Jacobson is inspired by the progressive design legacy of the town.
"I love living here," he said. "I just want to be here. But I also want to do really exciting work."
Jacobson's foray into fashion may not have been part of the plan, but it's been a boon for Para Labs. After Falcone's dress made a splash, Jacobson got calls not only from other fashion designers and potential architecture clients but from the tech giant Apple, which asked him and Friedman to consult on multiple projects related to machine learning.
Though Para Labs doesn't yet have a brick-and-mortar office, its clients have included a few local architects, structural engineers and landscape architects. One Aspen-area landscape project used computational design to situate and landscape an outdoor seating area, incorporating topographic and environmental data to maximize sunlight and allow its residents to eat outside earlier in the spring, longer into the fall and later at night in the summer.
The still-new field of computational design is creating tools for designers that have simply never existed before. Its pioneers, like Jacobson, are still exploring its possible applications.
"The exciting thing about computational design is that we're still in the exploratory phase of what we can do," he said.
He didn't have clothing or haute couture in mind when he leapt into the field. But after the dress, he's thought about ways this technology and 3-D printers might be used to clothe the masses in custom fits or to protect the vulnerable against the elements.
"I don't only want to work for billionaires," he said.
Jacobson is particularly interested in public projects. He and Friedman have partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to teach a Harvard course in Aspen next spring. It will delve into how computational design might help the federal government build what it needs to in the forest in the most environmentally friendly fashion possible.
In an attempt to explain, in layman's terms, how this computational approach can revolutionize design and architecture and other fields, Jacobson drew an analogy to skiing.
"We don't ski on old wooden skis anymore — we use better technology to ski better every year, to feel the mountain more, to go faster," he said. The potential of computational design that excites him most is that it might create previously impossible applications — in architecture, art, medicine, fashion and who knows where else. In ski-bum terms, he said, that'd be the equivalent of how light touring gear has allowed downhill skiers to go uphill.
"Technology is most exciting when it creates a whole new programmatic change," he said.