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Hong Kong interior design

Eco-design the top homewares trend at leading European trade fair

French homewares showcase Maison & Objet Paris had special focus on designs drawn from nature and natural processes - a way to anchor people in a world where boundaries between life and virtual reality are growing blurred

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2016, 9:00am

Among the nearly 3,000 exhibitors at this year’s Maison & Objet Paris, which ended late last month, there were plenty of things you would expect: elegant lamps, high-priced sofas and no shortage of furniture pieces inspired by Scandinavian modern design.

In one corner of the sprawling design fair, though, there was a surprise: a cafe where fair-goers sipped liquorice bark tea while sitting on the rough surface of a tree trunk, the sounds of the forest floating through the air. Nearby, an exhibition showcased furniture, ceramics and other works that took inspiration not just from nature but from the idea of being untamed, or as the French put it, having l’esprit sauvage: a wild spirit.

“People want textures, sensations, sounds and tastes that are untouched – that are connected to the soul of nature,” says François Bernard, founder of Agence Croisements, a trend-watching firm that has worked with Maison & Objet since its launch 20 years ago. “Not nature that has been conquered by humankind, the nature that is biotechnological and mechanised. This is a new religion of nature.”

It’s a trend with roots in the growing predominance of smartphones and web-based technologies, says Lisa White, creative director of London-based trend-watching firm WGSN, not to mention the growing alarm over climate change and environmental destruction.

“New technology keeps us from feeling human and feeling natural,” says White. “We need to feel grounded.” Design that draws from nature and especially natural processes – White calls it “feral technology” – helps people feel anchored in a world where the distinction between virtual reality and real life is being quickly erased, and where social and environmental upheavals have created a sense of instability.

Japanese lifestyle brand Muji recently unveiled a trio of prefab, minimalist cabins designed by Naoto Fukasawa, Konstantin Grcic and Jasper Morrison, which Bernard says is part of a back-to-nature movement that evokes Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden – which was published in 1854, in the midst of an Industrial Revolution that was as disruptive as today’s digital revolution. He says the phenomenon is big enough that Maison & Objet devoted its entire trend section to it this year, compared to the two or three trends it would normally tackle.

“I’m not looking to see what the trend will be in six months,” he says. “Our work is to see what will eventually transform design,” he says.

Though design has always drawn from nature, this recent foray into wildness goes well beyond the usual sources of inspiration. Bernard says it evokes a “fantastical nature”, a nature that is untamed and unpredictable. It’s not just a chair made from sustainably farmed wood; in other words – it’s a chair that aims to capture the essence of organic growth.

Bernard highlighted a number of examples in the Wild Inspirations exhibition he curated at Maison & Objet. In Russia, Anastasiya Koshcheeva uses traditional Siberian techniques to treat birch bark, transforming it into chairs, lamps and other household objects. Tuesa, a series of food containers Koshcheeva released last year, takes advantage of birch bark’s essential oil and natural antiseptic properties to keep food fresh. Designer Verter Turroni has created a black fibreglass bench modelled on a fallen tree, creating the effect of a piece of charcoal – an aesthetic that also inspired a charcoal-like wool and silk rug by Helmut Lang.

Other examples on display included a rough-hewn birch armoire by Dutch designer Werner Neumann and home fragrances by American brand Juniper Ridge that are made from wild plants on the site where they are foraged. Ceramics featured prominently in the exhibition, including 3D print-woven clay pots by Olivier van den Heuvel, and rough, angular works by Texas-based Jonathan Cross, which Bernard said were part of a larger revival of interest in Brutalism, the postwar architectural movement fascinated by the material quality of raw concrete. Bernard also pointed to cocoon-like soil burial pods designed by Italy’s Capsula Mundi, which are embedded with seeds that eventually grow into trees – a natural monument that replaces the headstone.

All of this relies on accommodating a certain amount of unpredictability in design – the very opposite of an industrial process. “There’s an element of chance, of serendipity, that is interesting,” says Bernard. “The designer creates a rubric for creation that is then completed by nature. It’s not machine, it’s not man – it’s something unique.”

The designer creates a rubric for creation that is then completed by nature. It’s not machine, it’s not man – it’s something unique
François Bernard, trendwatcher

In a way, things have come full circle. Bernard recalls how, when he was young, he and his friends loved Ikea furniture because it was a rebuke to the heavy wood heirlooms that most people had in their homes at the time. “Ikea was once radical in France,” he says. “Now people want to be distinct.”

Of course, unlike Ikea furniture, unique objects can’t be mass-produced – and they come with a hefty price tag. That’s something that led Canadian journalist Claude Paquin, who moderated a panel discussion at Maison & Objet, to ask a provocative question: “Is eco-design even compatible with consumer society?”

“We don’t need any more products in the world – we have enough,” said one of the panellists, Dutch designer Romy Boesveldt, who makes toys with recycled materials. “On the other hand, we want to create. We can’t not create.”

Another Dutch designer on the panel, Michiel van Mierlo, said this dilemma requires a “shift in thinking”. Products should be able to justify their existence before entering the market. At Maison & Objet, van Mierlo’s studio It’s About RoMi introduced the Kilimanjaro lamp, which has a bamboo base and a biodegradable eco-linen lampshade. A portion of every lamp’s profits is donated to the WakaWaka Foundation, a Dutch NGO that donates solar-powered lamps and chargers to people without access to electricity.

“Eco-conception should be the foundation of all creative work,” says Bernard, sitting in the Wild cafe as the sound of a wolf howls in the background. “If it’s not that, then it’s nothing. It will be the end of us.”