First, designers debuted leather made from mushrooms. Now you can sit on furniture made from fungi, too. At first glance, the sturdy white stools and beautiful accent tables look like any other piece of furniture, perhaps crafted from wood or marble. But they are far from ordinary. They are made entirely from ingredients much simpler and squishier than you’d think: the mycelium “roots” of mushrooms, agriculture waste, and microorganisms.
The chic new furniture line – a collaboration between Ecovative and bioMASON, two companies that specialize in making sustainable alternatives for consumer goods using a process called biofabrication – was unveiled recently at Biofabricate 2016. “What we do that is unique is that we use biological organisms to literally grow our product,” says Eben Bayer, CEO of Ecovative. “In most cases, like when you brew beer, the organism you use is thrown away at the end. But the organism is the most beautiful part. And it is part of our furniture.”
The microscopic, thread-like tissue that makes up a mushroom—known as mycelium—is used to make the base of the stools and the table legs. Because mycelium naturally latches onto different substances to help mushrooms grow and form colonies, it can be coaxed into shape around a scaffolding of woodchips or hemp fibers, binding all of these components together as it grows.
Bayer says he discovered the power of mycelium as a college student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute a decade ago, when he grew fungi in his bedroom for a class project. He realized the mycelium could be used to make a soft, foam-like material not unlike the plastic foam used for packaging computers and electronics. But unlike plastic foam, the mycelium-based material would be readily biodegradable. Now Ecovative has successfully scaled that process up as a business, partnering with companies like Dell that use its special mycelium foam.
But Bayer realized that there was more to be done with mycelium. With its pliability, it could be manipulated into many different textures and shapes. “By changing the environmental conditions we grow it in, we can get lots of different tissue properties and structural properties,” he says. Tweak the temperature or carbon dioxide levels, for example, and the mycelium can form tougher materials. Use a stronger scaffolding, like wood chips and stalks instead of flexible hemp fibers, and the mycelium can incorporate that durability as it grows. Once the mycelium runs out of these nutritional building blocks, it dies and hardens. With a bit of heat and pressure, it can then be compressed into something resembling a particle board – tough enough to support a human’s weight.
The marble-esque tabletop material is similarly customizable. It’s made using a process developed by Ginger Krieg Dosier, CEO of bioMASON. It relies on bacteria that form calcium carbonate around grains of sand, which is how sea shells and coral reefs are formed.
“It’s really learning from nature,” says Dosier. “We can explore different shapes and different applications for this technology just by changing the size of the sand, the temperature or pH levels, and by adding colors to the mix.”
Depending on what ingredients are used and the conditions they’re grown in, the resulting product can take the form of bricks, façade tiles, or table tops, she says. Her company has already used this special “biocement” to pave a pair of courtyards in San Francisco, and she’s working with architects and builders who could theoretically make bioMASON bricks themselves on site.
Dosier sees living organisms as the factories of the future, replacing energy-intensive manufacturing with more sustainable models. “This is a better, cleaner way to make materials. Why use fire to harden bricks, which creates a lot of carbon pollution, when we can grow them at ambient temperatures?” she says.
Dosier says the furniture collaboration is just one example of efforts by researchers worldwide to grow fungi, bacteria, and proteins into sustainable, toxin-free, commercially available goods. A few biomaterials companies have shown that they can make leather made from mushrooms and spider silk-like cloth from lab-grown proteins, but most have had problems scaling up their biofabricated products. The Japanese company Spiber, for example, unveiled a prototype of a North Face-branded “Moon Parka” made with synthetic spider silk fibers last year. But plans to sell the parka were delayed because of problems with production. Limited numbers of the jackets are now on sale for $1,000 in Japan, and will soon be available for the same price in flagship stores in the U.S.
“We have shifted the conversation from ‘what if” to ‘where can I buy?’ biofabricated products for the home and office,” says Bayer. The key is to work with traditional factories, modifying biological processes to fit their existing infrastructure and manufacturing processes, he says. “We know that to make an impact we have to reach industrial scale. You can only do that if you fit into today’s economic system.” That’s why Ecovative is working with outside mills to help ramp up production, says Bayer.
The biofabrication process must also compete with current offerings in terms of cost and speed. Together, Ecovative and bioMASON have honed their processes for growing myco-board and biocement tabletops down to less than a week. Traditional bricks, tiles and furniture take about three to five days. Cost reduction is next. “Biological organisms are inherently cheaper than synthetic products. The main cost for us right now is in the manufacturing, and by modifying that and partnering with local factories, we can bring that down too,” says Dosier.
For now, both Dosier and Bayer are excited for people to have the opportunity to bring some microbial manufacturing into their homes. The mycoboard panels produced by Ecovative have even been named one of This Old House’s “Top 100 Best New Home Products of the Year.” Their cute little Stack Stool is available online for $249, and the limited edition King’s Table can be had for $699. And if you want some of their sound-dampening tiles for the home studio you’re upgrading, they’ll only set you back $22.
“When you can touch and hold something like this for yourself, that’s when you realize that bacteria can really do this and make this,” says Dosier. “Once customers experience biofabricated products themselves, then they’ll drive us to find out is what else microorganisms can do.”