If we are to believe half a century of daytime TV commercials, housekeeping is war — a perpetual battle against the sneaky soldiers of nature. For decades, we’ve armed ourselves with cleaning products to slay bacteria and scrape away fungus. As our household organisms move up the evolutionary ladder, acquiring wings and faces, we hire mercenaries to drive them out.
Two recent developments, however, suggest a detente between nature and domestic culture.
This month, Pantone, a company best known for its color-matching system, announced that the color of the year for 2013 is emerald green. Never before, in 14 years of these selections, has a true green been named, possibly because it is also the color of mold, lobster liver and Brussels sprouts.
Pantone was not put off. “No other color conveys regeneration more," the company’s news release noted.
It seems that as we become more environmentally considerate, we’re ready to ignore the ick factor and welcome green into our homes.
The idea that nature might be an honored houseguest and not just something that slithers in under the refrigerator is also behind “Bio Design: Nature, Science, Creativity," a book published last month by the Museum of Modern Art.
Written by William Myers, a New York-based writer and teacher, “Bio Design" focuses on the growing movement to integrate organic processes in the creation of buildings and household objects so that resources are conserved and waste is limited.
Some astonishing visual effects are produced as well. The book’s 73 projects, culled from laboratories and design studios around the world, show, for example, how living trees can be coaxed into becoming houses and bridges; how lamps can be powered by firefly luminescence; how human DNA can change the color of petunias; and how concrete can heal itself when damaged, like skin.
Myers, a New York-based writer, said his interest in the redemptive power of small, creepy things started years ago when he began making his own bread and beer, and developed a familiarity with yeast.
We have been conditioned to fear micro-organisms, he said, “but in fact they can be useful and have been for millenniums, if you think about baking and brewing."
Designers habitually copy nature. The examples pile up faster than beetle species and include things like Antonio Gaudi’s soaring architecture, William Morris’ floral wallpaper and George Nakashima’s rough wood tables.
But bio design is not about merely taking cues from organic structures and operations. It is about harnessing the machinery of the natural world to perform as nature does: storing and converting energy, producing oxygen, neutralizing poisons and disposing wastes in life-sustaining ways.
Consider Bacterioptica, a chandelier designed by Petia Morozov, of Montclair, N.J., with petri dishes loaded with bacterial cultures nesting in a tangle of fiber optics. The pattern and color of the blooming bacteria changes the quality of the light.
Or Moss Table, a collaboration between the scientists Carlos Peralta and Alex Driver of Britain and Paolo Bombelli of Italy, which exploits the small electrical current produced when certain bacteria consume organic compounds released by moss during photosynthesis. Using carbon fiber to absorb the charge, the scientists produced enough electricity with their table to power an attached lamp.
Then there is Growth Pattern, a series of ornamental tiles designed by the Seattle-based artist Allison Kudla, which spontaneously change their pattern because they are made of cut tobacco leaves laid out in a grid of square petri dishes. Steeped in a solution that behaves like a hormone, the cut leaves put out new growth.
Still, bio designers must grapple with the Frankenstein factor: a concern that their experiments will unleash some unmanageable new horror.
Mitchell Joachim, who co-founded the architecture and design studio Terreform One in Brooklyn in 2006, and runs a bio lab within its precincts, says he is paid regular visits by representatives from Homeland Security and the FBI.
“They just come by to see what a healthy, working community-based lab looks like, as opposed to a terrorist cell," Joachim said.