Organic futurism: aesthetics and technique out of nature

It was a couple of decades ago when I first came across the work of Koji Tatsuno. The work of Tatsuno, a relatively unknown and self-taught Japanese fashion designer, was being shown inJoseph, an upscale fashion store in South Kensington.It would be an understatement to call Tatsuno’s work unusual. One of his dresses was made of coral and another was made of cloth and dried mushrooms, if I remember correctly.

Japanese Aesthetics

Bamboo shelters by Ming Tang.
Bamboo shelters by Ming Tang.

Tatsuno was one of several Japanese designers making something of a splash in the UK at the time. Issey Miyake, more famous, had likewise experimented with materials, including treated paper.

Folded in peculiar ways, creating angular shapes — architectural, yet in some respects reflective of nature, perhaps at a microscopic level — Miyake’s work brought traditional Japanese aesthetics into the modern world. He had learned origami, and used that for shaping his clothing. Paper, likewise, has a long history in Japan, and was traditionally used instead of glass for windows, and, of course for the shoji (screen).

Dress by Koji Tatsuno.
Dress by Koji Tatsuno.

“Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose,” writes Junichiro Tanizak in his masterpiece on traditional aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows[pdf].

Perhaps partly because materials were less diverse, and often drawn from the local environment, whether stone, wood, or pigments for dyes, in traditional aesthetics we find things working together. There is a harmony, whether in Japan or in Britain.

Tanizak compares the Japanese room “to an inkwash painting, the paper-paneled shoji being the expanse where the ink is thinnest, and the alcove where it is the darkest.”

Although we often think about how technology might develop, we rarely pause to try to imagine how the aesthetics of the future might, or should, look. We take, I would suggest, a rather inhuman approach, fitting ourselves in as if an afterthought. The “prefab” houses and box-like buildings of 1960s Britain, almost entirely abandoned today, is only one example of failed architecture: scientific, in a way, but completely alien to nature, culture, or history. Tatsuno and Miyake take a different approach.


One of the major problems with conservatism is that it long ago gave up on culture. Like the Cultural Marxists of the middle of the twentieth century, the “conservative movement” is almost entirely negative, only, whereas the Cultural Marxists attacked “bourgeois” and traditional culture, the Right criticizes contemporary culture. If it were engaged with aesthetics, it would recognize that even modern culture is part of a tradition.

It is unfortunate that if the Left feels it can avoid responsibility for communal tensions, riots, and racial violence, by insisting that there is no problem with uncontrolled immigration, so the Right feels it does not need to have any position in regard to the environment except for saying that they do not believe in global warming.

Yet, it is certain that the world’s recourses are finite, and that we need to think about it in regard to oil, housing, and industry.

Dress by Issey Miyake.
Dress by Issey Miyake.

There are obvious benefits, even leaving aside aesthetics. Reducing dependence on foreign oil would mean reducing the flow of capital to some terror groups, as well as to regimes that propagate totalitarian ideologies. A more local-orientated approach to environmentalism would challenge the global government-type schemes required for the implementation of allegedly tackling global warming, such as carbon tax caps and trading.

Organic Futurism

Nevertheless, we should also want to use materials in construction that keep us in touch — or put us in touch — with nature, with the natural, and, in a certain, informal, sense, with natural law. We should, in other words, be involved with taking classical values, aesthetics (such as proportion in geometry, e.g., the Golden Mean) and using modern and traditional materials — in innovative ways — to create a an aesthetic that is modern yet an extension of tradition.

Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, reminds us that wood is not only an aesthetically appealing material, it is also a sustainable one. But it’s not the only, or perhaps always the best renewable material that we can grow today.

Bamboo may not immediately spring to the mind of the average Westerner, even if we are more used to seeing it, today, in Asian restaurants and shops. However, according to Green, bamboo — a species of grass — is “the fastest growing plant on the planet. It can “grow up to 6″ a day and up to 100′ tall. It produces 30% more oxygen than trees and unlike trees which need to be replanted, bamboo is self generating and can be harvested every three to five years.”

Bamboo also happens to be one of the strongest and most diverse materials available to us today. It’s used to make everything from furniture to kitchen utensils, and from wearable cloth – which is, apparently, hypoallergenic – to flooring and small buildings. In 2008, Ming Tang, a Chinese designer, designed temporary bamboo shelters, to be used in the event of an earthquake. Unlike the concrete shelters that we normally see, these are aesthetically in harmony with the natural environment in which they sit, and, as such, could be left in place for extended periods, since they do not damage the look of the environment.

It’s time to return to the best of tradition, to think about materials and the environment, and to work with nature to create an aesthetic that is ethical and life-affirming.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

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