Lovegrove: Naturally Creative

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Ross Lovegrove, the 47-year-old industrial designer, has placed a bear skull and a meringue side-by-side on his studio shelf in London. The Welshman, who is inspired by the beauty and logic of nature, says the two very different objects remind him of the versatility of biomaterials.

Both are made of protein and polysaccharides, yet the skull is strong enough to stand on, while the meringue would disappear if he poured water on it. "They set my mind fizzing about packaging, waste, and the earth," he enthuses.

Absorbing reams of information from unlikely sources is Lovegrove's modus operandi. He "sucks" ideas from people and places -- so much so that he often doesn't sleep through the night. He is perhaps most famous for designing furniture inspired by nature, such as the Go chair for U.S. company Bernhardt Design, which resembles a high-tech praying mantis. But he has also created airplane seats for Japan Airlines, cameras for Olympus, and watches for Tag Heuer.


  Linking this varied portfolio is a constant search for forms that look and feel human, and new materials to render them in a cleaner, more efficient way. The Go chair, for example, features a lightweight frame of magnesium, a metal previously unused in furniture design.

Lovegrove's distinctive aesthetic and innovative approach earned him the World Technology Award for Design this November. The prize is part of an annual ceremony presented by the World Technology Network, a global think tank and elite club based in New York City, to honor the most innovative individuals and companies in science and technology. Peers nominate the candidates and vote for the winners.

Previous winners include Luxembourg-based Internet telephone startup Skype Technologies, now owned by eBay (EBAY), and Ted Clark, senior vice-president and general manager of Mobile Computing at Hewlett Packard (HPQ), as well as fellow Brit Jonathan Ive, head of design for Apple (AAPL).

"Ross was nominated for his continual search for innovative design and his integration of environmental concerns, which seems very timely given the issues that many people are finding pressing on humanity at the moment," says James Clark, founder and chairman of the awards.


  At the core of Lovegrove's design ethic is DNA: Design, Nature, Art. His creations try to be as purposeful as possible. A bottle he created for the Welsh mineral water company Ty Nant not only looks like a beautiful twist of running water, but can also be crushed for more efficient disposal, and is easier for children and the elderly to hold than regular bottles.

Lovegrove is shocked by the waste in some products, such as the average pump-action toothpaste tube, which contains three times as much plastic as an iPod. This love of the natural form earned him the nickname "Captain Organic" from Los Angeles architect Greg Lynn.

The pace of Lovegrove's life is fast and furious. In the past month, he has been around the world three times, talked to Boeing in Seattle about working on the interior of the 787 Dreamliner, and met with Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake in Tokyo, with whom he has worked on cosmetics packaging in the past.

Despite his hectic schedule, Lovegrove chose to travel to California for the World Technology award ceremony because, he explains, "I think science is more innovative than anything right now." The people he met at the event -- the cancer researcher with whom he discussed nanotech, for instance -- exposed him to new ideas that will swirl in his brain until they come out in some future design.


  So much travel may take him away from Lovegrove Studio in London, where he manages 10 designers and colleagues, but it gives him more time to draw. On long trips, he fills blank leather-bound sketchbooks, which he buys from one particular shop in Venice, Italy.

His latest book contains ink drawings and thoughts about avian flu and utopian and dystopian views of the world. His creations are increasingly about the bigger picture, rather than isolated products. "I am not a hit-and-run designer," he quips.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that Lovegrove's lifetime ambition is to design a car. His excited tone cranks up a notch when he discusses his latest concept -- a transparent bubble-shaped vehicle that allows drivers to see the world around them.

It has few parts (the average car is made up of 30,000 components, he says) and cuts down on noise and air pollution in a manner similar to Toyota's hybrid vehicles. The overall look is athletic, with thin wheels, yet comfortingly rounded, like an air bubble.


  Until Lovegrove finds a client willing to produce his dream, he has enough on his plate. After a few days in London with his family this month, he is off again to Milan to meet with a well-known lighting and technology company that wants him to rethink its brand, then on to home furnishing company VitrA in Istanbul, then to Munich to give a public lecture at the Pinakothek art museum.

As our interview winds down, we discuss the relative merits of being a designer with a strong environmental ethic. While some createurs du jour go for the attention-grabbing bang, Lovegrove tries to keep his eye on the bigger picture.

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