by Sarah Dorkenwald


Renew­able raw mate­ri­als such as plant fibers, microal­gae, fun­gal mycelia or bac­te­ria, and organ­ic residues from the food indus­try like husks and shells can now be trans­formed into inno­v­a­tive and ful­ly func­tion­al mate­ri­als through tech­ni­cal process­es. With their com­pa­ra­ble prop­er­ties, func­tions and aes­thet­ics, they offer a promis­ing alter­na­tive to con­ven­tion­al fos­sil fuel-based mate­ri­als, espe­cial­ly with regard to recy­clable prod­uct solu­tions. It is design­ers in par­tic­u­lar who have pro­vid­ed impor­tant impe­tus in biobased mate­r­i­al devel­op­ment with their eager­ness to exper­i­ment and explore. Their abil­i­ty to both break new ground in mate­ri­als research and to keep an eye on the require­ments of pro­duc­tion, indus­try and the mar­ket, as well as to think up user-cen­tered appli­ca­tions, con­tribute impor­tant foun­da­tions for the devel­op­ment of bio­fab­ri­ca­tion. Sci­ence and indus­try, in con­junc­tion with design, have devel­oped forms of pro­duc­tion and uses for bio­ma­te­ri­als that increas­ing­ly tap into nature’s bio­di­ver­si­ty for the use of materials.

Organ­ic raw mate­ri­als — uti­liz­ing nat­ur­al biodiversity

For exam­ple, Ital­ian design­er Mau­r­izio Mon­talti has spent years of self-ini­ti­at­ed research devel­op­ing a process in which fun­gal spores, known as mycelia, col­o­nize a mold­ed sub­strate of indus­tri­al-agri­cul­tur­al waste in a con­trolled process until their growth is stopped by heat­ing. The result is vel­vety soft, eggshell-col­ored ele­ments that have a unique typol­o­gy and mate­r­i­al aesthetic.

Maurizio Montalti and shoe designer Liz Ciokajlo, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art New York, speculated whether a boot could be grown from mycelium while traveling to Mars (Copyright: ©Officina Corpuscoli / Maurizio Montalti).
Maurizio Montalti and shoe designer Liz Ciokajlo, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art New York, speculated whether a boot could be grown from mycelium while traveling to Mars (Copyright: ©Officina Corpuscoli / Maurizio Montalti).
Pilzymyzel is the basis of MOGU's acoustic panels (Copyright: MOGU / Photo: A.WORLD PRODUCTIONS).
Pilzymyzel is the basis of MOGU's acoustic panels (Copyright: MOGU / Photo: A.WORLD PRODUCTIONS).

With his start-up Mogu, he has brought this form of mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion to mar­ket matu­ri­ty as acoustic pan­els, among oth­er things. But Mon­talti isn’t just explor­ing con­crete appli­ca­tions for myceli­um-based mate­ri­als. With shoe design­er Liz Cioka­j­lo, he has designed a Mars boot com­mis­sioned by the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art New York, spec­u­lat­ing on whether a future mis­sion to Mars could grow the every­day items need­ed there from fun­gal mycelia dur­ing the journey.

Munich-based entre­pre­neur Sebas­t­ian Thies has also embraced nature to devel­op a sus­tain­able sneak­er. He sells veg­an shoes made of mush­room leather with his nat‑2™ brand. The mate­r­i­al is made from the tin­der tree fun­gus. The basic mate­r­i­al for this is sup­plied by Berlin design­er Nina Fabert. With her label Zvn­der, she devel­oped a rather elab­o­rate process in which the tin­der fun­gus, which grows as a par­a­site on weak­ened trees such as birch and beech, as well as on dead wood, is dried, peeled and then processed by hand into a leather-like mate­r­i­al. As a com­pos­ite of organ­ic tex­tiles and mush­room leather, it is used in Thies’ sneak­er models.

In addi­tion to not using ani­mal skin, tin­der sponge has oth­er pos­i­tive prop­er­ties: for exam­ple, its use is chem­i­cal-free and it has an anti­sep­tic and antibac­te­r­i­al effect. Com­bined with oth­er inno­v­a­tive, high-qual­i­ty mate­ri­als such as cork insoles, organ­ic cot­ton ter­ry cloth, microfiber velour made from recy­cled PET bot­tles and gen­uine rub­ber soles, the tree fun­gus gives the shoes their own unmis­tak­able style.

Liv­ing mate­ri­als from microorganisms

The devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tion process­es based on microor­gan­isms and enzymes is also open­ing up new approach­es for the man­u­fac­ture of mate­ri­als. In this con­text, fer­men­ta­tion process­es are being adopt­ed, such as those used in the pro­duc­tion of alco­hol, dairy prod­ucts or kom­bucha bev­er­ages. This com­plex con­ver­sion of sub­stances can now be used for the tar­get­ed and con­trolled pro­duc­tion of materials.

AMSilk from Bavaria researched a process in which genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied microbes pro­duce spi­der silk with the spe­cif­ic prop­er­ties of a spider’s thread. The mate­r­i­al pro­duced from bac­te­ria is light and strong and at the same time biodegrad­able and can be pro­duced in a resource-sav­ing way. In the future, these biotech­no­log­i­cal­ly pro­duced mate­ri­als from liv­ing mat­ter, which can be pro­grammed with spe­cif­ic prop­er­ties, should offer alter­na­tives to mate­ri­als of ani­mal ori­gin and replace oth­er nat­ur­al resources that are renew­able but often pro­duced in agro-indus­tri­al mono­cul­tures, thus harm­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty and deplet­ing finite resources.

