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Milan Report: Break-Out Moment for Biomimicry?

At the furniture fair, the Bouroullec brothers ask nature for design ideas.

Two years ago the words “green” and “sustainable” were barely uttered at the Milan Furniture Fair, largely because the furniture makers based in Northern Italy have a big investment in their production facilities and are loathe to retrofit them to conform to green principles. Instead, there was much defensive talk about how European manufacturing is de facto green because of its efficiency.

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Vegetal Chair from Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec on Vimeo.

You can be sure green will get more prominent play at this year’s fair when it opens on April 22nd, but not always in a literal way. While flat packing and non-toxic finishes are the earnest preoccupations of American designers, Europeans are responding with a more conceptual expression of the natural world. The example most likely to get attention at this year’s fair is Vegetal, a plastic chair designed by the French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.

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Rather than design with carbon footprint in mind, the Bouroullec brothers have romanced the appearance of nature with a chair that takes its imagery from the plant world with vine-like structural tendrils fanning out across the seat and back. “The initial intuition was that of a chair which would sprout up like a plant,” they said.

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The Bouroullecs say Vegetal is a their spin on traditional English garden chairs. In other words, it’s a high-tech version of art nouveau, with its flowery forms and twining branches.

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I think Vegetal is more accurately described as an example of biomimicry, a genre of design that tries to duplicate the efficiency of nature. Sometimes called “organic essentialism,” it’s the kind of work that Welsh designer Ross Lovegrove has been doing for years, with water bottles, cameras and other products based on the lean and toned organics whittled to perfection by evolution. Few objects are lighter and stronger than whale bones, as Lovegrove is fond of saying.

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In the case of Vegetal, Bouroullecs worked out the form over four full years using computer software and die-cast polyamide. Liquid plastic was injected into a steel mold where it circulated evenly inside the mock branches, just like the sap in a tree trunk.

[Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec Design]

Related: Biomimicry: Design Inspirations from Nature