Interior Design

At home again, naturally

Designers are forging a new relationship with the natural world to weird and wonderful effect, says Helen Chislett.

November 08 2009
Helen Chislett

Sheep stomachs, dandelion seeds, lumps of solid granite and seaweed are not the usual ingredients of a designer’s palette, but there is something raw and elemental underfoot in the often rarefied worlds of furniture and lighting that heralds a new relationship with the natural and organic world. Just as the Slow Food movement was born out of a desire to reconnect with where food comes from and to kick back against homogenous ready-meals, so this trend towards “slow design” echoes a desire to ease the planet’s problems by forging a new relationship with nature.

“Designers are embracing both nature and science, and in doing so are creating beauty that exceeds our imagination,” says Kate Franklin, creative director of trend forecaster LSN Global. “In many ways they are finding a new aesthetic which pushes the boundaries of what we previously thought possible.”

The natural world has been a source of artistic inspiration for millennia, but young, international designers are seeking a new kind of interaction. Take the work of Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, graduates from Design Academy Eindhoven and founders of Dutch design atelier, Drift. At the 2007 Milan Furniture Fair they presented Fragile Future II, a wall installation comprised of circuit boards connected to LED lights, each one shrouded by dandelion seed heads. Pause to think about this. Each dandelion is tweezered apart, seed by seed, then reassembled by hand onto an LED bulb with glue – the process takes about half an hour. Fragile Future can involve up to 50 circuit boards – hundreds of dandelions – but you can also buy a single Dandelight for about €75. They have also launched a 3-D version of Fragile Future at Art Basel with Carpenters Workshop Gallery making it possible to create objects such as chandeliers (prices on request).

At this point you may be thinking, why? But Gordijn is clear about their reasons: “As a designer, it’s rare to find a beautiful shape that is not related to nature, and you can never reproduce good natural forms by using industrial processes. I actually find that a very comforting thought. When we first had the idea for the Dandelight, I was trying to find something that had the same beauty, softness and poetry of a dandelion, but I could not find anything. The only thing like a dandelion is a dandelion.”

Nauta says that they regard themselves as serious industrial designers, but they want their work to surprise: “People have lost their balance with nature. Romanticism was a reaction against industrialisation, and our work is a reaction against the communication age – everything digital, too fast, overloaded with images. We believe it is important to find a balance in this mass-consumption world. Fragile Future is about showing what else is possible.”

The German designer Julia Lohmann, who has been based in London for several years, has a desire to remind people of our intimate connections with the plant and animal kingdoms. “There is a paradox at work. On the one hand we are distancing ourselves from nature as far as humanly possible, creating our own artificial world, but the more we do that, the more we long to be a part of nature and bring it back into our lives,” she says. “It is ironic to me that when we speak of animals we talk so much of the importance of natural habitats and yet we have removed ourselves very much from our own ones – and over time that breeds unhappiness within us.”

In her sketchbook, Lohmann makes two lists: one itemises the animals we kill and the materials commonly made from them, the other is of objects made from those materials. She then looks for ways to bridge the gap between the animal and the object, such as lights made from sheep stomachs (from £300) and benches made from entire cow hides that replicate the shape of a cow (price on request).

“My sheep stomach lights and cow benches have two functions. One is to use in the conventional manner, but the other is to make you think, to look at your own leather sofa or shoes with fresh eyes. You don’t have to buy one for it to fulfil that function – if it is written about and thought about, it already works,” says Lohmann.

Now she is turning her eye to the potential of seaweed, fascinated by its strength, beauty and translucency: “We’re running out of so many resources but kelp is not fully used as a material – it could replace plastics or wood veneers.” She has produced wonderful kelp lights (price on request), and is studying different samples of species to find new ways of adapting it. To this end, she has been awarded a research fellowship by the Stanley Picker Gallery at Kingston University. In collaboration with a marine biologist, Lohmann has also seeded a collection of objects with micro-organisms, creating a coral-like pattern on designed objects inspired by marine pollution.

The work of Chilean designer Sebastian Errazuriz also demands us to pause and reconsider familiar objects. His Tree Table (price on request), for example, uses a Crespon tree as the base. It makes a raw and powerful statement against the crisp stainless-steel legs and glass top. Cristina Grajales, the gallerist who represents him, says that for Errazuriz such materials offer a different blank canvas. “Sebastian is fascinated with the dichotomy of life and death. He urges people to be aware of every moment, and truly stop and contemplate the object,” she says.

British designer Max Lamb, who along with Lohmann and two others was a Designer of the Future at last year’s Design Miami, is also passionate about reconnecting with raw materials. In 2007, he took part in a show of former RCA graduates called Gradual, curated by Martino Gamper, for which he chiselled a boulder of granite from the clay mines of his native St Austell, Cornwall, into a chair of solid rock. “People are very familiar with stone floors, bathrooms and kitchen-worktop surfaces, but by then it is so processed, shiny and flat that you can’t see much of its original form. My motivation was to use stone in as raw a state as possible and remind people about where it actually comes from, like the rocks you see on hillsides, in fields or on river beds.”

Since then, he has produced about 15 such pieces (from $10,000). They are time-consuming to make and Lamb works with selected quarries, from Ladycross in Northumberland and La Cerne in Switzerland to a Delaware County bluestone for a solo show at Johnson Trading Gallery in New York last autumn (at that show, work was priced at between $10,000 and $40,000). He is involved at every stage, from choosing the rock and directing how it should be cut to the grinding, polishing and finishing that he does by hand himself. “It is very labour intensive. This is a material that is very resistant to changing the shape it has had for millions of years.” And yet like Lohmann, Gordijn and Nauta, he sees himself as an industrial designer first and foremost, with collaborations under way between the Austrian glass company J&L Lobmeyr and the Tokyo furniture company E&Y. “I know how to work with industrial processes and make things by hand. At the moment I’m interested in exploring both.”

Brothers Humberto and Fernando Campana, named Designers of the Year 2008 at Design Miami, have long used natural materials from their native Brazil, such as the apui plant and indigenous amethyst crystals, integrated into their thought-provoking but often playful furniture. At Milan this year, they launched the Cobogó Table, produced by Plusdesign (about €21,850) with a terracotta clay top. To them, nature is an essential building block of design, as Fernando explains: “It is about nature but, in fact, nature is also about the humanisation of a product – a way of expressing how people relate to one another. When we were designing 20 years ago we used such materials not to be ‘eco correct’, but simply out of economic necessity. Now we consciously choose materials such as the apui that can be reused.” Much of their work echoes the Brazilian talent for improvisation and the need to capture people’s imaginations if the environmental message is ever to hit home. As Humberto says: “Design is like a movie that searches for a happy ending.”

Certainly, it seems that design’s renewed passion for organic and natural materials is linked not just to aesthetics, but to the knowledge that preserving the planet should be top of everyone’s agenda. Nadja Swarovski, vice-president of international communications at Swarovski, who has been pivotal in forging successful col­laborations between the company and leading designers, recognises the design elite are not just concerned about highlighting problems, but about solving them too. “There is a definite shift in aesthetics right now, a down-to-earth mood, with designers excited by materials such as stone and wood again,” she says. “The planet is in danger and this translation of the natural world into design is very much part of that Zeitgeist. This new love affair with the organic is all part of a new appreciation of what we have and what we must do to save it.”