Turning Poetry into Material

Abhinand Lath has transformed the solid wall into a glimmering surface that responds to movements and colors around it. His company, SensiTile, makes panels from optic light channels that are embedded in concrete. The result, inspired by an eleventh century Japanese poem about sunlight streaming through a bamboo forest, is a visually kinetic surface.

An inventor, Lath is an electrical engineer turned architect, and now manufacturer. SensiTile began as his thesis project at the University of Michigan College of Architecture; today Lath has succeeded in turning a poem into a booming luxury material business.

SensiTile first came on our radar in 2004 when Lath submitted his idea to the Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition under the name OpTrix. While the competition judges that year passed it over, Marco Pasanella, curator of the RAW exhibition which featured nearly 20 projects from the Next Generation entries, was mesmerized by it. The show went up at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York that May, gathering a wide and enthusiastic audience in search of new, sustainable ideas.

“It was a pivotal moment,” says Lath, “because I knew I had something quite interesting.” RAW gave him an opportunity to come out of his workshop in Detroit and show off his prototype. “For me it was all just an idea, but at the show there was a lot of interest in it. Lots of people were asking me how much it was per square foot and how they could get it for their project. They inspired me to start to look for those things.”

Initially Lath had intended to license the idea for others to manufacture while he pursued a career in architecture. But the panels are an artistic substance posing complicated engineering problems, requiring each order to be custom fabricated. So he decided to make a go of it, hired one employee, and started a company. Today Lath has eleven employees in Detroit, plus a satellite facility in India.

The company makes three main types of panels called Terrazzo, Scintilla, and Jali. Each features a different pattern and comes in many colors. Light shining on the surface is reflected through optic channels, creating dynamic effects across the face of the material. Within those three types is also the Lumina series which has embedded LEDs.

SensiTile has caught the fancy of designers and consumers alike. It has appeared in numerous applications from set design on the Today Show to a pavement design by Zaha Hadid Architects for Berlin’s Boulevard Der Stars Competition, as well as in retail, hospitality, and residential applications worldwide.

Lath’s story is a testament to how far a smart idea can go. He’s given a lot of thought to how it all turned out. “When I was in the middle of my thesis I sat down with a lawyer to file a patent for it and he was surprised why anyone had not done this before—because the basic idea of light transfer behind fiber optics is almost 150 years old now. The conclusion we came to was that there was no need for it from an engineering point of view.

“What I would say to young designers is that the outlook we bring to the world is unique. There are ways of finding new things if we use that outlook. You often think someone must have done this, and it turns out it has not been done, it might have passed through the other filters that do new things.”

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