In 1929 British scientist J. B. S. Haldane wrote a paper called “The Origins of Life” where he describes a very convincing hypothesis on the bio-chemical origins of life on Planet Earth approximately 4 Billions years ago. Haldane was a passionate scholar that in his late life  moved to India so that he could stop wearing socks, become vegetarian and study Hinduism as a form of practice of freedom. During his previous life as an academic in Oxford, in 1929 when he was in his mid thirties, one of his most successful achievements was the introduction of the Primordial Soup Theory. Haldane’ envisioned the Oceans of a young Planet Earth as a quite dense water based solution in which inorganic chemical compounds coming from outer space during the formation of the planet began to react together under the influence of solar light and heat to give birth to early organic compounds, RNA molecules and finally DNA and the first living cells.

In 1924, 30 years old soviet biochemist Alexander Oparin independently developed a similar theory based on the idea of a dense liquid ocean as the cradle of a series of chemical transformations that eventually created the first living cells from carbonated mud. He manages to demonstrate how  the ancient cosmogonic ideas on spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter can be scientifically consistent.

Haldane’s and Oparine’s theories rely as the basis of all contemporary ideas on the Origins of Life. The fact that more complex forms of life derive from simpler original organisms seems easy to understand today, and we don’t have big troubles in thinking that humans derive from apes, and that at the very beginning of the chain we find mono-cellular algae.

Design drivers


Design is a celebration of human ingenuity.

When our ancestors appeared, they had nothing. The oldest flint tools made by the Australopithecus are dated 3 millions years, and are the very first attempt of early humans to modify and dominate nature. A primitive design activity, and a quite bad beginning. These people were among the very few creatures around without fangs and claws. Difficult time for them in the wild. But they did have brains, and began to use them to gather together and build artificial fangs and claws. No alternatives for survival were available. The extreme consequences of that approach bring to what we know today as climate change. But we cannot forget the fantastic achievements of the human creativity that allow us, at the dawn of the third millennium, to live much longer and in much better conditions than our oldest parents.

Design is the activity of the human making. It’s the core of the relationship between the man (the artificial) and the environment (the natural). We usually consider the consequences of that relationship as sustainability issues, and it’s a complicated affair. Sustainability is a horrible word. Outside the environmental discourse, we use it to describe couples at the ends of their love that keep staying together for convenience. Since we choose this specific word, we might consider the fact that we are talking about the crisis of the love affair between humanity and its planet. Between the artificial and the natural. Saving the planet might be an epic love adventure in which the natural seduces the artificial. It’s a travel from the past to the future, discovering the unknown. It’s one of the more profound acts of love through the imagination of amazing new scenarios.

Design is a celebration of the intricate love affair that bounds humans and nature.


Working with micro-algae is about addressing the archaic question about the origins of life. These tiny organisms appeared on Planet Earth as the first living creatures 3.5 B years ago. It took them a couple of Billion years to generate the so called Oxygen Catastrophe through their intense photosynthetic activity. Eventually, they transformed the atmosphere by fixing CO2 while producing O2 and created the conditions for the first non photosynthetic organisms to appear, become animal, and only later humans. Our ancestors, the first homo, appeared only a few hundred thousands years ago. We think we are the rulers, but actually we are among the last arrived here. We think we are destroying the planet, but actually we are only destroying the conditions for us to stay here longer. We usually think using anthropocentric and arrogant statements. Micro-algae have been on the planet much much longer than humans. And they will probably survive us. They are among the tiniest and apparently most simple creatures, we think we are the strongest and more complex, but the reality is different. They are much more resilient and capable of adaptation than we are.

The Lillies

Cesare calls Lillies all his works related to micro-algae. It’s a wide process that begins with the cultivation of blue-green algae in photobioreactors (WaterLillies), continues with the creation of bio-products made with living algal biomass (ink, plastic collected in LillyJars), and ends up in the creation of algal works (PaperLillies, LillySkins, LillySponges and other LillyThings). On the side of the tangible world, integrating micro-algae cultivations within architecture and design is a way to generate virtuous behaviours into artificial environments by closing some loops: fixing CO2, purifying air and grey waters, enhancing buildings passive behaviours, and producing valuable biomass to be used by local communities as food, feed, or energy source. On the side of the intangible, the Lillies trigger a form of archaic fascination of natural wonders while reflecting on the brevity of human presence on Earth compared to the most ancient living creatures.

