Since the 1980s Anish Kapoor, the Indian-born sculptor known for his mirrored “Cloud Gate” in Chicago and the helter-skelter Orbit tower in London’s Olympic Park, has been toying with our sense of perception. He makes what he calls “void objects”: giant black concaves and hollows, reflective wells on gallery floors, hunks of stone with deep, cave-like piercings that we feel we could fall into. Now, though, he may have found the perfect material to help him express his ideas. “You can fold this material”, he says, “you can put a pleat in it, but you can’t see it. As a visual phenomenon that’s just extraordinary.”
The material he’s describing is Vantablack – the blackest black ever created. It was developed by a company called Surrey NanoSystems (SNS), whose laboratory is housed in a single-storey, pre-fab block in a dreary business park near the port at Newhaven, on Britain’s south coast. Vantablack is made from carbon nanotubes (“Vanta” stands for “vertically aligned nanotube array”). Each tube is just a few nanometres thick and a few hundred nanometres tall – that is, just a few billionths of a metre. Visible light and other forms of radiation get trapped among the tubes, bouncing around between them until all but 0.035% is absorbed. It is so dark our eyes can’t see objects covered in it as three-dimensional. On a piece of crumpled aluminium foil it looks like a spot of infinity.
This quality led to a wave of excitement when the material was first developed. Carbon nanotubes have been heralded as an up-and-coming technology since the 1990s, especially in the microelectronics and aerospace industries. While Ben Jensen, the chief technology officer at SNS, had imagined only a limited aerospace application – Vantablack’s first commercial use was in the optical system of a satellite launched into space in December 2015 – the wider world has become entranced by the story of the blackest black. DC Comics mentioned it in a Batman strip. There’s a band called Vantablack Warship, and a clothing company has borrowed the name as well. They even had calls from someone insisting that it was a religious abomination.
As well as artists like Kapoor, it is now attracting the interest of designers, including some from the watch industry. Jensen is coy about who these suitors are, but he will say that they include “top Swiss firms whose watches start at £50,000 and go up to £1m.” The appeal is clear: watch faces coated with Vantablack offer scope for intriguing visual effects – gold-tipped hands hovering over a face as deep as the night sky – and the high-tech aesthetic of space travel. The designers at Ore, a fine-jewellery company, are also playing with the extraterrestrial theme by using Vantablack inserts in a range of rings studded with meteorites. Each ring is “twinned” with an individual star and glows when that star is at its zenith. Tess O’Leary, one of Ore’s founders, told me that, as well as enjoying the dissonance of the deep black against the metallic glimmer of the gold settings, they also like the symbolic contrast. The man-made material, created by a team of scientists, provides a playful counterpoint to the meteorites – “like anti-bling“.
But using Vantablack is challenging too. Crucially, it can’t be touched. It has to be sequestered behind an anti-glare pane, like the watch face or, in the case of the meteorite rings, a sapphire crystal. Pressure damages the microstructure of the carbon nanotubes, turning the tone from an extraordinary night-sky velvet to a dingy grey. The solution to this problem is S-Vis, a spray-paint version which SNS is launching this year. Like the original material, it has cavities in its microstructure that absorb light – a whopping 99.8%, making it the blackest paint in the world.
More importantly, S-Vis can be used over larger surfaces, opening up another design application: architecture. Foster + Partners have expressed interest, as has Asif Khan, a 36-year-old architect from London whose designs were shortlisted for the new Guggenheim museum in Helsinki. Among the properties that appeal to architects is the way Vantablack can absorb heat. Used properly, it could be harnessed to drive the movement of air in order to cool buildings down.
More exciting, though, are the paint’s visual properties. A lot of modern architecture, made of glass and steel, is designed to appear weightless and light-filled. This sounds desirable, on the face of it, but Khan thinks the nuance has been lost: that we have forgotten the value of darkness and, through overexposure, of light too. He hopes that architects could use these blacks to “create moments of complete contrast to our daily lives”, like punctuation marks. His ideas are expansive: chapels, cinemas, libraries, even entire buildings, which would add intense spots of depth and stillness in cities bristling with reflective, glass-skinned skyscrapers. He has, he admits, a little Vantablack sample that he keeps hidden in the office – “like Gollum with his ring” – that he takes out and stares at, thinking of its myriad possibilities.