Recently, someone asked me whether I thought leather had a place in biophilic designs. It’s an interesting question, which I answered with a few off the cuff ideas, with the promise to think about it in more detail.
My initial response to the question is “it depends”. As someone that eats animals, and has no religious belief, I have no ethical problem with using animal skins and animal fibres, as long as it is not gratuitous or involves endangered wild species. I wear leather shoes, and have, in the past had leather sofas and leather upholstery in a car.
Everyone’s ethics have their boundaries, though, and there may be no logical reason for those limits. For example, I’m not a fan of fur farming (but what is the real moral difference between eating and wearing an animal?), and I am certainly very interested in seeing how lab-grown meat develops.
As mentioned above, I have no religious beliefs, but many do. The ethics of the religious are guided by the teachings of their religion, and there may be taboos about which animals may, or may not, be exploited for food, fibre or hides.
It could be argued that leather is a good use of a waste product. If we, as a society, are content with farming animals, then surely it is right that we use as much of that animal as possible. That might make leather a useful (and arguably a more sustainable) product, but not necessarily biophilic.
Moving back to the main question: does leather have a place in biophilic designs, assuming no ethical objection? From my own, possibly narrow, perspective, I’m not sure that leather is, per se, a biophilic material, even if it is a natural(ish) product. It is highly processed – rarely resembling an animal skin by the time it is tanned, coloured, stretched and made into a product.
For me, biophilic design is first and foremost about comfort – physical and psychological. We are most comfortable when we are in environments that stimulate our senses in a way that reflects our evolutionary history as plains-dwelling animals, using well-adapted and highly evolved senses to find food, fuel, water and shelter. This is something I have covered in previous posts, so won’t go into great depth here.
In artificial environments, like cities, we can recreate concordant sensory stimuli through design, and that might (and often does) mean the use of artificial materials. In fact, in urban environments, it is only possible to create biophilic environments by using a wide range of synthetic materials and manufactured products.
Floor coverings are an excellent example of where synthetic products can be used in a biophilic design (good examples from Interface, who are pioneers in biophilic design and sustainability), and wall coverings too. Consider also lighting and acoustics. Modern biodynamic lighting and AI-generated soundscapes that recreate natural stimuli are only possible with advanced technology.
One final point. Good designers make sure that they are aware of the users of the environments they design. In commercial spaces, it is likely that vegans, or followers of some religions, will find the use of some animal skins or animal fibres offensive or taboo. In that case, why risk unnecessary hurt when there are alternative materials available.
So, in conclusion – I think that it is possible to create fantastic biophilic spaces without using leather or other animal products. On the other hand, if a designer (and all the users of the space that designer is creating) have no ethical issues with using animal products in design, then they can be used as part of a biophilic design.