Mobile Concept Design | Calvino’s Invisible Cities

This project began with a selection from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

“The book explores imagination and the imaginable through the descriptions of cities by an explorer, Marco Polo. The book is framed as a conversation between the aging and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his expanding and vast empire, and Polo. The majority of the book consists of brief prose poems describing 55 cities, apparently narrated by Polo. Short dialogues between the two characters are interspersed every five to ten cities and are used to discuss various ideas presented by the cities on a wide range of topics including linguistics and human nature. The book structured around an interlocking pattern of numbered sections, while the length of each section’s title graphically outlines a continuously oscillating sine wave, or perhaps a city skyline. The interludes between Khan and Polo are no less poetically constructed than the cities, and form a framing device, a story with a story, that plays with the natural complexity of language and stories.” wiki The parameters where simple: interpret one of the city from the book and iterate on that interpretation.  Each iteration had it’s own given constraint but other then that we were encouraged to experiment.


I picked Isaura, one of the “Thin Cities”.  Also known as “The city of a thousand wells.” Isaura was shaped in every way by a large cavernous aquifer deep beneath the surface of the city.  Over a thousand deep wells dotted the landscape and the city grew, but only to the same outline as the lake beneath it. The two religions of the city were also shaped by the lake. The first religion believed that God lived only in the dark waters deep beneath the city; suggesting that there is no way to truly know God except to lose yourself to the depths The second religion believed that God lived in the mechanisms that brought the water to the surface; worshipping the windmills, buckets and pulleys.  This suggest that they believe God can be known through the creation of man. I made a couple of quick sketchs of how I was imagining the city.

I decided to approach this metaphorically. Being raised Jungian, I instantly saw the rich symbolism in the deep water containing God and the need to pull the deep waters to the surface.

My interpretation goes like this:

The City is your psyche, shaped by the waters beneath. The Deep Lake beneath the surface is your subconscious and the collective unconscious.  This is where the knowledge of the universe lies, the seat of the imagination and the connection to the infinite. The Wells are the means by which we explore and bring out the imagination.  These are the creative acts and the purposeful strivings to understand ourselves and everything we are connected to.


4 Iterations in 3 Weeks

I did not know when I had decided on the first iteration that the second iteration’s constraint was going to be “3 dimensional”.  So I made my first iteration out of paper, the first constraint, but I also made it 3 dimensional.  whoops. The second iteration then became a refinement and expansion on the physicality of the of the first and I still focused on paper construction.  This was not as large a step forward in the design or concept as it could have been because of my choice to technically and aesticts refine the The third iteration became an evolution of the concept and the design of a product inspired by the outcome of that evolution.  “Product” being constraint on this iteration. The fourth iteration’s constraint was “digital”.  I focused on the realization of the



For the first constraint of paper I decided to use pages of a book to create the wells.  Venus Bound: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press by John De St. Jorre.  In particular was the use of the chapter on the Story of O.

Taken from the pages of Venus Bound, an interesting and applicable quote from the author of Story of O.

I thought the pages from a book dealing with literature, censorship and sexuality would make fitting wells of the imagination.  Add to that the fact Story of O was never meant to be published, it was a private love letter from an older single woman to a married man, and you can begin to see even more connections.

I also to create waves for the lake from pages of the book.  After prototyping one I changed over to using  only the pages that contained photographs.  The subconscious being a place of images, shapes and ideas, not of words.

I used dark cardboard for the cavern, leaving two sides aching to the ground to help support the wells. I made the underground lake and the above ground field the same shape.  The field being green and fertile where the lake is darker beneath it. I decided to bend some of the wells as I had in the first sketch, making them appear more like pipes.  This was to reflect the idea that sometimes it’s not so easy to get your thoughts across clearly to the outside world.  Before I dismantled the piece I removed the “sides” to the cavern. I appreciate the atheistic of this first iteration.  The organic wavy lose feel to it.  The bends in the wells. (Are they becoming pipes now?  This would indicate flow in either direction.  Is this what I want?) The quick and dirty approach has it’s appeal.


3 Dimensional


In the second iteration, I made a lot of decisions that ultimately made the piece successful in unforeseen ways.I used all of the remaining pages from the book to create as many wells as possible for density.  I wanted to create the feeling of a thick forest of wells when seen from eye level at the lake.  I made these wells longer then the first iteration as well to suggest even more depth.  Unfortunately the density diminished the effect if verticality.


