Sunday, 18 August 2013

Nature in Design, A Set Designer's Perspective

photo Anthony Jolliffe

image from
Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain on BBC Four charted the life and work of visionary architect Jospeh Paxton in its first episode. In the 19th century he proposed a series of ambitious plans for the first glass houses, allowing the British to cultivate foreign and exotic plants.  His structural inspiration came straight from nature: the giant water lilies had such an impressive structure that he sat his daugher on one to prove its strength. (source

The power of Nature's architecture was all around us whilst on holiday in Dorset this year. (Photos courtesy of the official holiday photographer...Ant.)

In the multi storey towering pillars of flowers.... larger than life swathes...
...In canopies... colour and repetition...
...even in accommodation....
A few years back, I paid a visit to Kew Gardens to those very glass houses for inspiration for a set design. Joseph Paxton's most famous work, The Crystal Palace, is long gone, burnt to the ground at the turn of the century, but the botanical gardens at Kew gave me an insight into the majestic sweep of the glass and wrought iron, mixing strength and utter delicacy in one. 

I found this image of the Crystal Palace, post-fire, and based my entire design for Benjamin Britten's opera, The Turn of the Screw. In this picture alone there are countless patterns and structures inspire by nature: the spiral staircase, the repetitive rungs of the adder, the ornate petals of the railings and so on...

This then led to sketches and finally a finished model box, setting the piece in an anachronistic burnt out Crystal Palace structure, not only inspired by nature but now overrun with unruly nature creeping in the choking the man made palace.

I thoroughly recommend you catch the next few episodes of Unbuilt Britain, BBC 4.

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