The Future of Materiality PART III: Alter Nature

Natural resin growth on a cypress tree, Southern California

The third and final theme in our investigation about the Future of Materiality; ALTER NATURE is found at the intersection of design, biology and technology.  This theme is lead by a scientific approach to the creation of materials where engineering and different technologies play a fundamental role in transforming or in bettering nature.  Some of the existing proposals are created by synthetic biology, bioengineering, and biotechnology.

Due to the intense and devastating impact that human beings have caused on nature, the traditional definition of nature is changing and demanding a rethink of environmentalism. Weather by applying engineering principles to the complexity of living systems as a new design tool or by growing new materials in a lab, we are starting to see technology and nature merging together to create the “Next Nature” or “Alter Nature”.
When we look at the Future of Materiality through the “Alter Nature” lens, we see nature being reborn and reinvented by us. We see the process of mater generation inspired, guided and driven by a natural ecosystem, altered to meet our needs and desires.


The culture of biology is rapidly changing and the field of synthetic biology has the potential to generate a new industrial revolution.  It is perhaps the defining technology for the 21st century. If 20th-century biology was about taking living things apart to find out how they work; the current era will be defined by putting them back together, although not necessarily by following the traditional evolution guidelines.  Without an informed society however, fear of this unparalleled and sometimes troubling use and application of technology may obstruct its future.

First completely synthetic life form “Synthia” is created

Synthetic Biology & Engineered Nature
Synthetic Biology is a new approach to engineering biology. Current advances in synthetic biology and genetic engineering have resulted in, among other things, computer-made matter, synthetic life forms, and new species. In a project called Synthetic Aesthetics, run by Stanford University the University of Edinburgh, synthetic biologists, designers, artists and social scientists are coming together to explore collaborations between synthetic biology, art and design. Some explorations include training bacteria to grow consumer goods.

In the article “Shades of Mutation”, Viewpoint Magazine # 29 presents how through the application of engineering principles to the complexity of living systems, scientists and engineers are making biology a new material for design. By combining cutting-edge scientific research and artistic vision, laboratories such as the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge University in the UK are “harnessing biological processes and tools to engineer plant form, leading to a new world of rich color and texture at once natural and hyper-natural.”

For the same magazine issue, FranklinTill explored this concept of Engineered Nature aiming to imagine a future landscape of morphogenesis, transgenic plants, and botanical mutations.

In the exhibition “The un-natural animal” Tuur Van Balen uses design to explore the wider implications of emerging technologies and our complex relationship with nature.  Through objects and interventions, he engages a wider audience in critical reflections on the possible roles of new technologies in our everyday lives. Since 2008, he has been bringing design into the world of synthetic biology and vice versa. The artifacts he produces explore the juxtaposition of the natural with the artificial and act as a social commentary on the evolution of nature and technology.


Until recently our built environment had largely been static, but designers, engineers, biologist around the globe are beginning to take a hint from nature and teach our buildings and products how to grow, adapt, and heal themselves. When the principles of guided growth are applied to our products and environments the building process becomes itself a birth. As a result in many cases, what we used to refer to as static becomes alive and self-sufficient.
Scoliosis brace exemplifies the Guided Growth technique in which the brace or other instrumentation is used to guide spinal growth in a correct direction without surgical intervention
Scoliosis brace exemplifies the Guided Growth technique in which the brace or other instrumentation is used to guide spinal growth in a correct direction without surgical intervention

Self-assembling environments
Rachel Armstrong envisions Architecture that repairs itself.  To save sinking Venice she advices to outgrow architecture made of inactive materials and create architecture that grows itself.  She proposes a “not-quite-alive” material that does its own repairs and sequesters carbon. (Find Rachel Armstrong on here)

Working at MIT Mitchell Joachim, Javier Arbona and Lara Greden share similar outlook of natural manufacturing; their Fab Tree Hab supposes ecology as the main driver for dwelling development. It is a fully ecological home design, composed with 100% living nutrients, and grown from native trees.  A living structure is grafted into shape with prefabricated Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) reusable scaffolds; therefore, it can be fully integrated into a larger ecological community.

