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Biomaterials, the future of design?

by Alexia Martel-Desjardins February 19, 2019
Biomaterials, the future of design?

Concordia students using fungus to create everyday items

A metro car built with fungus and a dress made of kombucha scoby (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) might seem unrealistic, but Concordia students and researchers are making these ideas a reality.

“It’s not something you can take lightly, because in some way, you have life in your hands,” said Théo Chauvirey, a Concordia Master of Design graduate student, while handling the surprisingly light metro seats and panels he built for the Master of Design year-end show last April.

For his final project, Chauvirey constructed a life-sized metro car with mycelium—the root of a mushroom. This material presents many advantages: “Mushroom is super fast and cheap to grow,” Chauvirey said. “It’s a sound absorber. You can do acoustic panels with it, you can do thermo insulation, and it’s fire resistant.” The seats, floor, ceilings and wall panels of his metro car are all made of mycelium. Chauvirey used a material kit from a company called Ecovative Design.

Chauvirey started by adding water to natural fibres like hemp and wood chips. The mushroom that grows on the residues of these materials expands and can be molded into any shape, like metro seats. He also had the opportunity to re-exhibit his work at the Maker Faire—an event where artists and engineers can show their works of art, inventions and projects—in November, and then more recently at Concordia’s 4th SPACE.

“The interest in biomaterials lies in the fact that it’s design-oriented towards reducing the environmental impact of objects we consume,” said Martin Racine, graduate program director and associate professor in the department of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia. Racine produced an exhibition that questions the materials used to design everyday objects as well as their obsolescence.

Chauvirey built metro seats and panels for his master of design’s year-end show. Photo by Hannah Ewen.

Racine added that some companies are becoming increasingly interested in using these new materials. “Some car companies, like Ford and GM, are starting to research biomaterials to replace the plastics used in car doors, for example, so it’s encouraging to see these kinds of initiatives,” he said.

Chauvirey aimed to duplicate the new Azur metro cars in Montreal with mycelium. He realized that this material may not have the necessary rigidity for the counter-levered floating seats in Azur cars when one of his seats broke during the Maker Faire. “I really wanted to stick to that design because it’s very important in public transport,” he said. “That structure is super complex, and mycelium wasn’t the best fit for that because mycelium works best in compression and in this case I was working with flexion.” The rest of Chauvirey’s structure is still in good condition, and is stored in his design studio.

“I didn’t revolutionize anything,” Chauvirey said. “I think what was interesting with my metro project was the fact that I applied this material to a field that nobody talks about, which is public transportation.” Chauvirey noticed that biomaterials research tends to overlook ways to improve public transit infrastructures. “It’s considered green, so that’s cool, period, and we don’t think about anything else, like the environmental cost of the infrastructure.”

Chauvirey also collaborated with Bioartist WhiteFeather Hunter to create a dress made of scoby. Chauvirey and Hunter grew the kombucha scoby in an inflatable swimming pool to obtain the shape of a long skirt.

Hunter completed her master’s of fine arts at Concordia and is currently working on her PhD, in which she explores the possibilities offered by the of use of biomaterials in laboratory research contexts. She believes, like Racine, that the industry of biomaterials is expanding rapidly, due to climate change. “Biomaterials look to replace some of the problematic industrial approaches that have led to the destruction of ecosystems, such as the dye industry or textile industry as a whole,” said Hunter.

Chauvirey’s and Hunter’s designs apply the concept of biomimicry, which aims to copy elements found in nature. “At the end of an object’s life span, we can compost it and then enrich the soil with it. Like leaves when they fall off trees,” Racine said. The goal is to produce objects that contribute to the regeneration of the natural environment.

The dress is made of kombucha scoby, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Photo by Hannah Ewen.

Hunter also seeks to increase awareness about the environmental costs of laboratory tools. “The main purpose behind my work is to provoke cultural critique of the biotech industry, which is often spectacularized and remains largely unquestioned by a dazzled public that do not possess the technical knowledge to be able to deconstruct the hype,” Hunter said.

Although Hunter acknowledged that Canada is behind other countries in terms of biotechnology awareness, she said Montreal is forward thinking. It “is at the cutting edge of the biotech industry in terms of the Canada’s place in the global biotech craze,” she said.

Chauvirey also looks forward to pursuing research and finding tangible applications for biomaterials. “I think this material is just amazing for education purposes,” said Chauvirey.  “Everyday, I discover new people working with [mycelium] and I’m like ‘oh, I thought we were pioneers but we are behind!’”

Racine’s exhibition runs until March 10. Visit metadna.ca for more information.  

Photos by Hannah Ewen.

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