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When Design Meets Nature:
A Chair Grown Like a Bone

Elodie Mallet

 

You might have already seen the Bone Chair while having a walk in the V&A. Looking at it, you might also have wondered, ‘why such a shape?!’ At least I did, and after having passed by this chair many times, I began to associate it with a chair made by Charles and Ray Eames more than fifty years ago. So, how exactly do the two relate? This is what  I would like to explore in this article dealing with the relationship between design and nature, and design and biology.

Scale Model of the Bone Chair by Joris Laarman, still from the video ‘Dutch Profiles: Joris Laarman,’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EO1lPlGLKoE

Scale Model of the Bone Chair by Joris Laarman. Still from the video ‘Dutch Profiles: Joris Laarman,’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EO1lPlGLKoE

Full Scale Model of Chaise Longue by Charles and Ray Eames, Museum Number: SC106.1973, Image © MoMA, New York

Full Scale Model of Chaise Longue by Charles and Ray Eames, Museum Number SC106.1973. Image © MoMA, New York

If taking inspiration from nature to design objects has always existed, most of the time this inspiration was of a purely ‘formal’ or visual nature; this type of design is usually referred to as biomorphic design. In the second half of the twentieth century however, the relationship between design and nature changed significantly. The purely formal relationship became rather more conceptual with the development of organic design in the 1950s. Designers began to emulate nature in order to produce objects and erect constructions that would be in harmony with their natural surroundings. What matters when doing organic design is not just to copy natural shapes, but also to understand that nature is in constant flux. By having curves, and rounded edges, the objects are supposed to follow the flow of nature and help users experience their environment. La Chaise, made by the Eameses in 1948, offers a good illustration of this new trend in design.

Let’s go back to the main object of this article: the Bone Chair. This chair is part of a range of furniture made by the Dutch designer Joris Laarman in 2006. The aesthetics of those objects are of a biomorphic type; indeed the very pronounced curves of the objects not only mirror the Art Nouveau design trends of the nineteenth century but also the more recent trend of organic design. The designer himself made it clear that both of these trends played an important role in the design of his objects. Though there is indeed a strong visual correspondence, one should not believe that the inspiration for the Bone Chair and the other objects from this same collection was simply visual. The Bone Furniture is also a perfect example of biomimicry.

‘What is biomimicry?’ you might wonder… Simply put, one could say that it is a design that “uses analogies to biological systems to develop solutions for engineering problems.”[1] In the case of the Bone Chair, the designer used the knowledge of biologists to build a chair that follows the same pattern to the growth of bones and trees. According to the designer, ‘trees have the ability to add material where strength […] is needed, and bones have the ability to take away material where it is not needed.’[2] With biomimicry, what matters for the designer is no longer to simply be able to emulate nature, but rather to understand the biological processes at play in order to utilize those concepts when designing objects – or to recreate them artificially.

It is important to mention here that when designers or engineers use biomimicry, it is in a way that is not often apparent to the user,[3] mostly because biomimicry is a process, a methodology, rather than something concrete. So, while biomorphic design is quite easy to brand and market thanks to its strong aesthetics, the real world of biomimicry is difficult to understand. The Bone Chair is a good case in point: if the shape does refer to nature, it is, without further more detailed and complex explanations, impossible for the audience to understand the complete process from which the shape actually results. One should not think that Laarman is the first designer to have used biological knowledge to produce an object. The first recorded use of such knowledge dates back to the 1960s; Laarman’s work, however, shows the democratisation and the desire of popularizing biomimicry.

As explained by Yoseph Bar-Cohen, thanks to the significant progress made in biology, it has become “significantly easier to mimic biological methods, processes and systems.”[4] Biology as it is known today (as the study of the living word) finds its roots in the nineteenth century, when for the first time it became a recognized professional field, halfway between medicine and natural history. Despite the many improvements made in the field of biology in general, the actual transfers of processes (from nature to artificial productions) only began in the nineteen fifties and -sixties, although such transfers actually remained trapped in the labs of specialists. It is unsurprising that it took a certain amount of time for biology and design/engineering to meet; not only do both disciplines not share the same vocabulary, but they also have different methodologies and different professional goals. As Elodie Ternaux explains in her book Industry of Nature, concepts such as biomimicry “inevitably [raise] questions on the precision of the scientific content when it is gathered and designed for a non-scientific audience. Where does one draw the line? When does it become too complex, when does it become too simple?”[5] 

For his Bone Chair, the designer worked closely with the the International Development Centre Adam Opel GmbH, whose members collaborated with biologists to understand and develop a software which was able to mimic the growth of bones. The main goal of such research was to build cars combining lighter structures with stronger resistance. Laarman, who might have a limited knowledge of the scientific/biological processes at play in the formation and development of ‘real’ bones, used this software to create his Bone Furniture. This example shows the extent to which the field of biology has now permeated the field of design.

