The Rhode Island School of Design affords its students plenty of special privileges: a reputation so powerful you don’t even have to spell out its name, you just call it RIZ-dee; a presence at international design fairs; the chance to rub elbows with celebrity president John Maeda. And then, tucked into the belly of a building nowhere near as glamorous as the campus’s new library or art museum extension, there’s the Nature Lab, a 72-year-old research center where the budding designers can pick through more than 80,000 plant and animal specimens—everything from baby pigs floating in formaldehyde to medical X-rays donated by alumni.
Intended for the study of biomimicry as a design strategy, the Nature Lab seemed like a good place to send three New Yorkers for inspiration. At our invitation, interaction designer Philip Worthington and product designers Todd Bracher and Anna Rabinowicz spent a rainy day there in November rummaging for flora and fauna that would spark creative concepts. To avoid planetary overload, each designer picked a habitat—air for Worthington, sea for Rabinowicz, land for Bracher—and ran with it. As the following designs prove, they were clearly in their element.
Referring to biomimicry, Rabinowicz says, “It’s easy to be directly inspired by natural elements, but harder to design innovative objects that mimic their function.” At the Nature Lab, she was drawn to items with a branched or vertebrate structure: X-rayed fish skeletons, barnacle clusters, sea fan corals with tentacles resembling a vascular system. She discovered that the fans’ delicate mesh is used for “filter feeding”; the creatures sway with the current, catching essential nutrients. Her stainless-steel colander concept performs that same function and likewise uses a minimum amount of material. The mesh is designed for the maximum pass-through of water, while a few tentacle-like ridges give structure to the object. Rabinowicz also designed a pair of silicone swim fins whose flippers move like ocean life. The mesh provides enough resistance for the user to push through the water, though not as quickly as with solid fins: “These are designed for snorklers and other swimmers who are less concerned with speed and more concerned with slowly and thoughtfully viewing underwater habitats,” she says.
Anna Rabinowicz, a veteran of Design Continuum and IDEO, founded the design firm RabLabs in 2002. She’s created a host of products that juxtapose natural materials with high-tech manufacturing techniques, such as a series of plates made from natural agate slices.
Bracher’s habitat presented the widest possibility at the Nature Lab. A taxidermied bear and armadillo stand sentry at its door, several cages in back hold living specimens, and an entire annex called the “bone room” is stuffed with terrestrial skeletons. Surveying all of it, though, Bracher noticed a common denominator: “Nature is about getting from point a to point b in the most efficient way,” he says. “The growth of bones, antlers, or branches might look beautiful and complicated, but nothing about it is fashion or decoration.” He settled on trees as a metaphor for Dendron, a futuristic-looking LED lamp with a minimal, purpose-built support structure. His larger concept, he says, is to “bring the classic experience of sitting under a tree into the home,” but with a canopy of light rather than shade. Though his concept is for a lamp standing 10 feet tall—so the light descends from a tree-like altitude—he’s planning a table version for this year’s Milan Furniture Fair.
Todd Bracher traveled the world designing for clients as diverse as Zanotta and Urban Outfitters before returning to New York in 2007 to found his own studio. His furniture is often informed by the shapes, materials, and processes of the natural world.
Universal rules describe the flocking patterns of birds, fish, bacteria, and insects. These rules can be expressed simply—follow your neighbor, but never too closely—but they can also take the refined form of mathematical algorithms. At first, intrigued by the butterfly and dragonfly specimens he found in the Lab and wanting to create some kind of generative artwork based on them, Worthington followed the second route in developing a flight-simulating computer application that would continuously draw random, colorful flocking patterns. “But the resulting images were a little messy, so I decided to step back and try to just concentrate on the feeling of flight,” he says. He abandoned the algorithms and directed the software to simply fling bands of color around points of attraction and detraction, creating abstract, symmetrical, wing-like loops. As the program draws, “the changing thickness of the strokes, based on their speed, also evokes the movement of flight.”
British interaction designer Philip Worthington last worked with naturalistic themes for Ants, a digitally projected colony of insects that react to objects placed on a table. He moved to New York in 2006 to co-found Mogulus, an online tool for creating streaming web-based television shows.