By Jody McCutcheon
It fascinates me that the bane of my dinner plates all the way back into childhood possesses the capacity to help save the world. Yes: for some, mushrooms may be repugnant to eat and even to imagine, but they also—if recent research, development and implementation are any indication—act as a dependable form of low-impact design that’s both renewable and biodegradable, while yielding a small carbon footprint.
The idea of mushroom design has been growing since the Eighties; one of the concept’s pioneers, San Francisco-based artist and mycologist Phil Ross, calls the fledgling industry “mycotecture.” Among its applications, mushroom design offers legitimate alternatives to plastics and Styrofoam packaging, thus relieving our impractical (implacable?) dependence on petroleum. Furthermore, mushroom packaging uses ninety-eight percent less energy than Styrofoam. And since the materials are completely organic, just toss them in the garden when you’re through with them, and they’ll seamlessly reintegrate back into nature.
The mushroom’s root structure (or mycelia) is the key to both durability and malleability. What passes for a production process basically consists of feeding agricultural waste to the mushroom, spurring growth of the mycelia. (Yes, this material is grown, not built; you can eat it if you feel so inclined.) Mycelia can extend for miles beneath the ground, but under controlled conditions they can be shaped into smaller, denser networks of fibrous strands, creating structures that are incredibly tough (stronger than concrete) and shock absorbent, as well as water-, mould- and fire-resistant.
Other applications include car bumpers, furniture and building materials. In fact, every part of a house can now (theoretically) be built from properly grown and -cast shrooms, including insulation. Mushroom bricks are supple enough to dimple at the touch, yet strong enough to stop a bullet. Even surfboards are being fashioned from the fungus.
Common mushroom furniture items include chairs, stools and lamps. Several designers in the US and Europe have ensured a stable (if pricy) supply for growing world demand. Notables include Danielle Trofe’s Mush-Lume hanging lights and table lamps—again, edible is a concept that’s sort of understood here—and Merjan Tara Sisman’s sublimely named “living room project,” which showcases objects made from living materials. Sisman and her colleague Brian McClellan see the fabrication of mushroom-based furniture as a kind of zero-energy form of 3D printing, with mycological matter as just the first type of natural living materials that may be used in the process. Such thinking offers plenty of hope for a clean, green future of design and production.
Instead of being treated like mushrooms—being kept in the dark and fed crap—shouldn’t we be treated TO mushrooms, and other kinds of renewable, sustainable design and building materials? Considering the “growth” industry mycotecture has become, the answer is obvious.