The future of the world looks, at the moment, to be rather pessimistic, but there are plenty of designers and thinkers out there who are trying to make life greener and more sustainable — often through looking to the natural world itself for inspiration and solutions. Some, though, are going further than simply taking cues from nature: These designers are producing examples of green design that meld the natural and the man-made in peculiar, amazing, and even gross ways, and if you're at all interested in either design or the future of the planet, they're going to bring a smile to your face.
Here's the thing about green design: nothing is off-limits. Everything from our everyday furniture to our lighting and the games we play at night can, in the philosophy of eco-design, be made in a way that's sustainable, whether it's by using waste materials, harnessing natural processes, or simply by making things that won't end up in landfill. Pollution and global warming are brutally difficult problems that are causing real and daily damage, but the use of plastics and wasteful processes isn't an inevitable part of human living. As long as you can put up with a little bit of elegant slime.
These Bioluminescent Tree-Lights
Bioluminescence is the amazing, and extremely weird, ability of plants, fungi, and animals to "produce their own light": from fireflies to deep-sea creatures, their self-powered lighting can light up the dark, attract prey, send signals to others and entertain us as a side-effect. And scientists are now attempting to sequence the genomes that make up bioluminescence to give humans a more natural way of lighting cities and urban areas. Bioluminescent trees and custom-made plants wouldn't guzzle electricity, would help air quality, and would be both deeply energy efficient and seriously pretty. A collection of scientists from Cambridge, Tel Aviv University, and other institutions mounted a hugely successful Kickstarter several years ago to fund research into probing the luminescence of plants, with the ultimate aim of allowing people to create glowing plant matter at home. The science is still in development, but your city could one day be filled with acres of glow-in-the-dark trees.
These Seaweed Chairs
Seaweed is, as trend-watchers call it, "having a moment." You're likely to find it in all kinds of new culinary dishes and restaurants around the world. But there are other, longer-lasting ways to use it as well. In 2015 Danish designers Jonas Edvard and Nikolaj Steenfatt debuted chairs and lamps made out of fucus, a particularly ugly kind of seaweed also known as "bladder wracks." Edvard and Steenfatt dry the seaweed, cook it, grind it into a powder and then make it into a substance that sets when molded, making it the ideal material for objects that see a lot of wear, like chair bases. And no, it doesn't smell of the sea. It's not widely available yet, but it's not far-fetched to see a place like IKEA getting in on the action.
These Cups Made Of Milk
How on earth do you make a hard bowl out of milk waste products? If that sounds completely absurd to you, you need to see the work of British designer Tessa Silva-Dawson, who harnesses the waste milk left over at dairy plants in the butter and cream-making processes to make, yep, tableware. The thing that makes them a possible replacement for plastic? The protein called casein. "Casein plastics," she explains on her website, "were produced commercially during the early 1900s as an alternative to resources such as tortoiseshell and ivory." But then polymer plastics came along, complete with their devastating environmental effects, and milky plastics fell out of favor. Silva-Dawson's process separates the curds from the whey, then dries out the curds, mixes them with a substance that makes them into pellets, and shapes them into bowls, cups or whatever else you might want. And no, they don't get soggy.
Jelly Musical Instruments
If you're very lost for Christmas present ideas, you could try to produce something like the amazing 2012 prototype Noisy Jelly by French designers Raphael Pluvinage and Marianne Cauvard. They produced a simple board that acts as a capacitive sensor which detects weight and pressure, then added a kit to make various player "pieces" out of jelly. When the jelly pieces are placed on the board and touched or moved, they make different hilarious or haunting musical noises, depending on where they are, their shape and what part of them you're touching. The jellies themselves are based around agar-agar, a kind of algae-derived jelly substance that produces excellent firm jellies. And yes, the pieces are fully edible, though if you don't add sugar to the mix they'll likely taste of nothing.
This Uber-Sustainable Restaurant
The team behind the eco-conscious restaurant Blue Hill in New York opened a new venture in early 2017 that's pushing the envelope on combining nature and the man-made world — in a very tasty way. Beyond seriously environmentally friendly food, a lot of the decor of the wastED restaurant is made of discarded or waste natural products. The chairs are made with artichoke thistles molded with bio-resin, the lamps are constructed out of seaweed that can be rendered transparent, and the carpets are made of surplus sheep's wool that was deemed unacceptable for making clothing and would have been made into landfill. It's now got venues in both New York and London, in case you want a very eco-friendly day out.
This Packaging Made Of Mushrooms
If you've ever looked at the styrofoam and bubble wrap used to package your shiny new possession with despair, have no fear: companies are looking to much more natural, biodegradable products to help out with the world's packaging needs. And mushrooms have been discovered as a solution. A company called Ecovative has developed a system that makes mycelium, the roots of mushrooms, into a viable packaging product by feeding it agricultural waste and then moulding it into the right shapes. No, it's not even remotely edible, but it's strong and waste-free, and has an incredibly low carbon footprint. In 2016 IKEA announced it was looking into making its own mycelium packaging in an attempt to go green (or, you know, mushroom gray).
The future of design may not seem like a particularly green topic, but we're increasingly realizing that all aspects of our lives can become eco-friendly, and that even the most unexpected bits of everyday life can attain green credentials. Bring on the new, green ideas.