New carpeting will have people walking on fractals

During New York’s Design Week, when the world’s leading architects and designers previewed new flooring with designs based on fractals, University of Oregon physics professor Richard Taylor was on hand to explain the science behind it.

Designed for Mohawk Group by the renowned Austrian firm 13&9 in collaboration with Taylor’s company, Fractals Research, the “Relaxing Floors” system translates stress-reducing fractal patterns into calming visuals for the built environment.

Designers Anastasija and Martin Lesjak contacted Taylor about 18 months ago to see if he would be willing to help them revolutionize flooring intended for workplaces, hotels and schools as well as venues where many people feel anxious, such as airports and hospitals.

“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. “That’s where Professor Richard Taylor, the leading expert on fractals, has been invaluable. Add to this Mohawk Group’s commitment to using sustainable materials, and you have the next generation of flooring solutions.”

“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.”

Scientifically informed design

Taylor hopes the partnership with Mohawk Group and 13&9 will allow UO scientists to evaluate potential public health benefits of fractal flooring. 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. More than $300 billion are spent annually in the United States 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 help reduce your level of stress by up to 60 percent.”

Team effort unites Austria, UO

In addition to the Lesjaks, the Austrian team includes Sabrina Stadlober and Luis Lee. Two of Taylor’s graduate students, Julian Smith and Conor Rowland, also have been serving as consultants on the Oregon side.

“Julian and Conor are fundamentally at the center of all the pattern creation action,” Taylor said. The Oregon team’s software-generated fractals are 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 lay out sample carpet panels in random patterns so Taylor could confirm that the stress reducing aspect of the design remains constant.

Foraging birds and bionic eyes

Two of the flooring styles mimic the eye movements that take place as we view natural scenery, Taylor said.

“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.”

Another style was inspired by UO studies of fractal-based electronics – notably, the 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.”

Jackie Dettmar, Mohawk Group’s vice president of design and product development, said the project could have a “groundbreaking impact” on the built environment.

“This whole collaboration has been an amazing experience,” she said. “Understanding the science behind biophilic design is part of our commitment to diving deeper into creating environments for decompressing and getting away from that overload of technology that we’re living with every day.”

Next stop: NeoCon

Based in Georgia, Mohawk Group is the world’s leading producer and distributor of commercial flooring. The company’s Relaxing Floors system will officially debut June 10-12 at Chicago’s NeoCon, where it has already been named a finalist in the flooring category of the Buildings media Product Innovations Awards program. NeoCon is considered the event of the year for the commercial design industry.

So far, In addition to winning a Metropolis Likes @ NYCxDESIGN award, ”Relaxing Floors” was a finalist for the Interior Design NYCxDESIGN award for contract flooring.

—By Melody Ward Leslie, University Communications