Myco-fabrication: The Art of Designing with Mycelium (with Aléa)

Myco-fabrication: The Art of Designing with Mycelium (with Aléa)

Myco-fabrication is the process of using myceliated substrate in place of non-biodegradable materials such as glass, metal, or plastics to create both functional and/or artistic structures. This newly emerging industry seems to be expanding as we speak; vegan leather is produced by stretching out Reishi mycelium, biodegradable ashtrays are made from Pleurotus mycelium, and chairs are 3D printed from myceliated straw. It’s hard to ignore the environmental benefits of myco-materials--imagine if all leather jackets and furniture were replaced by compostable mycelium-made materials? 
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Myco-fabrication is the process of using myceliated substrate in place of non-biodegradable materials such as glass, metal, or plastics to create both functional and/or atistic structures. This newly emerging industry seems to be expanding as we speak; vegan leather is produced by stretching out Reishi mycelium, biodegradable ashtrays are made from Pleurotus mycelium, and chairs are 3D printed from myceliated straw. It’s hard to ignore the environmental benefits of myco-materials--imagine if all leather jackets and furniture were replaced by compostable mycelium-made materials? 

Myco-fabrication seems to be the place where art, sustainability, and nature all meet. Last week, we sat down with our friends, designers Miriam Josi and Stella Lee Prowse, to talk about how myco-fabrication fuels their art, and their most recent project titled, “Honey, I Watered the Screen”: a series of photographs documenting discarded objects inoculated with mycelium, created in collaboration with architect Francesca Bonesio and photographer Nicolas Guiraud. Based in Paris, Stella and Miriam are designers and lecturers at Parsons School of Design. Together they create work under the name “Aléa” that is inspired by their curiosity in growth, decay, waste, sustainability, and material processes.  

How did you guys meet? 

Stella:  Miriam and I met ten years ago at Parsons, New York, where we studied product design. We began collaborating almost immediately and over the years we have worked on a number of projects together and in collaboration with others. After graduation, I moved upstate New York to a city called Newburgh where I was very involved in community-building projects and I also worked for a furniture design firm called Atlas Industries. Miriam moved to Paris to work and also began teaching at Parsons Paris, where she started exploring myco-fabrication. We reconnected when I moved to Paris last year for an MS in Nature Inspired Design. 

That’s amazing. 

Stella: That’s how I felt when I read the description. It was addressing all the questions I had around design and materials in connection to our relationship nature. We both reconnected for this Master’s, and it inspired a lot of the ideas for our collaborative projects with mycelium. Learning about bio-inspired design, bio collaboration began to connect the dots for me in thinking about how to integrate nature back into my work.  

What does Aléa mean? 

Stella: Aléa is a French word originating in Latin that describes a moment of chance and unpredictability. This describes our approach to design, often reconsidering our control as designers, especially when collaborating with other living systems

Miriam, what do you teach at Parsons? 

Miriam: I’ve been teaching at Parsons Paris since 2017. I started teaching a first year course called Sustainable Systems and another first year course called Space Materiality. Sustainable Systems introduces students to the interconnectedness of environmental and social issues. We were encouraged by colleagues at Parsons New York to do a science lab, which is when I started experimenting with myco-fabrication. 

Did you have a background in mushroom cultivation before you were introduced to myco-fabrication? 

Miram: Not at all. I was fascinated immediately, though. I’ve always been attracted to low-tech production so myco-fabrication resonated with me because you can create by hand and work with found objects. A lab isn’t necessary either. I started experimenting more with mycelium in my practice thinking about its opportunities, such as the ability to use local waste as a resource and also exploring its pedagogical value. What was interesting is that while Stella was in New York at the time, she started to engage in mushroom foraging--it happened in parallel. I was working with myco-fabrication from a design point of view and when we were talking she opened up another dimension to it. It changed my approach to working with mycelium.

Tell me about your project ‘Honey, I Watered the Screen.’

Miriam: For this project, we collaborated with two friends who are also artists. Their studio is called Atelier 37.2, Francesca is an architect/artist and colleague at Parsons, and Nicolas is a photographer. Honey was a collaborative project on many levels--on one hand, it was a collaboration between designers and artists and photographers, on the other hand, collaboration with the non-human - the mycelium. It was also a new angle to what we’ve been working with: an exploration of both these discarded objects and the fungi. And ultimately it resulted in a conversation between them. For us, it was also a reflection on the life cycle of these objects and a critical design project, if you will. We cleaned these objects, inoculated and watered them, which felt like this very surreal, but somehow satisfying action. Also, the fungi kept surprising us in so many ways.