I incorporated foam as a base for the land and lake, hopeing this would lend some stability. I used textured green paper, cut and layered to resemble a topographic map. These shapes also resemble ripples in a lake. I kept the original shape of the foam as it came.  I liked the idea of the larger circle repeating the circles the tubes created. I at first wanted a dome of foam, a hemisphere really.  But I was unable to fine one and in hindsight I should have constructed one.









I think it would have been more interesting to have carved the foam into a more undulating shape; one of the successful aspects of the first iteration.  I appreciate the texture of the second, the shape is just boring.

I designed and constructed new waves.  Taking the metaphor of the lake as imagination further my creating the waves from plain white paper.

I added detail to the surface using simple cut blades of grass or groves of trees, depending on how you look at it.
I felt the second iteration was to symmetrical and balanced, everything was too even.  For me it’s similar to rhythm with no melody, it becomes uninteresting.

I did however start to play with the documentation of the second iteration and dicsovered that as a model with a different scale, it’s became more compelling.

I took some pictures and video of the piece from the perspective of living in that environment, trying to get an idea of scale.  The results were intriguing in their own regard and influential to the next iteration.  There is also something interesting going on here with the words from different wells lining up as the structure is spun slowly.  I’m not sure where I would take this at this point, but it is interesting.

My roommate had checked out a tilt-shift lens for the entire weekend, so I asked him if he could get some better shots.  This is what he came up with.  We also set up and took video on a lazy-susan with the tilt shift.  once it’s edited together I will post id here.



This last iteration I took one more leap into the deep end. With the notion of these waters as God, the subconscious and hidden knowledge – and these wells of words, efforts and interpretations bringing us closer to understanding that knowledge … I can’t help but make a fortune telling machine.

It is when we need to connect to our selves, ask the question we already know the answers to, that we tend to seek out fortune tellers.  They read in us the symbols they need to interpret what we need most to hear.  We think we’re recieving devine wisdom, and we are. *wink* I first thought of these:

They can be found at every Wal-Mart and 7-11 checkout counter in the south.  Every girl in high school had one in her purse.  They were fun, and deadly serious.

The first iterations also brings to mind the I-Ching.   I own one that my mother gave me when I was very young and I use to use it all the time.  The top’s been lost and the sticks are all nicked and broken.  All of these many thin sticks in this tube, just waiting for you to interpret the prose that goes with them, how could that not be part of this iteration

I scanned all of the “fortunes” from the book that came with this particulr I-Ching.  These would be the fortunes that come from the machine.

I think also of the prayer wheel, with it’s rolls of thin paper, imprinted with many, many copies of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, written in Sanskrit, used to accumulate wisdom and merit (good karma) and to purify negativities (bad karma). And lets not forget these:  What else do you think of when you think of fortunes written on little pieces of paper for you to crack open and interpret.

so without  further ado …  I present to you …

The Isaura Spirt Drum!

A fortune telling machine for every Isauraian.


With a turn of the crank the waters of the God lake will swirl and rise around the Drum of Spirits.

Charging it to lose your fortune through the well of knowledge.

Think carefully on your question and you turn the handle three times.

When the Drum stops spinning your fortune will rise from the well at the top of the drum.

Check back often!  Remember, just knowing your fortune changes it!



The constraint on the last iteration was that it was to be digital.  I had to model the Fortunetelling Spirt Drum in Maya.  I felt compelled to do it. I wanted to do it to shake the cobwebs off.  I actually love working in Maya, but I’m still learning, and not even opening the program this summer was a serious mistake (as I knew it would be)  It was like learning all over again.  I forgot so much.

I knew the model wasn’t going to be the only digital iteration. Almost as soon as I started to work on it I realized I was doing the same thing I had done before.  I was focusing on refining the physicality of the object and not developing the concept any further then it was before. I got the model to a somewhat complete point and set it aside.

I then started thinking about the idea of a digital fortune telling device.  So I’ve started to design a small application fro the iPhone.  It’s based on the version of the I Ching that I’ve been using for years. I story-boarded a quick user scenario below.  I’m going to keep working on this one and hopefully be able to get it done before the new year.