This Man-Made Coral Reef May Be the Most Incredible Thing You See Today

Crafting the coral reef.

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Coral reefs are trippy. If you've ever been snorkeling or scuba diving, then you know that they're teeming with the oddest-shaped plants and creatures, moving in the most bizarre ways. The colors are rich and electric, paired in all sorts of otherworldly combinations and patterns.

A jellyfish we'd be excited to see in the water. Bin-liner plastic-bag jellyfish by Margaret Wertheim, director of the Institute For Figuring. Photo courtesy of the Institute For Figuring
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They're exquisite, dreamy scenes, which is why depicting them in crocheted sparkly yarn, beads, and even a little shiny garbage feels so right. The "Crochet Coral Reef" is an ongoing, semi-open-source project of the Institute for Figuring, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to building awareness of math and science through community-based projects (usually involving art or play—e.g., crocheting circles). The Reef, which was started in 2005, has been exhibited in various forms around the world and is now at New York's Museum of Art and Design.

Who knew math could be this pretty? This hyperbolic crochet model looks like a flamenco dress hem or a friendly sea creature.

The project has always sought to bring attention to the devastation of the world's real-life reefs, and this latest iteration, Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas, is even more focused on the state of the underwater world. The exhibition includes a "Bleached Reef," a "Toxic Reef," and "The Midden"—an installation that includes years' worth of the artists' plastic garbage in a sad homage to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (an actual, nearly two-million-square-mile vortex of garbage in the Pacific Ocean).

Coral reefs are colorful places.

But the oceans are also filled with strange and beautiful scenes, and the "Coral Forest" and "Pod Worlds" sections of this show were filled with the stunning crocheted and knitted sea life that the project is known for. There are fingerling corals and bubble corals in pastel yarns, a purple octopus with hyperbolic tentacles, and cobalt-blue knitted sea cucumbers with olive green hairy tops. Jellyfish are made of garbage bags and fishing line, byzantine corals are covered in glittering beads, and squiggly green kelp are woven from old carpets—all in organic arrangements that really do look like underwater seascapes, but softer.

In the '90s, another mathematician, who had made crafts since she was a girl, figured out that she could create a hyperbolic shape by adding an extra stitch to each row of crocheting. The resulting form looked frilly, like a ruffle, or kale, or sea slugs. It was a breakthrough for mathematics, and it laid the groundwork for the "Crochet Coral Reef." Soon, crocheters from around the world began gathering to make sea anemones and spiral tubeworms, exploring the beauty of the underwater world, traditional women's craft, and the hyperbolic space that we all call home.


Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas is on view at the Museum of Art and Design until January 22, 2017. For more information on the exhibition, or to buy the Crochet Coral Reef book, see And for more on the Institute of Figuring, visit

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