Bioinspired Design

The Evolution of Bioinspired Design

COMPILED BY Robyn Alexander

Biophilic buildings, biomorphic design, biomimicry, bio collaborations – what’s with all these bio trends? We trace the evolution of the various forms of bioinspired design.

Ask anyone you know to close their eyes and visualise the most inspiring or relaxing place they can, and chances are you’re not going to end up with a description of the inside of an office. As the growing climate crisis compels us to rethink the relationships between human beings (who collectively now spend 80 to 90% of their time indoors) and the natural world, designers and architects are starting to place an ever greater emphasis on sustainability – and beyond that, exploring the lessons the natural world might be able to teach us about better ways of designing, making and using things.


The term “biophilia” – broadly meaning “love of living things” – was first used by psychologist Erich Fromm in 1964, then by biologist Edward O Wilson in the 1980s, when he suggested that the human need to connect with nature could well be innate (in other words, written into our genes). More recently, so many have become convinced of links between people’s wellness and the way we build spaces for ourselves that connect with nature that UK-based biophilic design specialist Oliver Heath says wellness-focused residential projects have increased by 200% globally from 2017 to 2021.

The obvious conclusion is to try to emulate, mimic, reflect or even include nature in our everyday spaces – and this is what biophilic design is all about.

It would seem that there is currently little to criticise in the obviously well-intentioned area of biophilic design, but it should be noted that it is a philosophy and practice very much in its infancy, and hence, relatively untested in terms of its long-term value and efficacy.

Six Principles of Biophilic Design

  1. Connect humans with nature to improve their wellbeing.
  2. Bring characteristics of the natural world, such as water, greenery and natural light, into built spaces.
  3. Use natural materials such as wood (with visible grain) and stone.
  4. Evoke nature by using botanical shapes and forms, and avoiding straight lines.
  5. Establish visual relationships that enable spaces to be stimulating and energising, but also calming and restoring.
  6. Blur the line between indoor and outside spaces.
READ MORE: Sustainable Architecture: Green School South Africa

Biophilic Buildings

Perhaps the best-known biophilic building completed to date is the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) residential tower by Stefano Boeri, which was constructed in Milan between 2007 and 2014. As of 2020, researchers have discovered that the tree- and plant-clad building hosts the nests of more than 20 species of birds – and it’s become an enormously popular place to live. Boeri’s practice is currently working on more plant-covered buildings in Italy, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Albania, China and Egypt.

biophilic design
Milan’s Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) apartments were completed in 2014 and have become an icon of biophilic design.

Featured in depth on page 148 of this issue is the new Green School in Paarl, which was designed by GASS Architecture Studios, with landscaping by Danie Steenkamp of DDS Projects. Its architects – Wessel van Dyk, Chris Bakker and Theuna Stoltz – explain that the arrangement of the buildings and their rounded forms were inspired by the shapes of the Paarl Rock boulders. Each structure forges a visual connection to nature, making use of elements such as the quality of the light and air, as well as materials, colours and textures, and even the inclusion of plants and wildlife. The result is – as the designers intended – a multisensory experience.

biophilic design
A recently completed example of biophilic architecture in South Africa is the Green School in Paarl.

Another (pending) example of biophilic architectural design in South Africa is The Fynbos. Billed as the country’s first biophilic residential building by its developers, Lurra Capital, it’s scheduled for completion in the last quarter of 2024. The 24-storey building will be planted with 30 species of trees and 20 shrub varieties, creating a “green veil” that will shade and cool the 689 apartments. Their cantilevered balconies, staggered to further increase shading and greatly reduce the need for air conditioning, will also enable rainwater harvesting.

biophilic design
These architectural renderings of The Fynbos, a biophilic residential building planned for Cape Town’s Bree Street, show what the apartment interiors will be like, the planned rooftop deck and garden, and a street view of how the plant-clad exterior will look.
biophilic design
biophilic design

Kengo Kuma & Associates’ recently completed Oath Hill Park restrooms, in Japan, feature wooden beams and columns that fan out in an “umbrella” form that draws inspiration from the parabolic ridgeline of Mount Fuji. The wooden structure is covered with a membrane finished with a fluorinated coating for weather-proofing, which means that, at night, the structure is silhouetted against a moonlit forest.


feature fantastical takes on vegetable forms – in particular, her famous pumpkin paintings and sculptures. With a history stretching back into the 20th century, biomorphism has been a feature of contemporary art and design for a while. The New York Museum of Modern Art defines it as follows: “Derived from the Greek words bios (life) and morphe (form), the term refers to abstract forms or images that evoke naturally occurring forms such as plants, organisms and body parts.”

Biomorphism is frequently related to a movement in modern art and design from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, with prominent exponents including Joan Miró, Barbara Hepworth and many of the Surrealists. In the art world, it continues today in the wildly popular work of Yayoi Kusama, for example, whose paintings often feature fantastical takes on vegetable forms – in particular, her famous pumpkin paintings and sculptures.

In the world of industrial and product design, biomorphism has a less storied past, with Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi probably the best-known mid-century modernist to very clearly be inspired by natural forms. Biomorphic furniture design currently seems to be coming into its own, however – at least if the frequently fantastical takes on it shown at last year’s Design Miami expo are anything to go by. In terms of current South African design, one of our favourite explorers of biomorphism is Rich Mnisi, whose work for Southern Guild over the past couple of years has expressed beautifully nature-inspired shapes and themes.

