From medieval tapestry weavers to the artisans of the 20th century Arts and Crafts movement, interior designers have often tried to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside. But rarely has there been such a varied array of options to choose from as now. From the realistic re-creations of shells, branches, antlers and fossils in objects to the fanciful riffs on woodland motifs that reimagine seat cushions as boulders and coffee tables as tree trunks, designers are taking the "going green" ethos to a whole new aesthetic level. And consumers are happily going along.
"The look and feel of natural products really resonates with customers," says Alex Bates, senior vice president of product development for West Elm, the home-furnishings retailer whose current catalog is filled with animal-patterned fabrics, tree-stump tables, wood-imprinted carpets and an antler-inspired lamp that has become a runaway big seller. "It's a lot of borrowing of and being inspired by natural patterns and textures," she says. "There's definitely a connection between the growing popularity and concern with environmental issues and respect for the natural world."
While flowers have frequently provided inspiration for textiles, a more unexpected plant pattern is taking root. "Faux bois, which means false wood, is one of my favorite designs," says Martha Stewart, whose collection for Macy's includes faux-bois towels that have generated much excitement in the design blogosphere. "Faux bois is very important in many of our designs and works for contemporary as well as traditional home owners," she explains.
Heightened attention to all elements of the environment is only one of the factors driving the increasing popularity of nature-inspired décor. Technology, says Tony Whitfield, chair of product design at Parsons The New School for Design, is also playing a role in the current trend. "If you look at the proliferation of [the designs] over the past few years, it goes with digital technologies that allow designers to do fairly complex kinds of patterning and laser cutting," he says. The intricate flora-and-fauna-filled curtains of Dutch designer Tord Boontje, who has made florals cool to a new generation, would be virtually impossible otherwise.
If history is a guide, technology may also be fueling our desire for more elemental things. The nature-embracing Romanticism movement of the 18th century was a reaction against the scientific norms of the Age of Enlightenment. And the American transcendentalists championed the pleasures of pastoral life partly in response to the Industrial Revolution. "There are times when certain designs thrive. Natural themes tend to run in opposition to formalist conservative periods," says Whitfield. "The millennium was all about high tech and investigations of futurism. Almost a decade out, we have gone through a very conservative time, and we are moving toward softer, more natural themes for the home."
David Reid, of the innovative ceramics studio KleinReid, agrees. "There is really a kind of primal response," he says. KleinReid's porcelain campfire set was originally envisioned as a centerpiece but is now often found in nonworking fireplaces. It evokes, he says, "a sense of memory." And who doesn't want a home filled with memories?