I picked up Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut at a train station because it seemed to call out.
I soon absorbed the uncanny connection between the plot’s suspension within the psychological and physical threats of an immanent nuclear winter, and our current ecological, social, political climate.
Later, while reading the novel late at night, a sentence conjured a beautiful, vivid vision in my head. The passage in question described “a yellow butterfly chair.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, a butterfly chair is an iconic design made by Ferrari-Hardoy in Buenos Aires in 1938. Not initially cluing into this reference, I instead imagined an ornamental wooden bright yellow chair with butterflies painted all over it. This image was so vivid and affective that it stuck with me. And when realizing I had invented my own personal reading of the words, I thought how imagination and desire work together to make new forms appear in the world.
Then when later sketching out ideas for the design of my own yellow butterfly chair, I found an image of Kurt Vonnegut typing at his typewriter and seated on a vibrant yellow Mexican folk-art chair. This image resonated with my earlier vision. So I decided to replicate the author’s chair.
As for the butterflies, they would flutter in accordance with air quality levels in their environment, as real butterflies would, using motors, springs, custom brass pieces, gas sensors, an arduino, some computer code and pulleys. As levels of Nitrous Oxide, Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide and Particulate Matters increase, the tempo of the wings opening and closing slows down. And as these noxious gases- predominantly produced by motor vehicles- leave the air, the butterflies become more lively and active.
To me the mechanical butterflies not only visualize the invisible toxins that threaten biodiversity in urban space. Perched upon a most human invention, the chair, the butterfly chair symbolizes a future moment when human and non-human lives are more consciously entangled and in harmony. In our current epoch of anthropogenic related climate change, habitat loss and mass extinction of many species of animals and plants, taking the desire seriously to live amidst a diverse ecology, means conceptually and formally recognizing our entanglement within complex ecologies. This desire requires us to be cognizant of the myriad extended- or even butterfly- effects, which our actions shape within the web of life we all belong to.