Living Things: Design and Biology in the Long Nineteenth Century

Perhaps more than ever before, contemporary designers are concerned with the intersections of natural science and utilitarian form. Our built environment is populated with complex collaborations among design strategies, ecological concerns, and nature-based technologies that confront pressing social and political issues, as well as more intimate and personal questions of how to live in the world. In the face of dire environmental predictions and realities, these topics feel especially urgent for us right now. But two centuries ago, modern design and natural science grew up together. In fact, the development of design in the nineteenth century can be characterized as a series of engagements with Nature—in which design not only worked in conjunction with new theories and discoveries in natural science, but, conversely, opposed Nature through human invention and industry. This course traces the curious symbiosis of modernism and biology in their interdependent evolution over the course of the long nineteenth century (1800-1914), manifested in human-made images, objects, and structures. Beginning around 1800 with German nature philosophy mirrored in Biedermeier domesticity, class sessions will move chronologically through a variety of topics including: the impact of marine- and microbiology on art and design; the greenhouse as model for the architecture of public life; taxonomy in biology and ornament; the dissemination and implication of Darwin’s theories for design and fashion; biology, gender, and sexuality in design; Nature as pattern-maker; domestic horticulture in the “hot house”; Art Nouveau as Nature’s modernism; artifice, and decadence at the fin de siècle; “biocentrism” and neo-vitalism in design circa 1900; naturalism, science fiction, and visionary design before WWI; and, finally, today’s ecodesign as a successor to nineteenth-century bio-design. While course material will focus on developments in Europe, students may pursue research projects on American topics. 3 credits.