A/D/O by MINI | Materials: Mycelium



Materials: Mycelium

In the first in a series of articles looking at unusual and exciting materials in design, we delve into the mysteries of mushroom mycelium.

On forest floors, in labs, design studios, and in a nerdy corner of the internet, mycelium has a strong and growing presence. A network of fungi bound together like glue, mycelium is the vegetative tissue, or roots, of mushrooms. Certain strains, of which there are over 600 known, can grow in under two weeks with moderate care, provide bioremediation of oil spills, and consume plastic. They’re also biodegradable, nontoxic, and fire- and water-resistant. In short, mycelium is a mysterious super-organism. 

Designers have learned to harness the versatile capabilities of this living material to create buildings, packaging, fabric, and even meat alternatives. Scientific American referred to this moment of increased interest in the material as “The Mycelium Revolution” and star mycologist Paul Stamets argues that mushrooms can “help save the world”. In many ways, mycelium provides boundless possibilities, with the properties that can replace almost anything made of wood, plastics and many fabrics. 

Mycelium products can be grown naturally in molds, like this bowl by The Growing Lab

Mycelium is a “soil magician”, says designer Maurizio Montalti, referring to the fungi’s transformative capacities. His studio, Officina Corpuscoli, operates like a laboratory for testing, studying, and manufacturing a range of vases, furniture, and even space-ready boots. In one project for the European Space Agency, Montalti conducted stress tests on mycelium to explore its potential for growing structures on the moon.

Montalti seized the opportunity “to cooperate with living systems” and to “embrace their temporality” as a way of creating socially-responsible materials that challenge the “obsession we have in our human culture of holding on and wishing things lasted forever”. 

Maurizio Montalti's company MOGU produces commercially available mycelium wall and floor panels

The biggest obstacle is the ability to scale – namely, transforming the work from a talking point or design object into a viable alternative to non-biodegradable materials. Montalti’s company MOGU tackles the limits of scaling through the production of flooring and acoustic panels for interiors. It is one of the few mycelium-based products on the market for commercial use.

Despite progress in his own practice, Montalti recognizes that a larger shift must take place. “The reality is that we are still standing at the prehistory of mycelium in terms of bio-fabricated materials, and a lot more effort and commitment from multiple players is needed [...] to create a healthy system which could possibly counter the ruins of capitalism,” he said. 

Mycelium can also be used as a leather alternative, as The Growing Lab demonstrates

Another company, Myco Works, started by Phil Ross, begins its process with agricultural waste such as corn cobs, and production waste such as paper pulp, to grow “leather” from mycelium and mushrooms. Their leather alternative is created with dramatically fewer resources, less time and less expense compared to traditional animal leather, and is naturally antibiotic, water-wicking, and flexible. It is as strong as leather from a deer or cow and can be dyed, sewn and pressed.

By manipulating growth conditions, Myco Works has been able to create patterns and textures that far exceed the capacities of animal leather – thereby expanding its manufacturing potential.

“If the 20th century was the age of plastics, we see the 21st century as the era of biomaterials, with a laser-beam focus on sustainability and earth-friendly consumer goods,” said Danielle Marino, product designer at Ecovative. The materials-science company showcases the versatility of mycelium by using it as an alternative to toxic synthetic materials in packaging and fabrics. Most recently, the company launched Atlast, a line of meat alternatives made of mycelium that combines texture and nutrients.

While Ecovative produces a range of products, its in-house lab experiments with the properties of the materials to discover new applications. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to manufacturing,” said Marino. “We are simply tailoring natural systems to control the growth results.”

Mycelium's architectural capabilities are being explored by Officina Corpuscoli

Ecovative not only creates its own products, but also work with companies like IKEA that eventually want to replace some of their packaging with mycelium. Through a partnership with Ecovative, designer Danielle Trofe has grown a collection of elegant lamps and also teaches lamp-growing workshops. Other collaborations have ranged from buildings to furniture and surfboards, and Ecovative also offers a grow kit for individual use. “Our limitation is not the material but the vision for its possible uses,” Marino said.

To use mycelium is to relinquish some control to the material; to provide the correct conditions to nurture it or else it won’t perform. No longer is it a process of manufacture but a product of care. Like any material, consistency comes as a result of understanding, but with mycelium one also has to be prepared to discover something in the process. As it makes its way from museums, labs and showrooms into daily life, the success of this enigma will rely on convincing the public to accept packaging, furniture, food and homes made from mushrooms. The material is ready, but is everyone else?

This article is part of a series exploring new materials in design, linked to the A/D/O 2019 curatorial theme Future Matter(s).

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.

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