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I received an email from a Design student at Kingston University (London) writing a dissertation on "why people are drawn to design inspired by nature." Three questions were sent; I went overboard answering the first one, and basically wussed out on the second two. I'd be interested in your takes on this highly subjective stuff, and will be sure to let our dissertation author in on the discussion.
1. Why in your opinion are people so drawn to design inspired by nature?

2. What in your opinion is the finest example of design inspired by nature in the field of product and furniture design (my course)?

3. Do you think there are psychological benefits to design inspired by nature, and what do you think they are?

1. Why in your opinion are people so drawn to design inspired by nature? I don't think everyone is drawn to design inspired by nature. Some like Le Corbusier's buildings at their boxiest, and contemporary glass and aluminum offices and homes, and Danish Modern furniture, while others like nature-inspired design... simply because they do. There's no accounting for taste. I know that speaks to the shallowest part of peoples' immediate and visceral reactions to aesthetics, but I think that most of the time — especially in this day and age — that's all there is to it. It's certainly not true of everyone, but most people in these harried times never have any need or desire to consider why some fashion appeals to them while some other fashion doesn't. It is what it is, and there are ten thousand other urgent things to attend to. If pressed, they'll tend to latch onto any available notions that support their position without actually considering them. Look to politics as an independent example of that. Trying to detangle rationalizations from pure impulse is a tricky business. (But it would probably be a much better world if more people tried.) There was an international conference on the conservation of earthen architecture in Mali in February '08. In conjunction with the conference, the BBC hosted a call-in radio show about earthen buildings. People participated from cultures with traditions of earthen housing. Opinions were fiercely split — even among those in the same cultures and social strata — who felt that "mud huts" represented an embarrassing lack of wealth and sophistication, and those who considered them a proud and living heritage of beauty and functionality. Similarly, it was within my parent's lifetime in America that people routinely dispensed with handcrafted furniture in favor of sleek, new, chrome and plastic alternatives that represented prosperity and optimism with the memory of the Great Depression still smarting, as well as a triumph and transcendence over the capricious whims of nature. It wasn't really that long ago when the constituent natural materials making up the built environment were usually readily identifiable the world over — hand-worked wood, stone, mud, grasses, metals, almost invariably imperfectly rendered. Not wabi sabi, but partway toward it. People, especially ones that have clumped into city societies, are creatures of fashion — novelty is a driver. The industrial age ushered in an aesthetic that wasn't possible before, at least not widely. And then the High-Speed Injection-Molded Plastic Age really drove it home. Soon novelty becomes the norm as the poor emulate the wealthy. And then economics takes over as the primary driver. To some extent, we've come a circle: Natural materials that used to be considered cheap and inferior are now recognized by what seems to be a fast-growing number as expensive and high-quality. And certainly there have always been people inspired to action by nature — the Art Nouveau movement and Frank Lloyd Wright (ostensibly), to name a couple. But maybe I'm missing the question. In the case of biomimicry, nature-inspired design may not even be visually detectable.

2. What in your opinion is the finest example of design inspired by nature in the field of product and furniture design (my course)? Velcro.

3. Do you think there are psychological benefits to design inspired by nature, and what do you think they are? I do think there are psychological benefits to design inspired by nature, as suggested by biophilia research and many of the arguments presented by the natural building movement.

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1 I would agree with Damon and posted by ben graham on 10/25/2009 at 06:15 am

I would agree with Damon and others, including this fad idea, but perhaps its more of a phase shift where we have gotten so far from what we recognize as natural or "of the earth" (vs. some techno/abstract human idea) that we are swinging back. We see this in many elements of culture including politics and food and lifestyles. So why not building methods. In many ways its a reaction. Not everyone has the same reaction. Why back to natural? I think we always will occillate around natural forms because we have work in harmony with nature. We will come up with similar solutions based on nature's solutions and taking clues. When we don't, it lasts only so long before fading away and returning to forms more readily found in nature.

2 Rather than the term "Nature" posted by S. Petty on 10/25/2009 at 09:06 pm

Rather than the term "Nature" I would use "organic" in the art sense of "flowing form" as juxtaposed with rigid geometric forms. In balancing yin yang, a small amount of geometric form can outweigh large organic forms in claiming attention, and thus the proportion needs to refelct this for us to feel a balanced feng shui. We have become accustomed to being surrounded with 90 degree angles (count them on one room) which are jarriing to the eye. When we include softer rounded edges, our eyes (and spirits?), hungry for balance, can rest and feel nourished. The idea of a hand sculpted house rather than a cost effective mass produced structure appeals to the artisan in all of us, whether we would live in one or not.

