The Freaky Fungal Furniture of Phil Ross

Oct 30, 2012 at 12am
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A pot of mushrooms along with several bottles of chemicals sit on the countertop. Bags of moldy white woodchips line the shelves. A glass incubation cell holds masses of fungi sprouting in chunks. At first glance, it might look like a mad scientist’s breeding ground for Frankenstein. But San Francisco artist and inventor Phil Ross is on to something ingenious with these fungal clusters. At the Workshop Residence gallery this past weekend, he debuted his latest creation: completely biodegradable furniture grown from fungi.

The thought of fungus may already have some of you squirming in your chairs. However, the type of reishi mushroom used to create these structures is non-toxic and actually a health tonic. In fact, the fungal tissue that binds the furniture together is durable, lightweight, stronger than concrete, fireproof, waterproof, mold resistant, and has better insulation than fiberglass. You can even just chuck your chair into the ground when you don’t want it anymore and it’ll simply decompose. 

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At the gallery, Phil kept his furniture alive inside a humidified cell, but noted that when you buy a piece, he'll "kill it for you." Phil jokingly explained, "You buy, we fry." The furniture goes through a kiln-drying process, much like baking ceramics to solidify their form. "It’s not going to come back to life once it gets wet again," he said. So don’t worry, it won’t be like a Gremlin nightmare, where your fungal stool gets wet, starts spawning, and takes over your home. 

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Phil, who has been doing experimental research on fungi and mushroom biology for more than 20 years, told me that he first discovered he could use living fungi as construction material when he made casted sculptures with them. He calls this process of building with mycelium, "mycotecture." While that sounded like voodoo magic to me, he said the general concept is really "not that much different than cheese making or beer making."

First, you prepare bags of food such as pasteurized corncobs or sawdust for the mushroom to feed on. Then, you add in pieces of mushroom, which will eat up the nutrients of the sawdust. Just like how adding flour to yeast will eventually expand and turn to dough, fungal tissue will begin to grow, binding and solidifying the sawdust together into any casted shape. And within about a week, your desired piece of furniture is born. 

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"There’s nothing holding it together except for the mushroom itself. That’s what makes this such a remarkable material. Usually to keep something like this together, you have to use all these glues or polymers," Phil said. 

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He showed me several bricks of the fungi-sawdust blend and explained how you can create different densities depending on the species of mushroom or temperature level you use. "It’s something between cooking and manufacturing." For example, you can create a brick that has a very dense layer outside with a spongy middle layer for shock absorbency. This material could very well be used to make the next earthquake-proof brick. 

Phil does have high hopes for building with fungal material in the future. "They’re inevitably going to be part of our world because they’re so energetically low and there’s no waste generated from this process," he said. 

His line of furniture called the Yamanaka series will be on display at the Workshop Residency through Sunday, November 4 and can be purchased from the site afterwards. 

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