Waste as a nat­ur­al resource

Things get par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing when organ­ic residues from agri­cul­ture are used to pro­duce biobased mate­ri­als. There are now many new tech­ni­cal approach­es that are ready for the mar­ket, such as bags made from Piña­tex, a non­wo­ven fab­ric made from pineap­ple leaf fibers, QMilk, a tex­tile fiber made from milk waste from the food indus­try devel­oped by micro­bi­ol­o­gist and fash­ion design­er Anke Domaske, and leather made from fish skins by Femer, a com­pa­ny owned by French­woman Marielle Philip.

But cof­fee grounds and rice husks can now also be processed into tex­tiles. These new mate­r­i­al inno­va­tions are valu­able in dri­ving for­ward a “cir­cu­lar econ­o­my” in which, in the best case sce­nario, no more waste is pro­duced at all, as resid­ual mate­ri­als are not land­filled or incin­er­at­ed, but com­plete­ly recy­cled into the pro­duc­tion cycle.

The sea as alter­na­tive pro­duc­tion site

Algae are also con­sid­ered to have many envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly poten­tials. They can be used in a vari­ety of ways with­out occu­py­ing land that is already used for food pro­duc­tion. The raw mate­r­i­al is inter­est­ing from an eco­log­i­cal point of view because it grows quick­ly and absorbs CO2 in the process. Luma Ate­lier from Arles cul­ti­vates microal­gae in the sea for the pro­duc­tion of col­or­ful shape­ly algae tiles, which means that a bio-based prod­uct is also sub­ject to a more eco­log­i­cal­ly advan­ta­geous pro­duc­tion process. The algae-enriched bio­plas­tic, from which the tiles are mold­ed using an indus­tri­al injec­tion process, can be used as wall cov­er­ings in both inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or applications.

Luma Ate­lier will also be rep­re­sent­ed in the bay­ern design exhi­bi­tion Mate­r­i­al+, which can be seen in coop­er­a­tion with the Neues Muse­um Nürn­berg from April 2022.

Design­ers take on a key role

When it comes to bring­ing nov­el mate­ri­als to a broad audi­ence, design plays a key role. Suzanne Lee, who is respon­si­ble for design at the New York-based com­pa­ny Mod­ern Mead­ows and also found­ed the inter­na­tion­al indus­try meet­ing “Bio­fab­ri­cate” for biotech­nolo­gies at the inter­face between design and indus­try, also works at the inter­face between devel­op­ment and appli­ca­tion. Mod­ern Mead­ows works with col­la­gen fibers derived from ani­mal cells and grows a leather-like mate­r­i­al from them in the lab under the brand name ZOA.

Like poly­mers derived from spi­der silk pro­tein, this DNA-based tis­sue cul­ti­va­tion is one of the lat­est devel­op­ments in mate­ri­als research. British fash­ion design­er Stel­la McCart­ney has already designed a sun­ny yel­low dress made of this so-called spi­der silk, and the out­door label The North Face has tak­en advan­tage of the unusu­al mate­r­i­al prop­er­ties to launch a par­ka that is both light­weight and extreme­ly robust. And the Bavar­i­an com­pa­ny adi­das also makes sneak­ers from the yarn, sav­ing up to 15% in weight com­pared to con­ven­tion­al sneakers.

You can par­tic­i­pate and co-spec­u­late about bio­ma­te­r­i­al futures in the Poly­phon­ic Futures work­shops by artist and design­er Veron­i­ca Ran­ner. Ran­ner is also a pro­fes­sor at the Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore, where she research­es the poten­tial of bio-dig­i­tal­i­ty and bio­ma­te­ri­als. In her Sin­ga­pore stu­dio and Munich, she push­es the bound­aries of biode­sign prac­tices and research by exam­in­ing reverse-engi­neered silk (“re-liq­ue­fied” silk). As this mate­r­i­al is one of the few exist­ing smart mate­ri­als, it will not be reject­ed by human tis­sue but, instead, com­plete­ly absorbed. Fur­ther­more, due to its unique mate­r­i­al topol­o­gy, it can be utilised, e.g. as a bone and tis­sue sub­sti­tute and a bridg­ing biosen­sor that enables dig­i­tal inter­fac­ing with the body. These qual­i­ties open up a whole new spec­trum of wear­able or implantable devices.

Portrait Sarah Dorkenwald (Foto: Anna Seibel)
Sarah Dorken­wald (Foto: Anna Seibel)

The grad­u­ate (Univ) design­er Sarah Dorken­wald prac­tices a crit­i­cal approach to design in her cre­ative and the­o­ret­i­cal work. In exchange with oth­er dis­ci­plines she ques­tions com­mon approach­es and social con­ven­tions and wants to show alter­na­tives in deal­ing with resources, pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion as well as liv­ing togeth­er with cur­rent posi­tions in design. She is a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Design in Ulm. Togeth­er with design the­o­rist Kar­i­anne Fogel­berg, Sarah Dorken­wald found­ed the Munich-based stu­dio UnDe­sig­nUnit. They com­bine skills and meth­ods from design and design the­o­ry and work at the inter­face with oth­er dis­ci­plines and forms of knowl­edge. Sarah Dorken­wald writes reg­u­lar­ly for design jour­nals as well as trade publications.