3 I suppose people, being as th posted by Howard Switzer on 10/13/2009 at 02:26 pm

I suppose people, being as they are, might have various reasons including; it is a current fad, nature is threatened and thus of increasing value. Frank Lloyd Wright was mentioned but not that he inspired an organic architecture movement that continues today and likely embraces earthen architecture. I think there may be a deeper factor moving us in that direction based on our understanding of the universe and how everything works. Bauhaus design springs from a scientific materialist viewpoint and was about production and materials efficiency, which is why some might say it lacks soul. It comes from a view of the universe as machine. Today cutting edge science is moving us from the scientific materialist view to a holistic view of the universe as a living being, conscious, intelligent. This new paradigm will likely be expressed not only in design of material things but governance, economics, psychology, religion etc.

4 I would support the notion th posted by John Swearingen on 10/13/2009 at 11:49 am

I would support the notion that people are drawn to "design inspired by nature". We have to consider what "inspired by nature" means. The notion that chrome furniture is somehow "unnatural", common among us natural builder types, in my view is diminution of nature, which manifests in amazing splendor. Look for instance, at these unaltered photographs of water:

"Natural" design can take many different forms and be accomplished with a broad spectrum of materials and styles. Although "fashion" comes and goes, nature inspired designs have been with us for millennia, in all cultures. Natural design will always transcend the social implications of design, such as modernity, economics and class.

In the modern world people's experience is often dominated, and limited, by graphic, two-dimensional media. People in other societies experience the world quite differently, with a keen sense of space, strong principles of order and symmetry, an appreciation of imperfection and ambiguity, logarithmic progressions and fractal scaling, repetition, texture and imperfection.

When people sit and spend time with designs that express these qualities, they will gravitate to them. If they spend their time flipping through magazines, and have no time to sit and let inspiration come from nature, then they may choose flash over substance, at least for a little while. Good design will incorporate principles found in nature, and will stay around; flash is, well, a flash in the pan.

5 The answer to #2 is wool long posted by Michael on 10/14/2009 at 11:35 am

The answer to #2 is wool long underwear. I know it's a natural resource, but the design is inspired by nature. The necessities of life are food, water, shelter, cheese, and wool long underwear, right?

And for anybody interested in these topics that is not familiar with these websites, I highly recommend them:

And of course this article by Alex Wilson:

6 I think this to be so because posted by Damon on 10/14/2009 at 12:36 pm

I think this to be so because people supposedly have lived on Earth for 3 Million years, and most of that time was probably spent in temporary shelters such as caves, dugouts, homes which borrowed techniques from beavers, birds and dirt daubers, and so on. Look at a conventional house... doesn't it seem unnatural? It doesn't "fit" huh? What's easier, to make a shelter from sticks and stones and mud gathered locally (something you can do yourself) or buy chain saw, cut your trees, have them hauled to the mill, haul them back, then nail everything up with store bought nails, insulate with store bought fiberglass, and everything else in your home will be store bought too? It is no mystery why natives use native materials. But why we are drawn to it? Because we are familiar with it.

7 First of all, we should estab posted by Stronzo di Nord on 10/14/2009 at 07:18 am

First of all, we should establish the point that curves are not a short form for "Nature" , just as linear and geometric configurations are not necessarily (Wo)Man's signature on design.

As such, curvy-shapes (aka "gooey" architecture) does not automatically bestow a design with "Design inspired by Nature" status. Far too often, it's just lazy, muddled-headed workthat ignores basic good building practise.

And quite frankly, I think that Occidentals are just very confused when it comes to design.

They attempt to impose order on Nature by making their gardens neat,tidy, clustered monocultures whereas Nature is in reality, chaotic (or seemingly so to we simple humans) .

Then they try to take Man-made constructions "natural" by making them chaotic whereas the reality is that the act of human creation is by nature, a process of order and organisation.

I don't think that it is "design inspired by nature" to which people are drawn (whatever that may be since it can easily be argued that all design is inspired by Nature ie :There is nothing new under the sun.") but rather, they are drawn to designs in which a worthy investment of human effort is evident , whether it be in terms of intellectual rigour and or artistic craft.

Okay, so is that what you wanted me to say, Duck Foo'd , in an effort to stir up the BGL pot ?

8 Nature is chaotic? Funny, I posted by John Swearingen on 10/14/2009 at 07:34 am

Nature is chaotic? Funny, I hadn't noticed! Human creation is "a process or order and organization?" Ordered and organized like a machine, yes. Would you want your beloved building designed by an engineer? Oh...maybe you would!

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