; ; 11 May 2017


by Sophie Châtellier and Janice Li

Poster designed by Juliana Futter

For this month’s theme, we have chosen to speak about nature — partly because it is May and supposed to be springtime (although the temperatures have stubbornly indicated the contrary), and partly because as design historians, we find that many of our subjects are connected to ‘nature’ in some way.

‘Nature’, according to the Oxford Dictionary is ‘the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.’ The latin origin of the word, natura, is linked to the verb nasci, to be born. Nature, as something that is born and reborn is an element of continuous renewal, of change and growth.

For design historians, nature is often seen as a component of objects, buildings or other human made structures. The use of raw materials from both plants and animals attempts to emulate ‘natural’ experiences and practices of making. ‘Natural’ activities have been seen as a wish to return to a ‘simpler’ world, a response to anxieties from the environmental and political complexities surrounding us. Today. the word comes to be associated increasingly in the context of ecological, ‘green’ trends, which in direct contrast to our technological and industrial worlds.

The words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ now seem to indicate everything and nothing at the same time.

But to define natural as excluding humanity seems anthropocentric.

To define ‘nature’, should we really limit our understanding of ‘nature’ to non-human, or be inclusive to define ‘nature’ as the essence of things? By definition, nature is also the basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something’. [1] As such, it is an underlying system which encompasses our understanding of beings and things.

Root Bridges of Meghalaya, http://biodesignchallenge.org/themes/architecture/

In Meghalaya, northeast India, stands a suspension bridge formed by aerial roots of living banyan fig trees, naturally self-renewing and self-strengthening. [2] A perfect design by nature, and would easily be considered as ‘natural’.

Susy Morris http://biodesignchallenge.org/themes/food/

On the other hand, Perfect Day has designed a system that produces cheese with the same milk proteins found in common cow cheese, without the input from a physical cow. Instead, milk protein genetic sequences are synthesised and inserted into yeast to be optimised and produced.  [3] Is this designed food product ‘natural’, as opposed to a naturally forming bridge?

If we use design to alter nature, is it still ‘natural’? If humans, too are considered as part of nature, is redesigning the human body, i.e. through surgery, ‘natural’?

Design interacts with nature in various ways and can be looked at through different lenses linguistically. ‘Design by nature’ could refer to existing designed systems and patterns in nature; ‘design from nature’ would refer to approaches like biomimicry; then, ‘design with nature’ could point to processes that utilise nature/natural matters. While biomimicry celebrates design of materials, structures, and systems that emulate and are modelled on existing natural patterns and strategies, biodesign, as advocated by William Myers in his book published with the MoMA, is ‘Nature + Science + Creativity’, referring to the incorporation of living organisms as essential components in design. [4] Although clearly drawn from nature, in the experimental and production process of biodesign, naturally living matter might be denatured biologically, for example, through the process of DNA engineering. May we still refer such design as ‘natural’?

Oxford Dictionary

Organisms as buildings. http://biodesignchallenge.org/themes/architecture/

Real Vegan Cheese. https://realvegancheese.org/

Biomimicry Institute, https://biomimicry.org/what-is-biomimicry.

William Myers, Biodesign: Nature + Science + Creativity (New York: Thames & Hudson)



Related Articles