MIT’s Neri Oxman 3D Prints Death Masks For Alien Martyrs

These algorithmically designed masks explore life, death, and rebirth while blurring the line between biology and manufacturing.

From the gold-plated visage of Tutankhamen to the plaster casts in vogue among dying Victorians in the 19th Century, cultures around the world have created death masks for millennia as a way to immortalize the dead. Now, Neri Oxman–MIT’s biologically-obsessed designer and architect is futuristically flipping death masks on her head with Vespers, three series of five death masks that abstractly explore the transition between life and death of five imaginary martyrs.


Created in collaboration with her fellows at MIT’s Mediated Matter Group–a group of designers that includes Christoph Bader, Dominik Kolb, Rachel Smith, Sunanda Sharma, and James Weaver, alongside Oxman–
and developed on Stratasys 3D printers, Oxman makes no bones about the fact that her death masks are purely an atheist endeavor. “The custom of the death mask in the ancient world was believed to strengthen the spirit of the deceased and guard their soul from evil on the way to the afterworld. In this view, death is a conduit to a form of rebirth,” she writes. “The mythical notion that the soul can be guided from a state of death to a new state of life inspired the design of Vespers.”

Each of Oxman’s three series of death masks explores a different phase–life, death, and rebirth–while each individual mask belongs to a different imaginary martyr. The masks themselves are translucent, and beneath the outer shell can be seen whorls of color, which represent the martyr’s dying (or living) breath. Over the course of the three series, each mask “evolves,” passing its intended martyr from death to life, or life to death. Like most of the Mediated Matter Group’s work, the masks were designed using generative algorithms modeled upon natural biology, as a way of blurring the line between biology, design, and manufacturing.

All together, the Vespers resemble artifacts recovered by astronaut archeologists from alien crypts on a long dead insect planet. Par for the course for Oxman, whose previous work includes biomechanical intestinal tracks that you wear and an (unrelated) death mask for Björk. Learn more about Vespers here.