Carpet design inspired by UO physics gets the world's attention

The UO’s product design guru thinks more students will want to study physics now that professor Richard Taylor’s research helped land a 2019 Innovation Award at the world’s top commercial design conference.

“Most people associate physics with space exploration,” said Kiersten Muenchinger, the Tim and Mary Boyle Chair in Product Design. “The fact that applied physics can produce new things that are interesting, beautiful and tactile — and that help us feel better — is really cool.”

This particular award is a very big deal, Muenchinger said. It came at NeoCon, an annual Chicago gathering of commercial designers and manufacturers.

“It means something unique has happened, and millions of dollars in development are invested in order to innovate on this level,” she said. “This award usually goes to new materials or manufacturing breakthroughs.”

Muenchinger said Taylor’s role in creating the winning product, which is flooring designed to reduce stress, has broadened her thinking about collaboration.

“My expectations have been surpassed,” she said. “Adding a physicist to a design team takes collaboration to an entirely different level than I’ve ever seen.”

The winning design represents a colossal application of NASA-funded research led by Taylor, which discovered that people relax as much as 60 percent when exposed to certain natural geometric patterns called fractals.

Inspired by these findings, designers Anastasija and Martin Lesjak invited Taylor to help develop a new approach to designing flooring for workplaces, hotels and schools as well as venues where many people feel anxious, such as airports and hospitals. The global flooring and carpet market is projected to reach $450 billion by 2025.

The resulting collaboration involved 13&9 Design, the Mohawk Group and Fractals Research, a consulting firm founded by Taylor. Two of Taylor’s graduate students, Julian Smith and Conor Rowland, worked on the project.

“We wanted to give our eyes a break from the digital world and deliver the essence of nature to enclosed spaces, but we needed to be certain that our designs are based on scientific research,” Anastasija Lesjak said.

“What makes this carpet such a standout is the fact that it’s steeped in evidence-based research,” said Robert Nieminen, editor-at-large for two architecture and design publications. “This type of approach to product design could truly transform the way we think about and design products altogether.”

“I had no idea how famous Ana and Martin were,” said Taylor, who heads the UO physics department. “I was just extremely excited to have a chance to apply what we’ve learned about fractals to their project because the World Health Organization describes stress as the leading health epidemic of this century. In the U.S. alone, $300 billion are spent annually on stress-induced illnesses and disorders.”

The winning design was inspired by UO studies of fractal-based electronics, notably a project to develop a bionic eye to restore vision destroyed by retinal diseases such as macular degeneration.

“The fractal branching of the eye’s neurons was the starting point for this design,” Taylor said. “We transformed these neuron formations into outline patterns using our research on stress-reductive fractals.”

Two other carpet designs mimic the eye movements that take place when people view natural scenery.

“Our eyes follow a pattern that is much like the flight paths of foraging birds,” he said. “My team developed software to create a fractal pattern similar to that of a flying bird releasing seeds that will grow into trees and plants.”

In addition to the Lesjaks, the Austrian team includes Sabrina Stadlober and Luis Lee. On the Oregon side: Taylor, Smith and Rowland.

“Julian and Conor are fundamentally at the center of all the pattern creation action,” Taylor said. The Oregon team’s software generated fractals based on parameters that previous psychology experiments indicate reduce stress.

“We uploaded these fractal patterns to the 13&9 design team in Austria so they could adapt them according to their design vision and send back to us for analysis.” Taylor said. “Our next challenge was to adapt their designs to be sure they would meet the required parameters, no matter how randomly the blocks of carpeting are laid out when they are installed in huge venues.”

The full team met at the UO in March to unpack sample carpet panels and test various layouts. Taylor’s team confirmed that the stress reducing aspect of the design remains constant.

Fractals, Taylor says, are irregular geometric shapes that repeat at all scales.

“Fractals are the trademark building blocks of nature,” he said. “Trees, clouds, rivers, galaxies, lungs and neurons are fractals, and our visual system is designed to process fractal patterns.”

He leads an interdisciplinary research network that investigates the positive physiological changes that occur when people look at the most common form of fractals found in nature. Their findings to date, published in numerous peer-reviewed scientific journals, indicate that merely looking at such patterns can reduce stress by as much as 60 percent. The U.S. alone spends more than $300 billion annually on stress-induced illnesses and disorders.

“One of the best pieces of news from our psychology research is that you do not need to be exposed to fractal patterns long to get the positive effect,” Taylor said. “You don’t even need to stare directly at them. This means you can be walking along an airport corridor, not even paying attention to what’s under your feet, and the patterns on this carpeting may reduce your level of stress significantly.”

—By Melody Ward Leslie, University Communications