The gap existing between biology and design actually started to become less important in the 1970s when biomimicry started to be associated with the green movement, and when ecologic design began to expand. Design For The Real World, written by Victor Papanek in 1984, was the first book to establish clear links between the new environmental awareness and design. Simply put, Papanek’s main argument is that we should emulate nature to create more effective objects, but also – and most importantly – that such emulation should lead us to create in a more sustainable way. Nature is a frugal recycler, and the idea that designers should do the same has become a key point in biomimicry.

However, the ecologists’ new perspectives on biomimicry gave birth to a sort of romanticising of nature. A few scholars have argued against this sort of  idealisation. Steven Vogel is one of them; in his article ‘Nature’s Swell, But Is It Worth Copying?’ published in 2003, he argues that “nature neither holds nor should be expected to hold any natural superiority, and [that] it provides neither comfort nor example” for designers.[6] As argued by Michael Pawlyn, considering nature as a perfect example is problematic for at least one simple reason: nature does not only produce good things. In his book Biomimicry in Architecture, Michael Pawlyn posits that there is a misleading use of the word natural; which, in his opinion, too often implies “some kind of inherent virtue or rightness.”[7] Additionally, authors such as Robert Full, a scientist from UC Berkeley, claim that design should not rely on nature as a template for perfect innovations because “[e]volution isn’t a perfecting principle; it works on the principle of ‘just good enough.’”[8]

What is important to remember is that the perfect vision most of us have of nature is culturally and politically constructed; it is the result of a certain kind of social discourse. In people’s minds, something natural is something unspoiled by man, it is something pure; however, as posited by Peter Coates, we probably don’t know what the ‘real’ natural world is, because “we have, in a sense, created nature.”[9] Without going this far, one can nonetheless wonder not only about how nature influences man, but also how man transforms nature. Laarman’s journey into the world of bones can be summed up as follows: firstly, he was influenced by the various qualities of bones; secondly, he turned to science to create artificial bones; thirdly, he made his chair. Would it be crazy to wonder whether such artificial bones could be used in a more ‘natural’ setting (i.e., in the field of medicine)?

If we push our reasoning even further, hundreds of years from now one can imagine that the use of these artificial bones may impact ‘real’ bones. The transformation of nature is not necessarily bad in itself; it however raises many ethical questions that cannot be tackled here. For now, it will suffice to underline how the case study of an object such as the Bone Chair can provide us with much food for thought – not only about design, but also about science, biology, nature, and man.

 


[1] Michael Helms, Swaroop Vattam and Ashok Goel, ‘Biologically inspired design: process and products’, Design Studies, vol.30, no.5, 2009, pp.606-622, p.606.

[2] http://www.jorislaarman.com/bone-furniture.html (accessed 02.01.14)

[3] Nina Louise Volstad and Capser Boks, ‘Biomimicry – a useful tool for the industrial designer?’, DS 50: Proceedings of NordDesign 2008 Conference, 21, (2008), pp.275-84, p.279.

[4]  Yoseph Bar-Cohen, Biomimetics: Biologically Inspired Technologies, (CRC Press, 2005), p. 36.  

[5] Elodie Ternaux, Jean-Pierre Ternaux and Michele Ternaux, Industry of Nature: an other approach to ecology, (Frame, 2012), p.10-1.

[6] Steven Vogel, ‘Nature’s Swell, But Is It Worth Copying?’, MRS (Materials Research Society) Bulletin, 28, 2003, p.407.

[7] Michael Pawlyn, Biomimicry in Architecture, (RIBA, 2011), p.2.

[8] Quoted in Nina Louise Volstad and Capser Boks, ‘Biomimicry – a useful tool for the industrial designer?’, DS 50: Proceedings of NordDesign 2008 Conference, 21, (2008), pp.275-84, p.279.

[9] Peter Coates, ‘Can Nature Improve Technology’, The Illusory Boundary, ed. by Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe (University of Virginia Press, 2010), pp. 43-65, p.48.

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com
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Elodie Mallet –

Elodie came into the field of history of design with a background in product design. She is particularly interested in constructing bridges between her new academic world and her practice. For her dissertation, she is looking at the practice of contemporary designers through a study of their prototypes.
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© Elodie Mallet, 2014. All Rights Reserved

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