Design can reward the eyes and ease the demands on our fingertips, yet it's rarely thought of as a gift to our ears. Now unprecedented attention is being devoted to the manipulation of sound. "Audio has a direct line to our sensual and emotional selves," says Ben Rubin, a visual artist and sound designer who has created work for Hewlett-Packard and the new headquarters of The New York Times. "Sound choices can have powerful effects. Designers in all fields must ask more from the sounds that surround us." Indeed, acoustical engineers are today transforming the way we absorb the audible, compelling the rest of us to listen--even before we stop and look.

Miners' Story Project

Miners are having a tough time these days, but this copper-clad "trailer/studio" aims to keep their voices alive, at least. Created by New York-based Local Projects and underwritten by Phelps Dodge Mining, the Flandrau Science Center, and the University of Arizona, it travels across Arizona and New Mexico, recording miners' interviews (and giving each a copy on CD). Edited stories are played through a giant speaker hidden behind the trailer's perforated exterior, giving the public access to the stories within.

Segerstrom Hall

Acoustician Russell Johnson, who died in August, created a way to physically "tune" architect Cesar Pelli's concert hall in Costa Mesa, California, for specific performances. Three acoustical canopies can be raised or lowered, as can adjustable sound-absorbing curtains and banners. Four reverberation chambers flanking the main hall can be closed to seal sound inside, or opened to trap it and filter it back into the room over time. The result is unrivaled control over the richness and decay of sound.

Joseph Curtin Violin

"There are those who will say the violin is perfect, but it's rife with design issues," says Joseph Curtin. His quest to build an ultralight improvement on the centuries-old instrument began with testing nontraditional materials such as graphite. But the 2005 MacArthur Fellow, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has since returned to wood laminates of spruce and balsa. His new instruments are 30% lighter, shedding excess vibrating weight, and are more responsive, louder, and easier to maintain.

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