READ MORE: Sustainable Architecture: How To Go Off The Grid

Biomorphic Design

Launched in late 2021, Rich Mnisi’s Nyoka collection for Southern Guild is all about the duality of nature and “the idea of beauty distilled from darkness” – it began with a nightmare the designer’s mother had about having a snake on her back. This slightly disturbing yet very beautiful collection includes a curved console punctuated by the winding form of a snake; a large, asymmetrical rug, woven in karakul wool and mohair; a twin-branched bronze chandelier holding resin bubbles of light; and low-slung seats covered in sheepskin, and articulated by a continuous line of black leather that traces the rise and fall of the seats’ forms. To realise his vision, Mnisi collaborated with several artisan groups, including MonkeyBiz, Coral & Hive and Bronze Age Studio.

biophilic design
Rich Mnisi’s Nyoka collection on show at Southern Guild.

Forming part of an overall trend towards biomorphic shapes and materials at Design Miami 2021 was Pelle Designs’ Nana Lure chandelier, which features giant cast-cotton banana leaves and is reminiscent of botanical drawings; as well as their covetable, one-off Lure Eden Mirror Post, adorned with cast-cotton paper flowers and leaves.

biophilic design
The Nana Lure chandelier by Pelle Designs was one of many biomorphic offerings at Design Miami 2021.

Also at Design Miami 2021 was new work by Polish artist and designer Marcin Rusak. As the son and grandson of flower growers, Rusak has long been fascinated by these natural sources of inspiration and decoration – and his Flora Contemporaria collection of cabinets is in part a fabulous homage to the work of Austrian-born Swedish designer Josef Frank (1885-1967). The collection is made up of four beautiful, slightly phantasmagorical flower-inspired cabinets that also contain elements of real flora, which are included via the designer’s self-developed preservation techniques, and which make each and every piece unique.

biophilic design
Marcin Rusak’s cabinets contain elements of real flora.

As New York gallery R&Company puts it, American craftsman and artist Wendell Castle’s Chest of Drawers (1962) shows “the mid-century modern case… being invaded by the serpentine tentacles of his biomorphic sculpture”. Both arresting and thought-provoking, the piece is a classic of nature-inspired, craft-led design, with its exquisite “tentacle” drawer pulls a particular highlight.

biophilic design
Biomorphic design’s 20th-century history includes Wendell Castle’s “Chest of Drawers”.

Another biomorphic treat at Design Miami 2021 was New Nature by Khaled El Mays, presented by House of Today (a collaborative design platform and non-profit organisation). Showcasing the Lebanese designer’s newest pieces, which are both exuberantly biomorphic and a reflection on Art Nouveau aesthetics, the collection includes five items: two mirrors, a cabinet, a coffee table, and El Mays’s first-ever chair. They are made from wood, leather and ceramics, and each features various forms of high craft particular to Mexico City, where the collection was produced.

biophilic design
Also unveiled at Design Miami was Khaled El Mays’s playful New Nature collection.


According to the Biomimicry Institute, biomimicry is “a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges – and find hope”. The goal is to understand, emulate and make use of strategies evolved in nature to inspire sustainable solutions to design problems. Not to be confused with biomorphism (in which designs “look like nature”), biomimicry is about design solutions that work like nature.

biophilic design
The iconic “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing is an example of biomimicry in design.

Biomimetic design can be quite simple – obvious examples include the use of down-filled coats to stay warm in winter, and the creation of Velcro by engineer George de Mestral in 1941, which was inspired by burrs – or immensely complex, as in the buildings of top architecture firms such as Herzog & de Meuron. One of the best-known examples is their bird’s nest-inspired stadium, built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Rather like a nest is insulated by stuffing material between the twigs, the facade is filled with ethylene tetrafluoroethylene panels that provide acoustic insulation, reduce the load on the roof and optimise the entry of sunlight.

Closer to home is Harare’s Eastgate shopping centre and office building, designed by architect Mick Pearce. By mimicking the construction of termite mounds, and with the assistance of multinational engineering firm Arup, Pearce created a passive ventilation system that conducts night air through the structure, cooling the concrete. During the day, the system provides adequate ventilation while absorbing heat loads without causing excessive increases in temperature, which means the building does not require an air-conditioning system to cool – or heat – it in Harare’s relatively temperate climate.

Bio Collaboration

In the most complex and difficult type of bioinspired design, humans attempt to work with other parts of the natural world to create new design solutions. An example of this are air purifiers that make use of plants, with Italian start-up Vitesy (vitesy. com) already having two models on the market, and a group of scientists at the University of Delhi in India also announcing in late 2021 that they had built a “living-plant- based” air purifier called “Ubreathe Life”.

biophilic design
In a groundbreaking bio-collaboration project, MIT Media Lab designer Neri Oxman and her team “worked” with 6 500 silkworms to create the “Silk Pavilion”.

Even more cutting-edge experimental work in the area of bio collaboration is being done at various industrial design institutes, including at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. Here, past projects include designer Neri Oxman and her team’s “Silk Pavilion”, which was built by a swarm of 6 500 silkworms with the “[o]verall density variation… informed entirely by the silkworm itself deployed as a biological printer in the creation of a secondary structure”.

Intrigued? Want to know more? Here’s some further reading:

Looking for more design inspiration? Sign up to our weekly newsletter, here.