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The Best Of Milan Design Week: Sou Fujimoto's Infinite Forest Of Light

With a few sensors, projectors, and a fog machine, the celebrated Japanese architect transforms a former theater into an abstract forest.

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The biggest showstopper at Milan Design Week this year was Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto's "Forest of Light" installation for the fashion label COS.

After walking through a set of heavy black curtains into a pitch-black room, you see a series of spotlight beams shining from the ceiling, cycling on and off as if in an elaborately choreographed dance. The room is surrounded by mirrors on three sides so the spotlights appear to extend to infinity. It's intended to be a contemplative moment, secluded from the thrum of Milan Design Week and a representation of both Fujimoto and COS's design ethos.

"Architecture and fashion are far away in a sense, but fashion and architecture share a point where they relate to our daily life and to the behaviors of our bodies and our interactions," Fujimoto says. "But of course the materials are different, and the scales. The challenge was to make something between fashion and architecture."

COS—an architecture-driven fashion brand based in London and owned by Sweden's mega retailer H&M—had an affinity with Fujimoto's work. The feeling was mutual, so the architect embarked on creating a space that would embody their shared belief in design that impacts bodily experiences.

"Interaction is one of the key components to my work," Fujimoto says. "Architecture created for one specific function is ok, but it's not rich enough for the complexities of life. If a space has only one function, it's really boring."

Fujimoto has contemplated the relationship between architecture and nature throughout his career, and he built on that theme with the COS installation—using light as a medium rather than physical building materials. "I didn’t want to use architectural materials and I couldn't handle fashion materials," he says. "I wanted to find something completely different from fashion and architecture, but related to them. Light is that material. Light is pure, it could be diverse, it could be reactive, it could be interactive, but it could also make a space."

To create the light forest, Fujimoto rigged dozens of projectors to the ceiling. A sensor attached to each projector detects movement beneath it. Once someone passes by, the sensor tells the projector to shine full blast. A fog machine spews a light mist into the room, which makes the light beams more visible. The adjacent spotlights also become brighter or dimmer in response to make the experience feel more random and organic.

Fujimoto meticulously calculated the lag time between the trigger and action. "It was originally 0.5 seconds, but that felt too digital, too artificial," he says. "Then we tried one second and it was too dull. Then we we tested different time increments and finally we decided on 0.7 seconds. If it’s too slow then you don’t feel it. If it’s too sudden, it’s mechanical. It should be natural." A recording of ambient nature sounds plays, which pumps up the forest theme.

When I visited the installation, some people were gingerly wandering around, others sat still on low stool Fujimoto made for the exhibit. Nearly everyone was taking selfies. As the crowd ebbed and flowed, the room took on different characteristics, mirroring the pace of the people beneath it. Sometimes frenetic, sometimes lethargic. We all became active participants in defining what the space was like.

"You see the movement of the environment created by other people and yourself," Fujimoto says. "It's quite complex, but it's calm and simple."

All Photos: via COS

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