October 1, 2009
A culling of 25 products that meet the challenges of today’s world
Product design has long been preoccupied with the natural world. In the late-19th century, mindful of the ravages of industrialization, William Morris, an adherent of the reformist Arts and Crafts movement, used plant dyes on materials such as wool, cotton, and silk to create textiles with lush plant and animal patterns. More than 50 years later, the master craftsman George Nakashima made furniture that celebrated nature’s imperfections. His wood-slab tabletops had unfinished edges, and he used butterfly joints to shore up organic splits in the lumber. Even Arne Jacobsen’s pioneering industrial forms, like the bent-plywood Ant chair, took their appealing shapes from the animal kingdom. Those themes are just as deeply entrenched in product design today. Natural materials are eternally popular, the environment still provides aesthetic inspiration, and the emerging field of biomimicry actually borrows from natural processes to produce good design. Now, however, there is a social imperative to be responsible about the objects we make and purchase, and not to overtax the planet that provides them or to exploit the people who make them. Whether they emulate nature, save energy, or help address social ills, the products that follow represent promising directions in design.