These Designers Are Trying to Build Everything Out of Mushrooms

Fungal houses aren’t just for Smurfs.

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Jul 4 2017, 12:00pm

Maurizio Montalti puts water in vase of fungi. Image: ARTIS Micropia

Over the last few years, mushrooms have been used to make clothing, furniture, packaging, and even houses. Now, DIYers can use a bag of dried mushrooms to create whatever they want.
Consumers have already ordered kits and grown their own wedding dress, teddy bears, and lampshades through Ecovative Design's grow-it-yourself (GIY) initiative. The New York-based company, which makes mushroom materials, is hoping innovators, students and artists will use their GIY tools.

Danielle Trofe, a Brooklyn designer, used Evocative's material to create a lighting collection of GIY organic and biodegradable lampshades called the Mushlume Lighting Collection. The lampshades are made of mushroom mycelium—the fleshy, vegetative part of the fungus that is an organic building materialstronger than concrete bricks and can withstand extreme temperatures. Evocative recently partnered up with Trofe to mass produce these mushroom lampshades and sell them to consumers.

Ecovative Design is also using biological organisms, including mycelium fungus, to make packaging materials, such as food containers and packing sheets. The idea is to reduce dependence on materials like Styrofoam, which are notoriously bad for the environment, and often end up in a landfill. Mycelium packaging is entirely biodegradable, or "bio-compatible," as Bayer likes to say.

"It's not an alternative or substitute for Styrofoam, because it's totally different. That can be a strength or weakness depending on the application," said Bayer. The material is denser than traditional foams, which can add to shipping costs when shipping lightweight items. Ecovative is working on a lower-density mycelium foam to address the issue.

While the mushroom design trend is slowly catching on, not many people know about it. That's why ARTIS Micropia, an interactive museum in Amsterdam, created an exhibit called "a Fungal Future."

Ecovative's Grow Lamp pendant designed by Danielle Trofe. Image: Ecovative

Italian designer Maurizio Montalti's work is currently featured in the exhibit—a collection of everyday objects such as chairs, lampshades, waterproof vases, and slippers made from mycellium. He hopes this sustainable material can be used to replace plastic and other materials that are tough to recycle.

The goal of the museum is to "display the invisible world of microorganisms to the general public," Jasper Buikx, a microbiologist at Micropia, told Motherboard via email. "Montalti's work is the perfect combination between art and science and revolves around an important question: how can we produce enough for a growing population without using polluting materials like plastic, and without further depleting the Earth's resources?" Buix continued.

Builders and design firms are opting to move away from finite resources, Montalti explained in an interview. He said people need to rethink the role of fungi.

"Most people tend to associate them with feelings of disgust or repulsion. We have to [accept] the fundamental role those organisms already play in our lives," said Montalti.

Building and designing things out of mushrooms is still in its infancy largely because the material remains poorly understood. As more is discovered, applications will grow.

"Fungal diversity is enormous, possibly containing millions of species, of which we now only know about 100,000. And within a single species of fungus, there sometimes is more genetic diversity that there is between a man and a fish," said Buikx. "This means the sky is the limit."