There's nothing new in saying that there are no better examples of design than a fern, a jellyfish or, to use an example treasured by modernist architects and designers, an egg. Economy and sensibility characterise nature's way of designing, and this rigorous tactic is translated into examples of disparate elegance. Nature demonstrates that beauty comes from the structure and inner purpose, and it has captivated and inspired architects, engineers, craftsmen and designers since the beginning of their existence. The study and application of the norms and forms of nature has been bundled under the label of "organic design", a broad term that embraces such diverse examples as Art Nouveau, some examples of robotics, the architectural manifestation of the ideal domestic lifestyle after World War II, and biomimetic objects produced according to sustainability principles.
Nature provided an antidote to historicism and an opportunity for formal abstraction in the late 19th century; a model for integrated "organic" living in the period after World War II; and a paradigm of optimal use of materials in more recent times. On my own turf, at the Museum of Modern Art, some particularly interesting interpretations applied by curators include those formulated by Eliot Noyes, who in 1941 saw organic design as a beneficial and profound integration of the machine within human life—organic as harmonious, balanced and efficient. Significant contributions also came from Serge Chermayeff and René d'Harnoncourt, who in 1944 wrote: "Since it is the aim of organic design [seen as organic integration of function, technology and form] to provide people with better tools for living, its application presupposes an attitude of responsibility towards society sustained by a professional code of ethics comparable to those of science and medicine."
This latter interpretation could today be a sound way to describe our ambitions towards sustainability. Indeed, contemporary organic design encompasses not only the enthusiastic exploration of forms and structures—facilitated by the use of computers and the integration of tasks enabled by wireless technology—but also the interpretation of nature's economical frameworks in the attempt to learn not only how to build better, but also how to counter the depletion of natural resources worldwide. As always, even today nature provides a repertoire of optimal responses to functional needs, as well as to symbolic ones. Yet, several characteristics make contemporary organic design radically different from its past expressions. Among them is the computer, which has allowed a closer simulation of complexity, as well as the urgent realisation of the need to manage nature's resources more thoughtfully and economically.
The sense of responsibility that is felt—or at least worn as a badge—by contemporary thinkers and doers is simplified via, for example, the pervasive use of the term DNA and the suffix –scape to describe any kind of organically integrated context (i.e. "homescape"), and of biologically inspired attributes such as "cellular" to describe the skeleton of such entities as theorganisation of new religious sects, lighting systems and buildings. A number of architects today are working towards creating wet, dynamic buildings that adapt to changing environmental conditions and levels of occupancy, almost as if they were living organisms. These designers have established a strong connection with programming and coding, while relying on modelling and 3D printing to give physical shape to their constructs.
New York-based architects Ben Aranda and Chris Lasch published an influential book in 2006 titled Tooling, which is organised around seven algorithmic techniques: spiralling, packing, weaving, blending, cracking, flocking and tiling. They explain: "While each of these algorithms can be used to describe and simulate certain natural phenomena in the world—such as the way a spiralling rule can simulate a hurricane—this book is invested in turning these rules into logics for construction." Aranda and Lasch go on to state that "all algorithmic techniques in Tooling are presented alongside 1) a recipe, 2) shapes made by that recipe, 3) a project that uses that recipe within an architectural context, and finally, 4) programmatic computer code".
The work of Neri Oxman and Alisa Andrasek proceeds in a similar direction. Both architects and educators, the former based at the MIT Media Lab, and the latter at London's Architectural Association (where Oxman graduated), they are engaged in building libraries of natural behaviours distilled into algorithms, for future use by architects, designers, engineers and other practitioners. On the website devoted to her Biothing research, Andrasek writes, "Not unlike a genetic engineer, the designer writes code sequences in the generation of immaterial forms of intelligence, which are then linked to specific constraints within different scales of social and material production." Occasionally, all of them, including Aranda and Lasch, test their digital morphogenetic code and materialise sculptural forms that are both demonstrative and marketable. Aranda and Lasch in particular have made several forays into the art market by adapting its algorithmic mantras to tables and benches, a route Oxman is also pursuing with her first chaise longue.