Self-assembling products
Using very old grafting techniques and a few basic tools, Richard Reames shapes living trees into furniture and sculpture. The technique of arborsculpture, which is explained as the art of shaping tree trunks, has been in existence for centuries but it seems to be gaining momentum today as we focus even more on resource and manufacturing efficiencies.

Japanese artist Tokujin Yoshioka does not sculpt his work, but grows it. His Venus chair was created by immersing a plastic mesh substrate into a tank filled with a chemical solution. Gradually crystals precipitated and started growing onto the substrate giving shape and structure to the chair. Yoshioka has experimented with various other crystalline structures ranging from Greek sculptures to entire rooms.

Intangible packaging
With modern technology it is not hard to imagine that genetic technology makes it possible to grow oranges with a hard plastic skin. In addition, oranges can be modified to produce enzymes, which degrade the flesh of the orange resulting in a self-generated juice. Debbie Mollenhagen in her project “How to grow an Orangina bottle” proposes to genetically manipulate plants using nanotechnology. Originally packaging was a vehicle for “branding”, but by developing plants that grow their own packaging.


As concerns for the long-term impact of raw resource extraction and material manufacturing processes on the environment continue to increase, designers are looking to science for other viable solutions. By using mechanisms that occur in nature, creative, scientists, and technologists are experimenting with growing materials from bacteria, protein, and even minerals.

Image of Susan Lee’s Bio Couture piece_4
Image of Susan Lee’s Bio Couture piece brought and presented by Chris Lefteri into our SEEDS event

Growing Bacteria
Suzanne Lee’s Bio Couture project explores the creation of threads as a bi-product. Lee, who is a senior research fellow at the School of Fashion & Textiles at Central Saint Martins in London, is experimenting in growing garments from the same microbes that ferment tea. It’s from this microbial concoction that fibers begin to “sprout and propagate, eventually resulting in thin, wet sheets of bacterial cellulose that can be molded to a dress form.  As the sheets dry out, overlapping edges felt together to become fused seams.  When all moisture has evaporated, the fibers develop a tight-knit, papyrus-like surface that can be bleached or stained with fruit and vegetable dyes such as turmeric, indigo, and beetroot”.

Also fascinated by using bacteria as a catalyst Jelte van Abbema in his project titled “The Symbiosis” experimented with printing paper by cultivating bacteria. Van Abbema brought an interesting and organic approach to visual art.  The project consisted of creating a simple typography that changed colour and form as the bacteria multiplied and then died.

Growing Biological Tissue
In the project Data Hungry Skin Amy Congdon, explores possible future developments in communication technology though a 2076 scenario where communication data become beneficial to human health.  In this scenario, human bodies become hybrids of engineered design and living mutating biology where, skin becomes an information-processing unit, which feeds the body’s need for feeling connected.

In another of her projects, “Biological Atelier” Amy Congdon, seeks to explore the re-appropriation of textile skills such as embroidery in a world where materials are not made but grown and new luxury materials are fashioned from cells not fabrics.

Growing Protein
Emily Crane of Kingston University was inspired to look for creative alternatives to the throwaway fast-fashion of today.  Concerned by the impact of fashion industry on the environment and limited resources she decided to look for alternatives in her kitchen.  Today Crane combines haute couture with haute cuisine with her edible clothing.  She is in a sense somewhat of a gastronomic tailor, who rather than using needles, thread or fabric, chose to create her couture creations out of gelatin, seaweed and food dyes.

Another innovation derived from what would be otherwise wasted product; Qmilk is a trademarked name for milk fiber, a silky textile derived from an odorless protein found in mammalian milk created by German designer Anke Domaske. Based on casein found in soured “secondary milk”, which is no longer suitable for human consumption and headed for disposal, Qmilk makes efficient use of water and requires no harmful chemicals, leaving behind zero waste. The primary material found in Domaske’s Mademoiselle Chi Chi apparel collection blends well with other fibers, thus exhibiting potential for applications in other textile based industries, such as home and medical.

