Fungi Furniture

Posted on December 26, 2012

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This October, I attended a workshop by Phil Ross, an artist and DIY biologist whose claim to fame is growing his own armchairs. The process he described sounded time- and resource-intensive, but conceptually simple. First, he takes some reishi mushroom culture from a local fungus farm and combines it with wood chips, which serve as fodder for the fungus. The fungus/wood chip mixture is sealed inside a plastic bag and placed inside a mold. Over the next several days, the fungus grows and the mixture becomes more solid, taking on the mold’s shape. He’s able to create multiple blocks of fungus this way, in any shape he desires. When placed next to each other, two blocks of fungus will grow together, making it possible to build furniture and even large sculptures. The fungus grows indefinitely, sprouting the occasional mushroom. When Ross considers a piece to be finished, he bakes it in a kiln, permanently killing off the fungus.

Fungi are evidently very delicate creatures. Before handling the fungus, Ross usually scrubs his arms with alcohol to the elbow, puts on gloves, and sprays alcohol on his gloves and his work surface. He’s had fungus blocks suffer mold infections in the past, forcing him to throw them out and start over. He keeps all of his fungus blocks in airtight containers for the same reason, with the exception of a few in a specially built chamber controlled for temperature, humidity, and air quality.

According to Ross, there are numerous benefits to using reishi fungus as a building material. The first and most obvious benefit is that it’s fully biodegradable; when you’re done with your furniture, you can dump it in your backyard and let it decompose. It’s also sturdy, extremely lightweight, a good insulator, and has long been used as a Chinese traditional medicine. As you might expect from a man so fascinated by mushrooms, he has some unusual ideas for their future applications, ranging from surfboards to skyscraper pillars and even living buildings (using pillars of fungus with a heat-treated, dead outer surface and a self-renewing core).

For more on Phil Ross, you can check out this extremely thorough interview, which explores his motivations for building stuff out of fungus, the latest pictures from his workshop, or the Bold Italic’s entertaining write-up.

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