The Quickest Route from A to B (Sustainable Design)

This is an appreciation of a stool that I saw at the Washington Island Farm Museum on Jackson Harbor Road on Washington Island. One imagines a tree felled for fire wood and someone with an axe recognizing the form of a three legged stool where the branches met the trunk. Beats sharpening up the draw knife and getting out the shave horse! Maybe that’s what they thought, or maybe they’d seen it done before. Whether the idea came in a sudden moment of inspiration or it was already at large in the culture, there’s an elegance to seeing and recognizing the function of form as an act of design. Just nail a board on top of it, done! A three or four legged stool made with through tendons may have been better fit for purpose, but maybe it just didn’t matter very much. No doubt many startlingly elegant design solutions using natural forms ended up feeding a fire, falling apart, or just decomposing. There are also many elegant design solutions that we—writing as person of European descent—failed to recognize because we saw them through a colonialist or industrial lens. We liked our solutions better, but only now are we beginning to understand their true cost. The native people of the Pacific Northwest had an entire technology based around cedar trees, which provided everything from ‘kettles’ for steaming food to transportation. Their use of cedar was far more transformative and sophisticated than what our Washington Islander did last century, but it began with recognition. (Cedar, by Hilary Stewart is a fascinating book that describes its use by Native Americans). As we begin to take sustainability more seriously, this should be part of what we think about when we think about design, technology that starts and ends with nature.

Cricket cage. Minneapolis Institute of Art / Public Domain via Atlas Obscura

Biomimicry is the new hotness in product and material design, we will be seeing more things in our daily lives that take their inspiration from nature. Many forms found in nature, bird bones for example, have a great deal of utility. While that’s amazing, it’s not quite what I’m trying to describe. Maybe the best example I could present is the gourd, which must be one of the most singularly useful technologies that came from recognizing the function of a natural form—though plant domestication made gourds more a form of bio-tech than a straight product of nature. They have been used for more than ten thousand years on three continents as bottles, musical instruments, boxes, kitchen utensils, and many other things. The Chinese were, perhaps, the most sophisticated users of gourd-tech, fitting molds over them as they grew to shape them into a variety of decorative forms, including cricket cages! I can’t help but wonder what we could make by molding gourds here and now… could we make iPhone cases? Water bottles? Maybe that’s a project for this Spring.


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