Growing Minerals
Inspired by the Cave of Crystals, researchers at the Industrias Peñoles nano-chrystal architecture lab in Chihuahuan, Mexico are growing giant crystals. The Cave of Crystals isn’t man made; Industrias Peñoles miners discovered it a thousand feet (300 meters) below Naica Mountain in the Chihuahuan Desert.  The cave contains some of the largest natural crystals ever found. Researchers have been studying the structures to learn how they could grow to these large proportions and can we if we can replicate this process.


Another response to rethinking industrial manufacturing processes is to look to genetic science for inspiration in how various species produce matter, and how industrial processes could adapt it.
New “natural aesthetics” are being synthetically created in the lab by studying the way patterns occur in nature and then re-programming them to form matter in a “customized” way. This approach although it claims not to harm natural species, lays in the borderline of the “gen-ethically” modified, generating great debate.
Alter Nature trend time line featured by Trends Gallery
Alter Nature trend time line featured by Trends Gallery. As technology and nature merge together to create the “Alter Nature” we see designers, scientists and engineers working together to solve deep environmental problems by creating alternatives to optimize and maximize existing resources, reflecting a fundamental change in mindset

The Next Nature project focuses on re-defining Nature’s brand image through many provocative essays and remarkable graphics aiming to radically shift our notion of nature as static, balanced and harmonic; to a place where it merges and even trades places with technology. Some of its most provocative and suggestive concepts touch upon branding and customizing nature to utilizing its bioluminescent properties in urban interventions.

Branding Nature
A team at the University at Buffalo that developed the world’s first genetically modified butterfly has now adapted the work to create the fluorescent marking on the wings of the insect to demonstrate an innovative tool that will make it easier to find out what genes do, in this case those that play a role in making the patterns on wings, from stripes to eye spots.

For two years Next Nature Network worked on fabricating a story about a fictional company called Rayfish Footwear, described to explore customization from a very new perspective by offering customers the opportunity to generate their own pair of personalized sneakers made from genuine stingray leather. Although fictional the story from 2011 marked a milestone in which the possibility of a company successfully engineering their first fully bio-customized stingray was believed by the general public and widely publicized over the Internet.

Growing Micro Livestock
Italian architect Carlo Morsiani recently proposed adding bioluminescent members of Photobacterium to Amsterdam’s canals and waterways by utilizing bacteria light.  His proposal would transform the city’s canals from dark and dank to brilliant and blue. On a similar project line, Philips Bio- Light concept uses different biological technologies to create ambient light effects.  It explores the use of bioluminescent bacteria, which are fed with methane and composted material (drawn from the methane digester in the Microbial Home system). Alternatively the cellular light array can be filled with fluorescent proteins that emit different frequencies of light.


We feel at the same time excited and terrified with the infinite possibilities of bio-engineer and synthetic biology. The potential to better the world is enormous  – both scientifically and aesthetically. Perhaps some day we will fully understand how to program living organisms and then we will be empowered to program not just software but also materiality. It’s an exciting time for design, as new methodologies and processes are needed where boundaries between disciplines are dissolved and put to the test. In order for these ecologically based concepts to permeate our man-made world, designers need to engage in trans-disciplinary practices, becoming a blend between specialists and generalists.

The question remains, do we need biologists and ecologists with design training, or designers with biological training?

One thing is certain learning from natural systems could certainly provide the framework for a more resilient and abundant future, and we are excited for the opportunities lying ahead.

Magdalena PaluchAbout Magdalena Paluch
Magdalena is a Trends and Innovation Strategist at Toyota. She brings a strategic design perspective to industrial design, prioritizing a user-centric design approach, materials research, and industrial ecology. > More about Magdalena Paluch

Liliana BecerraAbout Liliana Becerra
Liliana Becerra is an independent design consultant, editor, curator, educator and entrepreneur, based in Los Angeles, California.
> More about Liliana Becerra

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