How so? 

Miriam: We inoculated a tape dispenser--there was a big opening and we thought the mushrooms would come out of the opening but they ended up fruiting out of a tiny slit on the other side! It highlighted the limitations of our control and the resilience of the organism that thrive even in these materials. Another object was an electrical board and we thought: this will never work. And it sprouted mushrooms! It was so fascinating. 

One of my favorite things about oyster mushrooms is that even if you put them in the least optimal conditions, they always seem to find a way to fruit. What was your process for ‘Honey I watered the screen’? I’m guessing you cleaned and sterilized the vessel, and I’m guessing with gloved hands you inoculated it with sawdust mycelium? 

Miriam: We didn’t even use gloves! 

Stella: It’s interesting because the mycelium often didn’t contaminate even without following the usual protocol - we have explored this concept further with a more recent project but as Miriam said, the interesting thing with Honey was the attention we gave to the objects that would otherwise be discarded, often at the end of their life cycle - we spent time cleaning and preparing them… it was almost ceremonial. It was a very bizarre experience. 

Miriam: Then we built a greenhouse for them because some of the objects would have dried out. So we kept them very humid and watered them pretty frequently.

For the iPad piece, which happens to be my favorite, did you crack the screen after? 

Miriam: It wasn’t an iPad, it was an iPhone cover. 

Stella: But for example for the computer screen we did crack it and filled the back with mycelium and it only had the opportunity to go through that crack. 

Miriam: There’s a company here in Paris called La Boite à Champignon that sells mycelium spawn. Our substrate was mostly paper and coffee grounds, which we sterilized and let cool before we mixed it in with the mycelium. We used any kind of organic waste we had at hand. 

Stella: We even used banana peels.

How does the impermanence of your pieces--pertaining to the life cycle of fungi--drive the way you wish for your art to be consumed, seeing as it’s not meant to be in fruiting condition forever? 

Stella: We often talk about how to reconcile our instinct to make things in a world that has too many things. As product designers this project was an opportunity to create without making anything new, rather use what already exists to provoke conversation around our perceptions of material temporality and value and, in the Anthropocene - photography is a great medium to capture something so impermanent. 

I noticed you guys mostly had oyster mushrooms, correct? Makes sense, given it’s a very robust species that is less contamination prone and very easy to fruit--but have you thought about using other types of mushrooms? 

Miriam: Well I tried Shiitake and the mycelium took so long to grow, I didn’t manage to fruit any mushrooms. But with ‘Honey I watered the screen’, we chose to use oysters because of their fruiting efficiency and, in general, we're interested in Pleurotus for its mycoremedial capabilities. 

Can I ask about what is coming ahead for you guys? Do you guys have another project you’re working on? 

Miriam: We are right in the middle of a new project. 

Stella: What we are looking at is how to bridge a disconnect between myco-fabrication and mycelia’s interrelationships and roles in the ecosystem - We are interested in imagining fabrication processes using mycelium that contribute to the biodiversity of ecosystems so that our fabrication processes can offer more opportunities not just for humans but also for nature. The project is called ‘Back to dirt’ - where we are experimenting with myco-fabrication underground, in soil. 

M: It’s a very large project. It is an exploration of control, by way of limiting and sharing control with mycelium. When we grow mycelium in a lab, in a mould, there is no reciprocity. We wanted to push that further by asking ourselves how we collaborate with the organism in a way that is more reciprocal. The project proposes a new bio-inclusive way of fabrication. We are excited to share this project at a symposium next month at the Design museum titled Design with the Living

Our sincerest gratitude goes to Stella and Miriam for taking the time to chat with us, and for showing us all the possibilities that myco-fabrication has to offer from a design, sustainability, and environmentalism point of view. If you happen to be in France right now (we know, chances are low but we thought we’d throw it out there anyway!) or in the near future, we highly recommend you check out their show, running from October 24th to November 7th at Fondation Fiminco, 43, rue de la commune de Paris, Romainville! And if you’re anywhere near as excited as we are to see ‘Back to Dirt’ come to life, you can check out progress updates from Stella and Miriam by following their Instagram @alea_work or checking on their website