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Life in space needs consideration. For that, I find inspiration in traveling to new places.
Gems in this
While her feet might be strolling through Austin, Melodie Yashar’s mind is often wandering to Mars. The Iranian-American designer and technologist is pushing the boundaries of architecture to create safe, comfortable homes that will support people to live long-term on the Moon and Mars.
Having worked amid the buzz of New York, Milan and Silicon Valley, she was lured to the ‘small-big’ city of Austin in early 2021 by Texan startup ICON, which is researching and building 3D-printed homes for Earth and beyond. Melodie is part of a wave of tech transplants moving to the city — the vast, desert terrain providing the perfect playground for designing for life in space. We chat with Melodie about creative travel, both on Earth and in space, and exploring her top Travel Gems in Austin, beyond the live music and cowboy boots.
On where you’re from
I grew up in Los Angeles. Now that I’m in Texas, I’m realizing it was a strange place to grow up. Los Angeles is so reliant on having a car to move around. I never really felt connected with a community outside of myself. It felt very insular. When I moved to New York, where public transportation is so much more of a thing culturally, it was a completely different experience. But I love LA. Because of the climate, of course, and the fact that there are so many different neighborhoods with their own different feeling.
On education as a springboard for exploring ideas
My parents are Iranian, so I’m the first generation in my family to grow up in the United States. I had this bias that I needed to study English to have mastery over the language. I do really love reading and writing, but I didn’t know where I was headed after that. I let my creative impulses lead me to the next thing. That led from my liberal arts education, where I studied English rhetoric and art history, to industrial design, where I was focusing on smaller-scale objects and environments. And then the scale of the ideas got bigger and bigger.
On where creativity has taken you
I worked with an architecture studio in Milan for a year and a half. It was very formative to a lot of my understanding of design and the way that architecture in particular can provide value to brands. After that, I moved to New York for graduate school and stayed for a number of years working as an architect. New York was such a destination for me. I always knew I wanted to live there. It really feels like a cultural epicenter — in terms of architecture, art, and design. There was always something going on, always an event to be at. But I realized I was missing the Californian lifestyle, which is a little more fluid. In California, it’s so easy to leave the city and come back — to go to the ocean or the desert or the mountains without thinking twice. It feels like it’s possible to have a larger range of life experiences there.
On moving to Austin
I am part of a wave of transplants from California that’s been fostered by tech. Companies like SpaceX and Oracle are moving into the city at an unprecedented rate and it’s changing the fabric of the city. Moving here was a very easy transition. People are so friendly. It doesn’t feel sprawling in the way that larger cities do — you can get from one end to the other in 15 minutes. It’s been really fun to explore. The neighborhood where I’m working has an industrial vibe. There’s the sense that you can do anything and build anything there — and we do a lot of large-scale structural prototyping. I love that it feels very free. Downtown and on the other side of the lake, there are exciting bars and restaurants, and a lot of foot traffic. It’s a wonderful city because there is so much going on. There’s live music happening every single night.
‘Moving to Austin was a very easy transition. People are so friendly. It doesn’t feel sprawling in the way that larger cities do — you can get from one end to the other in 15 minutes.’
On early creative influences
I had this moment of realization that everything around us has been designed or manufactured in some way. Nothing happens for no reason. Objects, furniture, electrical components — everything has a design intention behind it. That was a real ‘aha moment’ for me, where I realized that not only can we create our environments and the things that we interact with on a daily basis, but there’s a system behind each object. That made me think about how I might want to establish myself creatively.
On what you’re working on now
3D printing houses is a mix of robotics, material science, hardware, and architecture. For me, it’s incredibly interesting to have this confluence of design and technology and be at the intersection of it. I lead a team that focuses not only on the design, but we also research a ‘whole home’s’ performance so we can continue to improve the 3D-printed wall assembly. One of the things we’re trying to advance is how resilient the system is and how well it’s going to perform in coastal regions; we’re thinking ahead to how we can introduce more resilient housing systems that can be wind and storm resilient. All of that is the terrestrial — it’s so funny when I say this — the Earth-based work that we’re doing. We’re not only designing resilient systems for Earth, but also for space. The focus on Earth is large-scale 3D printing for single-family residences within the Texas region and eventually nationally. But we’re also doing space applications research for how we can advance the technology to deploy to the Moon and Mars.
On being a creative in a STEM space
The focus of an architectural designer is to be a generalist, to be someone who can think holistically — so not only about the structural issues and the sustainability of what we’re designing, but also to consider the human elements. We have to be thinking holistically about the environments we design and create, because they’re going to affect people.
On how travel inspires your work
There are so many different ways of imagining human experience and future life. The experience of life in space is something that needs to be considered from a human-centric perspective. We’re not just looking at the spacecraft or the vehicle structure. We want to think about what people are going to be eating, how they’re going to be spending their leisure time, how they’re going to be working, what the most effective environment is going to be. For that, I find inspiration all over the place. Traveling to new places, dipping into other cultures and seeing the ways that people live within their respective environments is one of the more inspiring things.
