Movement by Design

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If a beach ball had a skeleton, a Hoberman sphere is what you would find once you peeled back the plastic — hard-edged parts connected by joints, arranged in a perfect sphere. Those joints open and close, allowing the sphere to expand to more than twice its size and contract back down again in one fluid motion, similar to the movement a flower makes when it opens and closes its petals.

You are as likely to come across a Hoberman sphere in a museum as you are in a child’s bedroom. Patented in 1990 by artist and engineer Chuck Hoberman, it’s an object that has fascinated architects, artists and children alike. Hoberman spheres are in the permanent collections of both science and fine art museums, and smaller versions are among the world’s most popular  toys.

“For me, great design is the way that function, aesthetics and structure are embodied in a single artifact,” says Hoberman. “That’s the aspiration that I have, to create something that really unifies appearance, experience and function.”

Hoberman’s sphere are hung high above the Lincoln Lounge at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. We spoke with him about machines that move by themselves, the connection between motion and feeling, and just why children love his invention so much.

How has your professional background influenced your work?

I studied both fine arts and engineering. First, I studied sculpture, when I got my undergraduate degree, and then mechanical engineering. Basically, my career and my creative life are about the intersection between art and engineering, design and science. 

Where did the idea for the original Hoberman sphere come from?

The Hoberman sphere is my best-known design, but it came out of a process that was about discovery. And in fact, that discovery wasn’t associated with the form of the sphere at all; the genesis of the idea was around transformation. When you study engineering, people talk about mechanisms in terms of motion and function: how do you make a machine that accomplishes a certain task? But I got interested in a different angle on that. I wanted to know if I could use the principles of mechanisms to make forms that transform themselves. In other words, the whole function of the mechanism is to transform itself, by itself. So, I discovered a way to make forms that expanded, by defining their mathematical surfaces and creating a linkage where points would conform to that surface.

Did you know that the Hoberman sphere would resonate with so many different communities when you designed it?

I really couldn’t have predicted that, but it’s really a surprise and a joy to see the response that people have to it. I think the sphere has a deep connection to nature in that, although it’s made of metal and mechanical fasteners, it’s built the same way natural forms are built. It’s highly interconnected. It works with synchronous function throughout a system. It has structural hierarchies that occur in nature. Why do people look at this machine and say it reminds them of a natural form? I don’t think it’s the way it looks. I think it’s more the way it moves and the way it feels. Motion and feeling are very closely connected, kind of the way that music and feeling are connected.

Why do you think the Hoberman sphere is so popular with children in particular?

Honestly, it seemed like a nice object for kids to look at. But what I’ve discovered is that kids don’t really look at it at all. They have a very physical interaction with it. They roll it, they jump on it, climb inside of it. They surprise their friends with it; it’s highly interactive. I’m not saying anything that any parent would find to be rocket science: kids like to play! But there is this second layer to the way some kids interact with the sphere. Their first reaction is just the “wow” of it. But then some kids start to wonder, “Why does this work? How does this work?” Now that I’m a little older, I meet adults who played with it as kids; it turns out that some grew up really influenced by this toy and it inspired them in different ways. It’s great.

And we couldn’t agree more.

The Hoberman spheres will be on display inside the Lincoln Lounge at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit from January 12-25, 2015.


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