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Not content to glean only inspiration from Mother Nature, creatives are literally going back to their roots, using nature and living organisms in their designs to make evolving works of art.

In the early 16th century, French artist Jean Perréal painted The Alchemist Talking with Nature, in which a man of science talks with a winged maiden sitting in what seems to be a throne fashioned from a living tree. This is believed to be the oldest record of man’s attempt to marry art with living nature. More than five centuries later artists, architects and designers continue to imbue inanimate objects with earthy resources.

For centuries, horticulturalists have trained living forms, from the trails of vine-like ivy that adorn cottages and stately homes alike, to arboreal masterworks akin to Perréal’s vision. Arbor Sculptor Richard Reames has been creating live artworks for more than 17 years. Inspired by the work of the early 20th century agriculturist Axel N. Erlandson, Reames grew his own living chair. Today, he not only creates chairs but tables, sculptural boats, and even verdant homes that spring from the ground.

Ecology and green living are a major impetus among designers, as Reames explains, “I think the reason that designers are working with living materials such as trees, and the reason it is spreading around the world today, is the upside of ecology and the thought that if we could replace some of the things that we have killed trees to do or make, what if we could replace that with live trees? If we could figure out the positive effects of carbon sequestering it would be immense for the planet.” From living walls that contribute to cleaner air within polluted cities, to plant-based air purification within the home to counteract the ever-increasing number of allergens we encounter through chemical cleaners and pesticides, many are exploring the possibilities of utilizing the oxygenating benefits of plants.

The kitchen has also become a key focus of the environmental shift, not just in terms of energy efficiency, but also culinary considerations. The traditional cook’s garden has moved into the kitchen courtesy of designers such as Antonio Citterio, creator of Arclinea’s 2008 Home Greenhouse system, and Ludavica + Roberto Palomba whose Green Living concept brought Elmar’s kitchen to life at last year’s Milan Furniture Fair. High-tech appliances nestled within a verdant wall of growing herbs is as aesthetic and inspiring as it gets, not to mention the ergonomic benefits of having fresh seasonings to hand for the picking. John Arndt’s Living Kitchen highlights the life cycle of food, nourished by the waste that they too will one day produce.

Beauty remains a primary stimulus behind these creative hybrids, not just the splendor of natural foliage, but also the wonder of evolution as living components grow and transform, thus vivifying the inanimate. In 2008, Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka, an exemplary advocate of this movement, created the Venus chair which is a form grown from natural crystals. While the primary stages of production are guided, once the initial structure is established the final form is left to nature as the crystals grow according to their own inclination. “I guided the first half of the production but the other half is left up to nature: the beauty born of coincidence, which a human cannot create with his own will,” explained Yoshioka at the 2008 presentation of 21_21 Design Sight’s exhibition “Second Nature”, which was also curated by the designer. He continues, “Today, a rapid development of technology, particularly the use of computer renderings, has ensured and made various things real. I want to believe, however, there is something in nature that defies all human imagination. I have wondered whether we can make a proposal through design, where we can once again think about the earth and feel the beauty and the power of nature. This natural crystal chair, which is formed using the laws of nature, pushes the boundaries of creativity. The work is like my message for the future.” Creativity with a conscience: is this the leitmotif of 21st century design?

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