The unique combination of long-range molecular ordering and mobility found in liquid crystals has been exploited by nature to create a range of functional and living materials. Inspired by biological designs, we are pursuing studies that seek to realize synthetic liquid crystalline materials that integrate ideas related to the engineering of strain and defects. In one approach, we are exploring the use of elastic strain within liquid crystalline droplets to create dynamic templates that can be used to synthesize chemically patchy and non-spherical particles. In a second approach, we have used the nanoscopic physical environments created by topological defects to direct the self-assembly of biological amphiphiles in ways that have strong analogies to polymer-templated self-assembly processes. Such systems form the basis of new materials that permit ordering to propagate from the nanoscale to the optical scale with remarkable sensitivity. In a third approach, we are using the anisotropic mechanical properties of biocompatible liquid crystals to design materials than can be used to regulate the organization and function of living bacterial systems. These various lines of investigation, which encompass a broad range of supramolecular, colloidal and interfacial phenomena involving liquid crystals, will be discussed. Fundamental challenges and technological opportunities will be described.