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The Fungus of Design

by Margherita Fronte [1], 20 February 2015

A young Italian designer whose works is extremely innovative, on the border between art and biology. Single objects that are individual in their field, forged from materials gained through the manipulation of living materials. His name is Maurizio Montalti, founder of the "Officina Corpuscoli" in Amsterdam (2010), whos goal is not only to produce beautiful artifacts, but to stimulate thought about the central aspects of design (above all the use of materials) and to provoke questions about much more. The nature of humans (the relationship between life and death) or the nature of progress and its relationship to the world and its ecosystem.
A veritable fountain of ideas, Officina Corpuscoli organizes meetings with other designers and anyone potentially interested in learning more about the proposed themes, in tight collaboration with the Department of Microbiology of the University of Utrecht [2]. As Montalti explains "I am not interesting in having a monopoly. My ideas can best be developed if others take them up, discuss them and rework them".

Born an engineer, how did you move into design?
I have a degree in engineering management from Bologna, and all that I learned during that degree is still useful to me. But i have always had a passion for the discipline of design and so I primarily taught myself. I learned enough to get into the Design Academy in Eindhoven. I chose this school because I like their less technical approach, and they are more centred on the creative aspect (of design) and its need to make the objects that are simultaneously message carriers, without necessarily having to tie the project to industrial development and production. In Eindhoven they also work a lot with materials, which was also of particular interest to me.

The prime materials for your work is fungus mycelium. Why this choice?
The choice of materials is central to the discipline of the project. The materials that are currently favoured in design such as plastic, foam and metals, are produced using industrial processes that are detrimental to the environment. I wanted to raise this issue for discussion. The beauty and fascination for fungus lies in its role in nature. Funghi are everywhere, in the soil and in the air, but we associate them with revulsion, disgust and danger, and we minimize their importance, whereas in fact they are fundamental for decomposition, transformation and recycling. At the beginning of this research i was interested in the relationship between life and death, and I grew closer to fungus in its role as recycler of biological materials.

This has meant deepening your knowledge of theoreticval and experimental biology. Has it been difficult?
The learning process itself has not been a problem. I have always had a passion for biology, and both studying as a biologist and learning tlaboratory technique has been extremely stimulating. The difficulty was to find somebody within the biology community who was willing to collaborate. I looked all over and received a lot of no's, until I met the right people at the University of Utrecht. They gave me access to their instruments and laboratoiries allowing the chance to create projects that are interesting both for the designer and the scientists. This was the springboard.
The first experiments were aimed at understanding the interaction between fungus and organic materials, in particular those textile, with the project Bodies of Change [3]. I followed that by analyzing the possible use of fungus to degrade plastic using a garden chair [4] as their growth bed, a common object that is cheap and breaks easily but is difficult to dispose of.

This interdisciplinarity is also the most inovative aspect of your research.
Yes, without a doubt. Interdisciplinarity is an added value, because it allows me to translate research results into objects, the aim not being to put the findings into industrial production but to demonstrate a direction that we could develop. There is also an advantage for the scientists, because being able to work with someone from from outside the community and who has freedom to experiment in non orthodox ways can push their research forward.

Your experimentation has pushed you to create a symbiosis between a yeast and a fungus, something that does not exist in nature. When biotechnologies alter natural evolutionary processes it is always contentious. What was the objective?
The System Synthetics [5] project is the result of a grant won in Netherlands. I was interested in crossing fungal capacities to degrade with that of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, forcing them into symbiosos to create a microrganism able to decompose plastic materials and give back energy in liquid form (bioethonol produced by the yeast). It is a synthetic biology program whose objective is to provoke questions about the potentials and implications for this discipline. Doing it as a designer allows me to involve a broader public in the debate, and can encourage scientists to explore new possibilities and stimulate designers to reflect upon the necessity of adopting critical thought about the materials that we use every day.

Is this also the spirit of the workshop, in which you are always protagonist?
Exactly, the aim is to stimulate debate and involve other professionals, encouraging them to learn more about a primary material - fungus - that they do not traditionally work with and which requires differenet competences and knowledge sets to those that designers usually rely on.

In your program you also have an industrial development project. What is it about?
It is a project related primarily to agriculture with the aim of expanding into many other fields of application. I work with a group of entrepreneurs, scientista and artists, in order to produce common objects and instruments obtained from fungus. Within a year we will open our first pilot plant in Northern Italy. Although an initiative of this type has to be economically sustainable, it is not just the economic aspect that interests me, but the possibility of demonstrating our ability to set up an industrial production process for this type of object in order to scale up production.

(see alsoSee also some photos of the Officina Corpuscoli [6])

(@mafronte [7])


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Links in this document:

  1. 1] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/schedabiografica/Margherita Fronte
  2. 2] http://www.uu.nl/en/research/microbiology/research/fungal-group
  3. 3] http://www.corpuscoli.com/projects/bodies-of-change/
  4. 4] http://www.corpuscoli.com/projects/the-ephemeral-icon/
  5. 5] http://www.corpuscoli.com/projects/system-synthetics/
  6. 6] https://www.flickr.com/photos/fondazionebassetti/sets/72157650404996628/
  7. 7] https://twitter.com/mafronte
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The Fungus of Design
See also: lectures in Le idee e la Materia and A Matter of Design
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Articles by:  Margherita Fronte
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