The Principals Make Music with Mylar

Design East Fabrikator Technology
Ancient Chaos, a sound reactive installation designed by The Principals with musician Dev Hynes, debuted at Neuehouse last fall. (Bryan Derballa)

Ancient Chaos, a sound reactive installation designed by The Principals with musician Dev Hynes, debuted at Neuehouse last fall. (Bryan Derballa)

Collaborative installation translates sound into motion.

When Brooklyn-based design and fabrication studio The Principals began collaborating with musician Dev Hynes on Ancient Chaos, a sound reactive installation commissioned by speaker company Sonos, they had only a vague sense of the project’s goals. “The general concept was that we wanted to create an architecture that was fluid like sound, and to create sounds that were architectural,” said co-founder Seskunas. “We wanted to have an installation that was both of those things but neither—a very ephemeral, nebulous concept of what sound and architecture could be.” Then Seskunas went surfing with a friend, and, in between sets, found himself mesmerized by the ever-changing play of sunlight on the ocean. “Could we create an architecture that had this quality to it?” he questioned. Constructed from 6,000 individual pieces of Mylar set in motion by high-powered stepper motors, Ancient Chaos answers Seskunas’ question in the affirmative. The installation, which debuted at New York’s Neuehouse last year, is a moving meditation on the relationship between sound and space.

The installation's reflective canopy comprises thousands of pieces of silver-coated Mylar "quilted" together with acrylic fasteners. (Bryan Derballa)

The installation’s reflective canopy comprises thousands of pieces of silver-coated Mylar “quilted” together with acrylic fasteners. (Bryan Derballa)

Over the course of a two-month ideas exchange with Hynes, who composed an original piece for the installation and performed at its opening, The Principals started by sketching and creating photo collages of bodies of water. They then revisited a mechanical system developed for an earlier project, which involved assembling flat pieces of paper into an accordion panel. When suspended and set in motion, the panel created gradient waves and apertures that closed and opened. But while the primary focus of the earlier installation had been the apertures, for Ancient Chaos “we wanted to focus on the surface quality [of the form], and to highlight different two-dimensional curvatures,” said Seskunas. They also swapped out the paper for silver-coated Mylar, which—while difficult to obtain in the quantities and thickness the designers required—offered an intriguing combination of reflectiveness and stiffness.

A custom spectrium analyzer/motor driver system produces movement across the canopy in response to specific frequencies. (Bryan Derballa)

A custom spectrum analyzer/motor driver system produces movement across the canopy in response to specific frequencies. (Bryan Derballa)

  • Fabricator
    The Principals
  • Designers
    The Principals with Dev Hynes
  • Location
    New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA
  • Date of Completion
    2014
  • Material
    silver-coated Mylar, Popco acrylic fasteners, aluminum, frequency analyzers, stepper motors, wires, circuit boards
  • Process
    sketching, Rhino, Autodesk Inventor, die cutting, fastening, welding, grinding, hanging, wiring

Site constraints (Neuehouse is a private club, to which the designers had only limited access) required The Principals to design and build a free-standing aluminum support system for the 8-foot by 36-foot canopy. Working in Rhino and Autodesk Inventor, “we created a pretty intricate structure,” said Seskunas. “We had a complicated digital model for each part.” They unitized the Mylar form into 4-foot by 8-foot panels, each of which was assembled from thousands of die-cut Mylar pieces and transparent Popco fasteners.

To translate Hynes’ music into motion, The Principals attached a series of stepper motors to the top of the installation. The motors are in turn connected to a frequency analyzer that splits the sound into seven frequencies. When a particular frequency occurs, a custom program directs motors on the corresponding area of the canopy to oscillate. A boom mic picks up ambient sound, which is likewise split and transformed into directions for the stepper motors. “You see the speed and oscillations” across the installation, said Seskunas. “It pulls apart the threads of the sound, and manifests them in movement.”

One of the most striking features of the installation (which has since been relocated to Sonos’ permanent studio in Los Angeles) is also one of the less choreographed. Static lights above the moving canopy shine down through the transparent acrylic fasteners to create an effect not unlike that Seskunas witnessed from his surfboard. “It’s beautiful how they transmit light,” he said of the fasteners. “We were really excited about that.”

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