Spring looks: the nature of design

Fossils, bark and pine-cones... Annie Deakin talks to designers about bringing nature home

When nature-inspired design monopolised the Spring catwalks in Milan and New York, it was just a matter of time before it rocked the interior world. Fossils, shells and bark adorned show-stopping frocks by Alexander McQueen and Christian Lacroix. They now rule the porcelain shop floors at John Lewis, Debenhams and more unique home boutiques.

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Nature-inspired design is a timeless trend. Urbanites and homemakers can’t get enough of it – especially this Spring when the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth has prompted a resurgence in all things au naturel.

Botannical prints are classic in their appeal but what is exciting is the rise of objects being shaped to imitate nature. Take, for example, Sophie Conran’s new range White Oak for Portmeiron. As the name suggests, the kitchen collection is shaped to emulate woodcarvings.

Sophie’s childhood spurred her to create the range which is now available at mydeco.com; "I grew up next to what was the Habitat design studio." The only daughter of Sir Terence told me this week, "The carpentry workshop was run by an old, eccentric character called Michael Wickham - he looked like Dumbledore from Harry Potter - who would do a lot of wood carving in the logs." She has recreated the feeling of Wickham’s hand on the wood in the curvy White Oak patterns.

It will be interesting to see if this range will be as popular as her first. It has won the approval of her father who is an avid admirer of the English countryside. Sir Terence’s abstract Midwinter plates - which used earthy browns and oranges - were bestsellers in the Fifties. "Dad is definitely inspired by nature. He used to be a keen gardener - he doesn’t anymore - but we still go on walks together. He points out the new buds growing and the interesting shapes of tree trunks to me. He likes to have natural things around him." Such traits have been passed down the generations; Sophie collects treasures from her travels. "I’ve got a little box by my bed filled with nuts, seed pods and interesting little natural things. They’re amazing, very inspiring. Nature produces very fluid, fantastic shapes."

The Conrans are not alone using trees and animals as a source of inspiration for design. Artists have been doing it for centuries. "Adulation of form in nature is nothing new," award-winning ceramicist Ulrika Jarl reminded me. Trailblazing the organic shape was the Irish manufacturer Belleek which has been popular with porcelain lovers since 1857. Now vintage collectibles, their covetable fine china shell collections and nautical snails, are beautifully delicate.

Artists and designers have a fine appreciation and understanding of the complexities of our natural world. Swedish-born Jarl looks to the spirals found in seashells, pine-cones and romanesco cauliflowers when she creates her bone china lighting. Patterns in nature are infinitely interesting. "There is something instantly accessible to everyone in forms found in nature." She explains. "There are common similarities and repetitions in design and structure between different objects in nature. These mathematical structures create visual qualities that are inherently beautiful."

To me, her lights resemble a sea urchin - something I could envisage finding on a deserted beach alongside a piece of driftwood. It’s no happy coincidence that Darwin admirer Alexander McQueen, who rocked Paris Fashion Week with his stag beetle, bark and 'winged' creations, has bought Jarl’s products.

Fellow fashion designer John Rocha used the shape of flowers in his latest collection for Debenhams. His cream-coloured stylised enamel magazine rack, created out of silhouettes of petals, is Marimekko-inspired.

Much of the past century’s iconic design takes direct inspiration from Mother Nature. Arne Jacobsen’s curvy Swan chair, originally designed in 1957, resembles a bird with outstretched wings. One of the most celebrated vases - Alvar Aalto’s Savoy vase - is said to be inspired by the lines of the Finnish landscape. Since being unveiled in 1937 at the Paris World Fair, the vase has achieved cult status. Dutch designer Tord Boontje explores nature in an abstract way.

Nature-inspired design is moving with the times. At Tokyo Design Week last year, Ross Lovegrove experimented with 3D software to analyse the composition of bones. "Nature is a very big part of my work and always has been," explains the Welsh industrial designer. "I’ve never seen it as a trend or a fashion. It absolutely cannot be because it’s fundamental to life. Nature has this magic to it. Things grow effortlessly, benignly without violence or heat."

Unlike geometric patterns, there is something intrinsically soft and comforting about design inspired by landscapes, shells, eggs, acorns and bark. Conran, Jarl and Rocha’s creations offer an escape route in our hectic lifestyles. In the words of Sophie Conran, "There’s a certain peace about design closely influenced by nature. We respond well to it because it doesn’t jar with everyday life."

Annie Deakin is Editor of mydeco.com