Taming Nature

References to the natural environment are everywhere in the history of human residence, like the traces of a conquest. This anthropological desire to dominate is reflected by design with various approaches, ranging from the ideological act to the poetic gesture

article Domitilla Dardi

Nature is undoubtedly one of the major themes of interior design: man has always searched for a way to import references to the natural context into his habitat. In recent years design has made a forceful shift towards a speculative trend regarding nature, also investigating it on a molecular level, through fractal structures, or on a biological level, with the use of fungi and bacteria as agents of production of objects.

While the latter is a relatively recent development, the desire of man to mark out his territory with proofs of his conquest of the surrounding world is a matter of ancient history. In anthropological terms, in fact, the space of man is by definition one that has been removed from the violence of nature, its dangers and its weather, a protected shelter that was the motivation behind the primitive hut so aptly analyzed by Joseph Rykwert in his famous essay “On Adam’s House in Paradise” (1972).

At the same time, immediately after the creation of a safe haven, the necessity arises for man to mark out domestic territory with furnishings and objects that convey the memory of nature, almost bearing witness to human control over it.

Be they trophies or souvenirs, the references to external nature are always there in the history of human dwelling, like signs of conquest. Heads and skins of animals represent the triumph of man over nature like a sign of victory, ever since the battle took place on (more or less) equal terms.

Wallpaper and tapestries were made to convey the illusion of being outside even in a sheltered environment, granting the aesthetic enjoyment of nature without the need to submit to its physical trials. The entire theory of gardens, starting with our famous “giardino all’italiana”, is a form of botanical collecting, gathering nature under the rule of an artificial design, the outcome of a human mind that governs the spontaneous growth of vegetation.

Gilles Clément, the great theorist and scholar of the garden and the landscape, says: “The first garden is a fenced enclosure. We need to protect the precious asset of the garden; the vegetables, the fruit, then the flowers, the animals, the art of living, that which with the passing of time will continue to seem ‘best’ to us” (G. Clément, “A Brief History of the Garden”).

In this analysis, choosing the best and preserving it in an enclosure separated from the chaos of nature becomes a form of cosmological organization that moves parallel to the creation of the symbolic universe of the stable dwelling of man. The nature that is enclosed in the home is therefore a precise reference, which can be ascribed to the need for decoration only if we acknowledge the presence of one of the most primordial and authentic instincts of human awareness.

Contemporary design has come up with its own response to each of these exercises of taming of nature. Starting with the projects of the Radical groups, between nature and artifice, the idea has been to demonstrate an open dilemma, a contradiction in terms.

The use of artificial materials that reprise the motifs and themes of nature like animal skins (see the Safari sofa by Archizoom) and botanical references (the big piece of sod of the Pratone by Gruppo Strum) can be seen as a way of asserting that nothing more real and spontaneous can exist than the human need to import pieces of nature into the domestic setting through a selective, artificial act.

We find a lot less ideology and more of a magical, poetic dimension in the natural reaction objects of Tord Boontje. His furnishings often suggest botanical forms, but the mediation of rational appropriation becomes an obligatory passage: his blossoms become viral, invading the forms of classic typologies, disrupting them, transforming seats and lamps into clusters of leaves and flowers that are the shadow of their natural counterparts, often colorless, white, aseptic silhouettes, with the perfection of laser cutting. In substance, a pale natural souvenir imported into the domestic environment.

Today Cristina Celestino is also playing with a personal interpretation of this anthropological desire to tame nature, with seats that seem to spring from giant leaves, or surfaces that suggest the geometric arrangements of Italian gardens.

Simone Crestani creates tributes to tamed nature that are apparently fragile in their glassy essence, but are strong in terms of the selected subjects: busts of stags and bonsai are, by definition, trophies of man’s actions on animals and plants, conserving the power of a sense of conflict.

The great return of botanical and zoological decorative motifs can be seen as a banal direction of tastes, but also as a way of restoring contact, through a purely aesthetic act, with a nature that becomes increasingly virtual due to our immersion in the world of technology. Demonstrations of playful wit of this variety can be seen in the drones of Marcello Pirovano, which reconstruct shapes of parts of insects or birds in a ploy of pure aesthetic pleasure that embodies a desire to ‘naturalize’ technology.

Not to mention the most fascinating of all the mythical creatures invented by man to replace natural compositions with his own mental artifice: the chimera, a being formed by the sum of parts of living things, conveying a sense of sublime terror. As can be seen in the image of a botched laboratory experiment of the Hybridism collection by the Campana Brothers, reminding us of just how many gray areas exist in the mediation between natural and artificial.

In every biomorphic or phytomorphic reference seen in the artifacts created by man, this gap appears above all in the essence of creation. Paul Valéry, in his Eupalinos, offers a peerless summary: “The objects created by man are owed to the acts of a thought. (…) Nature, in its own work, does not distinguish details from the whole, but appears simultaneously all over the place, binding itself to itself” (P. Valéry, Eupalinos: or, The Architect, 1921).