The Lillies are a trigger to celebrate human ingenuity through natural algal biomass.
They propose a speculation on the brevity of human path compared to that of Life on Earth.
They contain something very similar to the Primordial Soup where it all began.

WaterLilly is a family of experimental prototypes and installations conceived to act as photobioreactors to grow micro-algae within the built environment. While growing, the solution purifies air, creates a beautiful green light, and a relaxing water sound. It is something to be taken care of.

LillyJars contain approximately 200 ml of algal bio-solution made with living algal to be used as ink, dye, watercolour, and natural plastic. Variations in the algal concentration and in the amounts of water create a variety of vegetal inks with different effects. The green color comes from the algal cells. More algae in the solution creates darker and thicker color, similar to acrylic paint. More water creates transparency and becomes similar to watercolours. Fresh algae generate green colours, while dead cells tend to become brown. Some algae strains create also red tints. It’s about making little jars of Primordial Soup: a celebration of Life on Earth.

PaperLillies are drawings on paper made with algae solution that is often dropped on paper to form geometrical compositions. When the ink is thicker, it’s laid on paper with a sponge. Different tyoes of natural sponge generate different stamps. Sometimes, around the algae, series of black ink dots or lines create populations of human created environments, sort of human colonies.

LillyAnimals are drawings on animal leather made with ticker algal solution. They take the name from the animals from which the skin comes from. Leather is one of the first inventions of early humans. Hunters-gatherers discovered that the skins of the animal the eat, when smoked, could become a very flexible and resistant material to be used for crafting many useful things. Using leather today is a way to close the loop of the meat industry, and is also a celebration of one of the first human creative inventions.

LillySponges are natural sponges tinted with algal solution. It’s the sponges used to make drawings on paper or leather. We use different kinds of natural sponges including (marine sponges, luffa, and konjak) tinted with different algal tonalities from blue-green to brown. Natural sponges are beautiful and curious living creatures, sort of half way between monocellular organisms and more complex creatures. They are a wonder of nature that deserves to be celebrated.

Chairs and Tables (the OPS! series)

There are more chairs than asses” said Bruno Munari.
We need to design new asses rather than other chairs” replied Ettore Sottsass.

We didn’t plan to design a chair. And yet it happened. Perhaps it is one of those things that happens sooner or later in the life of a designer. We were working on a system of wooden bones to make medium-large sized structures like skeletons of big fantastic animals. Wooden joints, perhaps with a few screws here and there to keep them together. No glue. Dismountable and re-mountable. Each time in a different way. And here it happened… Serendipity! A little corner comes out that seems to have been made just for us to put our ass on.

The OPS! series is not about innovation, complicated theories, maths or geometries. It’s just about lightness, simplicity, skilled design, quality materials and proper fabrication. All in all, we believe there’s something beautiful.

For more info, discover the OPS! mini-website.


Every work is designed by Cesare Griffa and realised with a dynamic team of designers and sometimes consulting companies and fabricators.

Design teams have included: Antonio Ravarino, Federico Rizzo, Davide Iannici, Andrea Vissio, Stefania Totis, Silvio De Iaco, Marco Cuccuru, Claudio Cannucciari, Dario Nocera, Pietro Perlino, Tibor Antony, Nikolaos Argyros, Matteo Amela, Federico Borello, Marco Caprani, Gianni Bruera, Marco Mignone, Max Manno, Denise Giordana, Chiara Tournour, Federica di Iorio, Mauro Fassino, Davide del Giudice

For biological consulting we usually work with Fotosintetica & Microbiologica (Florence).

Almost all photographs are by Federico Rizzo (Torino)


Works have been widely exhibited including the Venice Biennale, Ljubljana Biennal of Design, Share Festival, Milano Design Week, Dutch Design Week, Dubai Design Week, DRIVE Volkswagen Group Forum with Ars Electronica, ITU Telecom World Conference, Trinity College Science Gallery.


When ultraviolet light acts on a mixture of water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, a vast variety of organic substances are made, including sugars and some of the materials from which proteins are built up. In the present world, such substances are destroyed by microorganisms.

But before the origins of life they must have accumulated till the primitive oceans reached the consistency of hot dilute soup. Today an organism must trust to luck, skill, or strength to obtain its food. The first precursors of life found food available in considerable quantities, and had no competitors in the struggle for existence.

J.B.S. Haldane, The Origin of Life, 1929

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