Bio Design by William Meyers surveys recent design and art projects that harness living materials and processes, presenting bio-integrated approaches to achieving sustainability, innovations enabled by biotechnology, and provocative experiments that deliberately illustrate the dangers and opportunities of manipulating life for human ends. 

Bio-light

Bio-light. Gas chambers filled with bioluminescent bacteria. Part of Microbial Home—a prototype design project by Jack Mama, Clive van Heerdan and Phillips Design, Netherlands. The design concept is for a series of biodevices for the home aimed at creating an ecosystem for filtering, processing and recycling wastewater, sewage and garbage. Image courtesy of Philips Design.

As the first publication to focus on this new phenomenon and closely examine how it fits into the history of architecture, art and industrial design, this volume surveys this shift and contextualizes it through comparisons to previous historic transitions in art and design practices, clarifying its implications for the future.

What inspired you to write Bio Design: Art + Science + Creativity?

I was inspired through studying the history of architecture and design at the School of Visual Arts in the master’s program in design criticism. My thesis project, which I developed with the help of the faculty and with the input of fellow students, became the basis for the book. Also, I was inspired by my own discoveries while becoming an amateur brewer and baker, in learning how to utilize yeast to make my own bread and mead.

One could say that human beings have been altering nature for centuries. However, biodesign brings to the forefront the idea that now is a unique time in human history for these types of interactions. What reasons might there be for a paradigm shift in this direction at this moment in time?

I think there are two factors driving this shift that are most important: The first is that frequent and fundamental advancements are occurring in the field of biology. Just to give a few quick examples: Information about extremophiles, or microorganisms that thrive in places previously thought uninhabitable, has recently led to additions to the branch of Archea on the tree of life. These organisms can survive in frozen, dark, toxic, radioactive places—even in the vacuum of space, which makes them very interesting for potential industrial and medical applications. It also suggests possibilities or, at least, new thinking about how life might live on other worlds. The field of genetics is also a rapidly moving target—the discovery of innumerable, complex gene switches in human DNA was only announced months ago. This upturns the conventional thinking that something like 98% of human DNA was thought to be “junk” leftover from our evolutionary legacy. It turns out that much of it is essential.

The second factor prompting this shift, particularly for design and architecture, is climate change. There is no longer any question that systems of building and manufacturing must change dramatically if we are to preserve the environment and still fuel economic growth and support social stability around the world. Our conventional methods, which exploit and deplete ecosystems, must evolve so that economic growth instead integrates with and enhances these systems. This is where I think biodesign can offer an approach that can be effective: finding ways to partner with living processes.

bio-digester

Bio-digester: a kitchen waste-disposal system that houses bacteria that consume unwanted organic matter and produces methane to power the cooking range and water heater. Part of Microbial Home—a prototype design project by Jack Mama, Clive van Heerdan and Phillips Design, Netherlands. Image courtesy of Philips Design.

I love this quotation in Paola Antonelli’s foreword: “In Designers’ ability to build scenarios and prototypes of behavior lies a power that they should protect and cherish and that will become even more important in the future.” Designers who study and manipulate behavior have a power and also a great challenge at hand. What are some examples of projects from the book that eloquently encapsulate this prophecy already beginning?

You remind me of the project Microbial Home by Philips—one of their “Future Probes” that delves into what is possible or probable in the future based on emerging technologies and cultural shifts. This project presents a series of appliances and home furnishings that all use biology, like a garbage disposal that uses bacteria to digest organic waste, which in turn creates methane for use by the stove. Although I do not foresee such technology becoming widely used anytime soon, I think it accurately predicts how we will become more in tune with such microbial-level processes and find ways to integrate them into our daily lives. Going much further, the artist Liam Young has undertaken a project called Under Tomorrow’s Sky in which he has assembled a futurist think-tank of scientists, writers, designers and others to help create a portrait of the city many years in the future.

root bridge

Double Decker Root Bridge. A dramatic two-storey structure that spans the Umshiang River in India. Image courtesy of Lambert Shadap

A few times you mention how practices in the book move beyond “emulation.” Could you go into more detail about what you mean when you say that?

As I define it, biodesign is a step beyond the strategy of biomimicry, which is the conscious emulation of nature’s processes. Biomimicry is, of course, a valuable and important approach, beautifully articulated by Janine Benyus in her book on the subject first published in 1997. However, I worry that the term has been overused and too often stuck onto works of design that simply bear resemblance to natural forms or colors, for example. If you think about it, a gas-guzzling Toyota “Sequoia” SUV that is painted a forest-green color copied from a tree leaf might be called biomimicry, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with honoring or protecting the environment, as Benyus had intended. Biodesign, since it integrates living matter, goes beyond replicating a particular feature or observable attribute of biology and instead uses it with an interest in maintaining conditions conducive to life, including an abundance of clean water, soil and air.

bio-couture

BioCouture by Suzanne Lee. This jacket is hand stitched from grown bacterial cellulose and then treated with indigo dye. Image courtesy of ©BioCouture

bio-concrete

BioConcrete. Experimental new concrete that's embedded with bacterial and nutrient spheres alongside traditional aggregate that once exposed to distress or cracks in the concrete expand to fill it up with calcium carbonate, much like the way bones constantly self-heal. By Henk Jonkers and CITG Microlab, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. Image courtesy of Henk Jonkers

Can you share any anecdotes or noteworthy experiences that happened during the making of the book?

Upon completion, I threw a party that included a bioluminescent water-gun fight in the dark. It was all very jolly until the next morning when I surveyed the mess, including stained walls.