Q&A: Felecia Davis

Felecia Davis researches the use of textiles, sensors, and Black hair in architecture.

Flower at MoMA

Q: You’re designing “smart fabrics” in your lab. What does that mean?

Davis:  We’re looking to make fabric communicate information to people through vision or touch. We take the natural properties of fabric—linen, wool, felt—and we learn how different fabrics behave and how to transform them to create different aesthetic qualities. We also embed electronics like sensors and microcontrollers, along with conductive thread and flexible conductive wire, to augment what the textile can communicate through aesthetic transformation—changes of texture, temperature, or color.


Q: How would we use these fabrics?

Davis:  Embedding sensors and other devices in clothing means that fabrics can help people monitor, interpret, and communicate information to wearers about their body and about the environment they occupy. This is useful for athletes, as the sensors can tell them when to rest or hydrate, and also for people who have health conditions they need to monitor. We’re also building lightweight tents and shelters that can be put up quickly and used in places where there’s no [access to] communication.


Q: One of your designs—it looks like a giant black flower—was exhibited at the MoMA in New York.

Davis:  The flower is made up of 34 knitted cones embedded with petals of copper yarn, which makes the textile electronically active as a receiving antenna. As you walk around the piece, you hear sounds captured by different electromagnetic waves that flowed through the gallery. We amplified these waves using a speaker so you can hear invisible waves. For me, working with things that are invisible is a very important part of architectural design.


Q: Why?

:  Digital spaces are now overlaid and intertwined with physical spaces. For example, facial recognition can now allow a person to cross an invisible digital threshold and a physical architectural threshold. If that facial recognition cannot read your face because it is Black, and you cannot cross that digital threshold, then you have what I would call a “technological redlining.” These are places that are only accessible to people of a limited range of skin tones.


Q: You’re also looking to incorporate Black hair into architectural design. How would you do that?

Davis:  The process of braiding, locking, and crocheting hair will be translated into computer code that can be used to develop a material or fabric to create or enhance architectural space. We are just beginning this project and are excited to see the potentials for architectural design.


Felecia Davis, a professor at the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing, is director of SOFTLAB, which researches the use of lightweight fabric for architecture, furnishings, and clothing.