littleBits at MoMA Design Store Soho

On April 6th, MoMA Design Store Soho unveiled a very cool exhibition in its windows of larger than life objects that flicker, move, and spin, created by littleBits. littleBits is a company that makes color-coded “bits” that snap together magnetically that both children and adults can use to build simple circuits and inventive projects. The company was founded by MIT graduate Ayah Bdeir in 2011. She says, “littleBits is a mission-driven company, we want to empower people — artists, designers, kids — to use light, sounds, sensors, and motors in their creative process.”

In conjunction with Emmanuel Plat, Director of Merchandising for MoMA’s retail division, Bdeir invited designers from Labour, who have no background in engineering, to create the largest robotic sculptures they could using only littleBits for electronics, along with craft and design materials. Plat says that littleBits “stimulate our imagination and bring the creative potential of this product to life.” We got the play-by-play of the design and installation for this month’s Deconstruction.


The very first sketches of a shark sculpture for the MoMA store window display created several months ago.


Wyeth, of Labour, adjusts the bristol board shark skin to ensure it fits snugly over the acrylic skeleton.


Wyeth, of Labour, inspects the head of the shark before applying colored paper and other finishing details to it.


Although the shark’s movement is complex, the mechanism controlling it is fairly simple. The littleBits servo motor spins a gear attached to a thin steel wire. The wire is threaded through the acrylic skeleton and pulls it back and forth creating the oscillating movement of the shark.


The skin of the shark is segmented, allowing it to move smoothly, as well as giving the outside viewer a quick glimpse of the inner mechanisms every time the shark turns.


Although the shark is only powered by a single littleBits servo motor, a second one is placed on top of the gear mechanism to limit the degree of movement of the shark. Because of the limited space in the MoMA Design Store window, it was important to fine tune the movement of the shark so it was expressive, yet contained.


Every sculpture in the display has a 4-inch character to accompany it. The tiny characters, made from laser cut medium-density fiberboard, provide a reference for the scale of the sculptures as well as a story. This little character will be riding on top of the shark.


The concept of the shark has remained the same since the beginning but it took months of complex engineering to fine tune his movement and create a beautiful folded skin that resembled the initial inspired drawings.


All the shark skin pieces have been hand assembled and attached one by one to the skeleton. Each piece must fit snuggly enough to remain in place, but be loose enough to flow with the movement of the shark.


The shark sculpture has one of the most basic circuits of all the sculptures; however, it required the most engineering in order to create the proper gears and skeleton that would allow one littleBits servo motor to generate and control the movement of an entire sculpture.


The 4-inch character is placed on top of the shark where it will be holding a fishing line that dangles in front of the constantly swimming shark. The character not only provides a story, but also a perspective as to how such tiny Bits are controlling a large scale sculpture.


The giant backdrops for the store windows were printed on fabric and stretched over the back walls. The bright block colors were given an added layer of depth with gradient patterns such as this.


Chris, an assistant at Labour, carefully attaches vinyl lettering to the front of the display stands.


Wyeth makes the final adjustments to the MoMA Design Store window in SoHo. Both the Midtown and SoHo stores contain larger than life Bits, and a display of the current littleBits library of Bits, but each one has two unique sculptures as the central feature of the display.

The littleBits shark on display in the SoHo windows.


The finished windows at the MoMA Design Store in SoHo at night.

Watch a video to learn more about the Shark design and see it in action:

Marni Elyse Katz is a Contributing Editor at Design Milk. She lives in Boston where she contributes regularly to local publications and writes her own interior design blog, StyleCarrot.