Prior to becoming the buzzword amongst hipsters and the health industry to refer to nutrition, the term ‘organic’ had a long history in the field of design. Through different movements, it has been used as a synonym for harmony, a way to describe natural living matter, and even an explanation of softer, asymmetric shapes. Most recently, the environmental emergency has pushed the tension between nature and industry to a different place — it’s now a of matter of survival.

From the 19th century onwards, the term organic has shed light on various tensions between modernism and pastoralism, technology and culture, industry and craftsmanship.

Beyond the vague notion of harmony between man and nature, the world of design isn’t clear on what defines organic: can organic design be mass-produced? Must organic pieces be made from only natural materials? Must organic design complement its surroundings? Should organic be functional? These questions have intensified with our growing awareness of the living world and the knowledge that our current means of existence pose a threat to it. So, as COP 26 unravels with nations and industrials trying to reconcile business goals with carbon neutrality, the design world, too, is seeking resolve.

Sometimes resolve means looking at the past and right now design is striving to reclaim its pre-industrial identity of craftsmanship. The Parisian exhibit ‘Les Flammes’ (The Flames), taking place at the Musée d’Art Moderne, places the art of ceramics at the forefront. This medium, traditionally belittled as primitive, is being celebrated trans-historically through pieces ranging from the Neolithic to those of modernists such as Lucio Fontana and the contemporary creations of Simone Fattal and Takuro Kuwata. The medium could be described as the essence of organic, where man fuses with the natural elements of earth (clay) and fire (heat) to create harmoniously functional objects. The exhibit further explores how ceramics has served performance in many fields such as health, ecology and even aeronautics. It argues that today ceramics is an art of resistance. The recognition of an age of ceramics, which bizarrely had never been consecrated, seems today, more than ever, to impose itself.

If the design world is celebrating its pre-industrial past, it’s not without looking at the future. London’s Design Museum’s ‘Waste Age: What Can Design Do?’ — argues that it is design that in fact enabled our disposal habits, but that equally it can plot the way past them. The focus is on the evolution of waste as a simple byproduct of consumerist desires to the “defining material of our age”. As the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Steam Age shaped mankind and the planet, the Waste Age determines our current condition. The designer’s responsibility is now to re-imagine waste as a resource...

Tidhar Zagagi, Pixel Shoe, 2021

Tidhar Zagagi, Pixel Shoe, 2021, photo: Nadav Goren

Oxford Tire Pile , Westley, California, USA, 1999. Image by Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto