But though she embraces the primal sensations evoked by food, she is not opposed to using technology to hit those sweet spots. Two weeks ago, in New York, she staged “Lickestra,” a musical improvisation performed by four people who licked ice cream cones with embedded sensors, producing a composition of ringing and buzzing sounds.
For “Lickestra,” Baltz partnered with Carla Diana, who specializes in the development of smart technology. Food design attracts a wide field of participants; not everyone has a taste for sea urchin or brains, but almost everyone has experienced a passion for food and the bond that comes with sharing it. Scratch a food designer and you’ll find an architect, engineer, interaction designer, materials scientist, artist or crafter, or more likely some combination working together.
“Denatured: Honeybees + Murano,” an exhibition about threatened extinction that opened in Venice last year, is a low-tech example. The show resulted from the collaboration between the artist Judi Harvest and members of the shrinking community of Venetian glass blowers. After Harvest created a garden on the grounds of a glass factory on the island of Murano and planted it with trees and flowers to hold the attention of imported bees, she collected and packaged the ensuing honey and displayed it with a series of gorgeous honeycomb-textured Murano glass jars she designed.
The intense experience of food fostered by the molecular-gastronomy movement has also brought designers into the culinary fold. In 2003, Luesma & Vega, a glass studio in Barcelona, began collaborating with Ferran Adrià to design dishware that fit his complicated cuisine at El Bulli. It has gone on to provide the same service to other celebrated chefs.
At the higher end of the technology spectrum is the partnership between David Edwards, an American scientist and inventor who founded Le Laboratoire, what he calls “a cultural lab,” in Paris, and eminent French designers. Several years ago, having introduced a chocolate product called Le Whif, which you enjoy guiltlessly by inhaling, Edwards, along with Bretillot and the industrial designer François Azambourg, rolled out Le Whaf, a carafe that vaporizes liquid, creating a cloud of tiny droplets that is poured into a glass and swallowed.
“I’m interested in this sort of virtualization,” Edwards said recently. “So much of a great culinary experience is sensorial in a way that goes beyond caloric content.”
In another project, Edwards and Azambourg set out to erase not calories, but wasteful packaging. Borrowing from the idea of the grape and similar naturally self-contained foods, he developed WikiPearls, round pieces of ice cream wrapped in edible skins. And last summer, he opened WikiBar, a cafe in Paris where the ice cream is served and where people gather every other week to test new Wiki foods like yogurt, soup and cheese. Designed by Mathieu Lehanneur, who recently secured the commission to renovate the interior of the historic Grand Palais in Paris, WikiBar has an antiseptic white palette and a decorative motif of hexagons that alludes to the molecular structure of the food’s wrapping.
In July, a similar venue, Cafe ArtScience, will open in Cambridge, Mass., in a new Laboratoire complex. For this venture, Edwards is partnering with someone he describes only as “a leading mixologist,” who will run an experimental drinks program there. Glass dishware will be designed by Azambourg to complement the WikiPearl menu. (Edwards was tight-lipped about the details.) And next month, some Whole Foods stores in the Boston area will begin selling WikiPearls of Stonyfield frozen yogurt.
Edwards’ inventions demonstrate that while many food design concepts are whimsical, utopian or evanescent, the introduction of technology and capital is giving others mainstream relevance and commercial potential.
And it always seems to help when 3-D printing enters the picture. Liz and Kyle von Hasseln became enamored of that technology while students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and found particular joy in building structures with sugar. This discovery led to a Los Angeles-based studio, the Sugar Lab, which made experimental confections. In September, 3D Systems, a manufacturer of 3-D printers, acquired the Sugar Lab, and the Von Hasselns are now creative directors of its food products.
At the Consumer Electronics Show last month, they displayed, along with 3D Systems’ new ChefJet food printers, a wedding cake built on a printed armature of sugar and decorated, from base to ribbonlike topper, with a blue-and-white Delft pattern. The ability of the printer to handle a range of materials means that a copy of the topper can be produced in ceramic if a couple wants a souvenir of their wedding, Von Hasseln said. “Cross-culturally, people are inclined to invest in customizing and embellishing a dessert,” she said. “That’s what 3-D printing is good for: customization and embellishment.”
Ourasanah would like his Lepsis grasshopper breeder to have commercial legs, too. But though Whirlpool funded the development of the prototype, he hasn’t found investors. He is working for Whirlpool on blue-sky projects, thinking up ways to teach American children to respect food and nutrition. His new medium is the lunch tray and lunchbox, which he sees as failed design opportunities in their existing forms. “I saw a lunchbox that had SpongeBob SquarePants on it,” he said, adding that he found it really strange. “What does SpongeBob have to do with food?”