Acute awareness of the plight of the planet is inspiring designers and storytellers to imagine a world in which nature is set free and running riot.
In March 2023, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their final warning to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degree Celcius. “Our human-centric position—only thinking from a human perspective—is toxic and we can’t sustain that in the current crisis with nature,” says Marcel van Brakel, founder and lead designer at Dutch experience design collective Polymorf, and codirector of Symbiosis. Selected for SXSW 2023, Symbiosis is a multisensory, multiplayer extended reality experience that imagines a future in which man, nature, and machine all combine in new ways to live in harmony. Incongruously beautiful, this future world would be filled with genetically hybridized creatures, plant life, and humanoids working synergistically. Using individualized haptic suits and soft robotics, as well as taste and smell-based story elements, Symbiosis experientially redesigns the human body to merge with technology and nature.
Blockbuster series "The Last of Us," which aired in early 2023, also tapped into the notion of a world overcome by nature—this time through a fungus that invades people’s brains, turning them into zombie-like creatures. For the enemy plants, the designers took inspiration from nature, where often the most vibrant of flora is the most dangerous. The fungus is grotesque and yet stunning because, as production designer John Paino told Dezeen, “Nature has taken over and there’s a beauty in that.” Auto manufacturer Rolls-Royce collaborated with couture designer Iris van Herpen on a nature-inspired bespoke Phantom Syntopia one-off commission. Van Herpen, known for designs that tap biomimicry, set out to capture the beauty of the fluid motion of water, and says, “I wanted this to become a state-of-the-art experience being overwhelmed by the forces of nature.”
Designers including Shanghai-based studio Spacemen are now incorporating overgrown nature into retail interiors. The studio’s store design for luxury leather brand Braun Büffel’s Malaysian flagship outlet included a giant tree-like structure covered in moss, which dominates the middle of the store. It bursts from the floor and through the ceiling, alluding to “how it would grow out of a beaker in a mad scientist’s lab towards natural light,” Spacemen founder Edward Tan told Dezeen.
Bringing this concept of a surreal natural world into buildings, architect Juan Manuel Prieto used artificial intelligence to create his Habitable Monsters series. These living eco-friendly future dwellings will be made from organic tissue, fur, and even fangs; spaces that are inspired by nature to be more sustainable, accessible, and in tune with the natural world.
Snøhetta’s Under restaurant, which opened in 2019, is the perfect illustration of humans working in concert with nature to allow it to thrive. The restaurant is halfsubmerged off the Norwegian coast and was specifically designed to welcome in the marine life around it over time. Now, four years on, with the rough concrete exterior covered in algae and mussels, “nature has fully embraced and inhabited the building,” the studio told Dezeen.
In line with the Indigenous Innovation trend in The Future 100: 2023, untamed design reflects a growing acknowledgement of the need to work in harmony with nature as well as a deeper respect for its power. With sustainability now rooted in people’s values, brands and creators are choosing to visually articulate this concept in the customer experience.