In the work of designers Joris Laarman and Simon Heijdens, code is combined seamlessly with the outcome as one more tool in the alchemy of the design process, which is certainly acknowledged and celebrated, but not considered to be the focus of the research. Although Laarman has added several new works to his portfolio, his 2006 Bone Chair still carries the strength of a manifesto. Produced using 3D optimisation software that mimics biological growth—developed by car company Opel—the chair is based on the generative process of bones. Consequently, areas that are not exposed to high stress develop less mass, while areas that bear more stress develop added mass for strength. Simon Heijdens's Lightweeds are "living digital organisms" that grow onto the walls and floors of an indoor space, restoring a natural cycle. With each luminous plant individually connected to a live sensor outdoors that measures variables such as rainfall and sunshine, the projected silhouettes grow, move and behave according to current meteorological conditions and the way the space is used. Together, all the parts create a continuously evolving wallpaper that changes throughout the day and the seasons.
From digital morphogenesis to dirty hands-on matter, crafts have regained their central role. Among the most lucid and expressive examples is Formafantasma's Botanica collection—introduced last April in Milan—for which Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, Italian designers based in The Netherlands, collaborated with Plart, a foundation dedicated to the research, restoration and conservation of works of art and design produced in plastic. The outcome of the study on animal- and plant-based polymers, ranging from shellac to rosin, dammar and natural rubber, is a range of irresistibly beautiful vessels that both literally and symbolically represent the romantic ideal of organic.
Contemporary designers view nature not only as a repository of comfortably animal and human forms, but also as a collection of sensible and sustainable systems that provide answers to several fundamental questions concerning the production of human-made objects. Organic design mirrors not only the shapes, but also the structural solutions and efficient systems found in nature, to the point that we could argue that the self-driving cars tested by Google in October, 2010, and voice-recognition dictation software are part of the same holistic idea. While it is immediately recognisable in the curvilinear forms made possible by the use of the computer not only in the design but also in the manufacturing phase, in good examples such formal rotundity is matched by an equally rotund performance and lifecycle. Furthermore, biomimetic engineering provides technological advancements that can then be applied to design, for instance in the exceptional brilliance of new pigments in street signs and the vividness of some advanced computer screens.
The lore of 20th-century biomimicry is well established. Velcro—inspired by burs—always comes as the first example, followed by Lotusan (the self-cleaning wall paint inspired by lotus leaves) and perhaps the PAX Scientific Lily impeller (based on the Fibonacci series). But there is also the Stickybot developed at Stanford University (in order to study geckos' dry adhesion abilities), the Speedo Fastskin swim suit (inspired by sharkskin in order to reduce drag, and claimed to give its wearers' an unfair advantage in swimming contests), tents inspired by insects' cocoons, with more inspiration coming from coconuts (packaging), whales (windmill blades) and bees (honeycomb tires) among others. Albeit not often quoted in biomimicry bibles—perhaps because of its affiliation with an ideologically discordant multinational car company—is the 2008 GINA concept car, Chris Bangle's swan song as chief of design at BMW. GINA (Geometry and Functions In "N" Adaptions, although we wish we had never heard the source of the acronym) is a "wet" car, a vehicle in which the chassis is muscle and the shell is skin, supple and adaptable. As Dave Sanchez writes on his Biomimetic Design blog, "The model uses fabric as the skin that allows drivers to change the shape of the car at will, unlike rigid structures. Used to cover metal wires and carbon fibres, it can be moved to achieve different shapes using electro-hydraulic devices. The headlights are revealed when the fabric moves apart, and the engine is accessed when the bonnet seemingly splits to reveal its innards."
Less questionable a label than when it is applied to food, organic design is nonetheless also intertwined with ethics. Organic design's pragmatic, wholesome and humanistic stance can be found in the public pressure towards economy of thought and logical beauty that is applied to design and manufacturing processes worldwide. This holistic ideal forces industrial production to have empathy for the context and for typologies of objects, materials and functions. There is no compassion without curiosity, and this is perhaps the essence of contemporary organic design: reaching out, beyond the traditional limits of one's discipline, in order to learn how to contribute fully and naturally to the future of the world.
Critic and curator, MoMA