BIG SUR, Calif. — Last week, I spent a night in a nest. Woven from eucalyptus branches, it bloomed high on the side of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway, a great whorl of sticks atop four gnarly pillars. The north wind hissed through the gaps in the branches and the fog settled on my face and sleeping bag, but I could see the stars through the nest’s oculus entry and hear the elephant seals miles below honking and braying in a lullaby like no other.
Designed and built by Jayson Fann for the Treebones “glamping” resort here (mostly yurts with a fantastic view), the nest, which costs $110 a night, is always booked. Fann, 40, a nest maker, artist, community educator and musician, said the nest is so popular, there have been nest marriages and, inevitably, nest babies. Proud parents send him photos.
From New Age cocoons and backyard playthings of the rich to public installations made from the wood of hurricane-felled trees to contemporary art objects that you can buy along with your Richters and Oldenburgs, human nests are having a bit of a moment.
This spring, a South African nest maker named Porky Hefer, who was formerly a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather and Bozell, took his nests on a tour of the design fairs, from Design Miami/Basel and Collective 1 in Manhattan to Design Days in Dubai, where a stiletto-heeled fairgoer climbed into his leather off-cut nest and stayed for a half-hour. “I think it was because she didn’t quite realize she was wearing a dress,” he said of her long sojourn there.
Chee Pearlman, a design consultant and curator, ventured that nests are “probably the purest antidote to the heavy steel-and-concrete building footprints that, city by mega-city, are overtaking the globe.”
But it is not just the appeal of the handmade object — twig and daub as a rebuke to glass and steel — that makes a nest so desirable. It is the sophisticated design models they are based on. For nests like Fann’s and Hefer’s are hardly crude objects. Like the birds’ nests that inspired them (weaver birds, in Hefer’s case), these human pods are keenly engineered structures made from materials at hand. Design blogs are peppered with enticing examples. Fann’s nests, for example, are as sturdy as a concrete bunker; eucalyptus, plentiful in Northern California, is not just lovely but doughty, and cures as hard as metal.
“Birds were the original architects,” Pearlman said, “creating fantastic and extreme examples of blobitecture and parametric design long before any architecture critic labeled these styles. They are also summa cum laude engineers, able to transform cheap, insubstantial building materials into the most durable and cozy of homes. All this without a single CAD rendering, which today’s architecture students are helpless without.”
Prehumans, of course, were born in nests, and we used to be pretty good at making them. Great apes like chimpanzees and bonobos still make complex and lovely ones. The best modern architecture, like the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, succeeds because it offers new models of the nest and its surrounds, what the British geographer Jay Appleton called “prospect and refuge” — cozy nooks and open vistas — that are familiar because of our evolutionary coding.
In 2011, three grown men, a naturalist, an ornithologist and an engineer, built a man-sized hummingbird’s nest at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and camped out in it, as part of the Nat Geo Wild television series “Live Like an Animal.” Reached by phone at his home in England recently, James Cooper, the engineer, recalled how they built the nest with bungee cords and bean canes and stuffed it with “duvets and feathers and pillows and lovely soft nest-y stuff.”
He added: “Basically, it was three stupid Englishmen trying to behave like hummingbirds. We drank a lot of nectar, which does strange things to your mood. The interesting thing about trying to live like a bird is that when you’re high up, surrounded by all these zoo animals, you felt you were in the safest, warmest spot. The last thing you wanted was to be down, out of the thing, among the animals.”
But the nest wasn’t big enough for all three men, he said, and he was evicted early on. He spent the rest of the night on a bench, trying to sleep through the roaring of the lions.
Janine Benyus, the biologist and author who won a National Design Award last year for her work on biomimicry (that is, design that looks to nature for inspiration and innovation), said she envied sleepovers like this and mine in the Treebones nest.
“Oh, my God, I want one,” she said. “The light through the branches. For 99.9 percent of our time on Earth, we were hunters and gatherers. We were arboreal. We lived in trees. What you were experiencing by looking up at those branches in the nest was a set of fractal patterns that we evolved under a millennium ago. Biology says we are tuned by evolution to prefer landscapes that have those fractal patterns.”
Benyus went on to describe an experiment by Judith Heerwagen, an environmental and evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively on biophilic design, that tested the visual characteristics of office cubicles. Working on the theory that humans evolved on the African savanna, Heerwagen printed photographs of that setting (long, distant views framed by acacia trees) and papered some cubicles with that image. Others were swathed in an abstracted pattern of the same photograph, and a third group wore the usual gray. In tests involving creativity, mood and memory, workers in the savanna-papered pods had the highest scores.
Biology teaches that any structure we make is a nest, Benyus added. “Including the Hampton Inn that I’m staying in right now,” she said. “As a biologist, my concern is whether or not the structure is well adapted or maladapted. To the extent that this hotel guzzles energy, is full of toxic material and when it is knocked down it won’t decompose, I see it as not well adapted. But your nest, made from local materials that have been foraged or pruned, I find incredibly beautiful. At the end of its life, it will decay into the earth and be food. For me, that is a great biological structure.”