‘The experience of life in space is something that needs to be considered from a human-centric perspective. We want to think about what people are going to be eating, how they’re going to be spending their leisure time, how they’re going to be working. For that, I find inspiration all over the place.’
On designing a habitat for people to live on Mars
ICON worked with the Bjarke Ingels Group to establish the design vision for the Mars Dune Alpha habitat, and we 3D-printed the structure in the last few months. We’re working with NASA right now to figure out what the interior might look like. There’s a lot of planning that goes into what hardware, equipment, and furnishings are going to be required for this habitat. Individuals with STEM backgrounds will then live in the habitat here in Texas for one year and do basic activities to simulate a Mars mission. There’s a specific focus for the analog mission to study food resources for space. There’s going to be a greenhouse inside and part of the research intention is to evaluate whether the astronauts’ nutritional requirements are actually being met. Nothing like this has been done before by NASA, so it’s very exciting. I think this is going to be a breakthrough experiment.
On global inspiration
I have a special preference for small interior spaces that integrate industrial design elements with custom furnishings. That’s one of the reasons why Japan really sticks out to me — the design of micro-homes there and how the attention to detail is brought into such crystal clear focus. Then there are the Case Study Houses by Eames in California. Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and a lot of the Californian mid-century modernist architects looked so holistically at the interior. I love John Lautner’s retro-futuristic style. Every component becomes a design opportunity, ranging from the furnishings to a desk to the tables and chairs. And I think the scale of those houses and that era of design is so intimate and personal. Materiality also stands out — this contrast between very natural materials like woods, which are very warm, with glass and steel to create this industrial aesthetic. I love that. All of that has been really instrumental to the way that I think about homes and the way that I think about interior environments.
On where you look for inspiration in everyday life
In my work, I’m not exclusively inspired by architecture at all. I’m inspired by food, art, theater and performance. I love going to the cinema. The Austin Film Society is somewhere that I became a member of soon as I came to Austin. Their programming is so good. It rivals some of the theatres in New York and LA.
On Austin’s barbecue way of life
I’ve been eating my way around Austin since I arrived. The food culture is so, so good. And it lives up to the hype. First and foremost, it’s known for barbecue. Franklin Barbecue is said to be the best in the world. Terry Black’s is a go-to place. La Barbecue — every time I arrive, there’s a line around the block, so I’ve never been. But one day, I’ll wait in line and I’ll get to go. It’s the kind of place where if you don’t get there by a certain hour, you’re out of luck because they’re sold out for the day.
‘The landscape of Texas is very different from anywhere else in the world. You start to remember that you’re part of a larger landscape.’
On must-eats beyond ribs
Mexican food is so great here. Nixta Taqueria is amazing. It’s a small spot, but they have incredible tacos. There are lots of food trucks, which I was very surprised by. I have go-to food trucks now. There’s a Filipino-Vietnamese place called Fil N’ Viet. It’s a world-class meal from a food truck and it’s so affordable. They make dishes like banh mi, fried chicken, and soft-shell crab.
On making the most of this sunshine-dowsed city
Lady Bird Lake is well-known for paddleboarding and canoeing, and it’s such a unique experience to be outdoors and yet have the city skyline in front of you. That’s something very unique that I’ve never seen anywhere else. You can be paddleboarding on the lake and then have the city at your fingertips. An indoor-outdoor lifestyle is a big thing in Texas. People love to eat outside and spend lots of time in the park. It’s been really fun exploring and spending lots of time outdoors.
On a day in Austin with friends
We would go to Lady Bird Lake and do some watersports or even get a boat and spend the day outside. And I would take them to Justine’s because it’s so great there in terms of the vibe and the food. It’s just a fantastic French brasserie with a beautiful bar and an outdoor area. You really feel like you’re part of something, like you’re part of an institution when you go there. And then we’d explore the different neighborhoods. Walk around East Austin, walk around South Congress. There’s just so much going on every day. Lots of foot traffic, lots of people walking around.
On the vastness of Texas
The landscape of Texas is very different from anywhere else in the world. So you can be based in a ‘small-big city’ — as locals like to say — and then drive out to these other parts on weekends. You start to remember that you’re part of a larger landscape and part of a desert. It’s incredibly exciting visiting Marfa, visiting Houston, and remembering that Austin is just one small part of the very big state that is Texas. That’s been really cool.
On a window or an aisle seat
Window seat, definitely. I love looking out the window. It’s that idea of connecting with and understanding the landscape.
On Austin in one word
Because it does have these established stereotypes and yet there’s so much change. There are so many new people, new institutions, and new ideas that are coming to the city. It’s dynamic and responsive.