International Women's Day Spotlight: The Brilliant Biologist Janine Benyus

Janine Benyus’ nature-inspired innovation launches product design into the future.

03.08.2018

As part of our ongoing coverage of International Women's Day, we are celebrating women who have made bold, innovative changes in the commercial interior design world. Today, we go back to 2016 with a profile on Janine Benyus.

Janine Benyus is one of those unique people who lives and breathes her work. This much is obvious in the way her voice bubbles with enthusiasm through the phone as we talk. Biomimicry—studying the world around us to find patterns which enable us to live and design in a more sustainable and healthy way—wasn’t just her brainchild; it’s her way of life.

Design in the Natural World

Growing up in New Jersey, Benyus spent her time cataloging the natural world in the undeveloped land around her home. What started as childhood curiosity turned into her vocation after she witnessed construction crews destroy the space that had become her sanctuary.“I thought to myself, if the people in those trucks knew what I knew, they would never do it this way; they would do it differently,” explained Benyus. “I honestly believed that, and I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll tell stories about how life works.’”

Combining Forest Science and English Literature degrees, Benyus went on to do just that. By the time she began to research what would become Biomimicry in 1990, she already had five field guides published. In categorizing the world, she began to notice patterns.

“I saw that [these patterns were] the instructions on how to be on Earth. So I just assumed that designers were using these patterns. If you’re designing a solar cell, probably the first thing you do is talk to someone who knows about photosynthesis, for example. And when I found out that wasn’t true, I decided to go looking for it.”

What resulted has been years of searching the natural world for new ways in which the design community can create innovations. By studying the many ways that plants and animals are able to achieve particular characteristics—such as a specific hue or how they’re able to create energy—Benyus and her team are able to put those features into man-made products.

“We’ll have a question, like how does nature repel water?” she explains. “We’ll look at bacteria and fungi and plants—amoebas through zebras—we’ll look across taxum, and come up with all these mechanisms and strategies for repelling water. And then you start to see patterns that are the design principles.”  

Innovative Problem Solving

While some of her work reads like a page out of a sci-fi novel—such as the development of Sharklet, a natural anti-bacterial material based off of shark skin—many in the industry are already putting her work into action. Interface, for one, has worked with Benyus for years, putting Biomimicry into practice with their new flooring system, as well as creating a plan-of-action to not only be carbon-emission-free but reversing the effects of climate change through its Climate Take Back program announced at NeoCon in June. Their most recent work with Benyus helped inform the science behind Net-Works, a carpet collection made of reclaimed fishing net fibers which have been gathered from the ocean in the Philippines, giving communities a new revenue stream while cleaning the seas of waste.

This innovative approach to problem-solving and the delight in watching others get hooked on the results are what keep Benyus passionate about her work. “That’s what I love about it; that ‘a-ha!’ First I get to have it, and then we get to see others get it. And that, really, changes how people see the natural world.”