PhilaU students break the mold and grow furniture from mushroom fungus

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Part of the pendant light McClellan is growing from mushroom fungus. | Photo from Brian McClellan and Mercan SismanPlanting season is just a month away, and while green thumbs throughout the region are dusting off their grow lights and readying their soil for spring flowers and vegetables, senior industrial design students Brian McClellan and Mercan Sisman – from Philadelphia University’s Kanbar College of Design, Engineering & Commerce – are already deep in the process of growing something quite different: furniture.

The project began as a conversation with classmates about sustainable design and the possibilities of building with living materials. Soon, McClellan and Sisman found themselves researching ways to grow objects naturally as an alternative to using harmful plastics and other materials. Eventually, they landed on the mycelium organism, essentially the rooting system for mushrooms. By studying the way the organism grows and travels, McClellan and Sisman discovered that, in a controlled environment, they could force the mycelium to grow in different ways inside forms or molds. For their senior projects, the pair decided to use reishi and oyster mushrooms, two naturally wood decomposing species. They found an organic mushroom grower in California who could provide the substrate (or food) on which the mushrooms would live.

The mushrooms will take about two weeks to root in the substrate, and another few weeks for the fungus to grow through the molds. “It’s essentially an all-natural, zero-energy form of 3D printing,” says McClellan, who is developing a pendant light. Sisman is creating a chair.

Since fungus easily attracts bacteria, the molds and growing areas must be meticulously sterilized and the process closely monitored for temperature and moisture levels. When the growing is complete, the fungi furniture will be removed from their molds and left to dry for a few days before they’re cooked at a low temperature to solidify the material and stop any further growth. The final creations will be unveiled in the first week of May at the design college’s senior show.

PEGGY PAULis a freelance editor, writer, and recipe developer (and part-time produce peddler) living in Philadelphia. On her blog, AnUnstillLife.com she shares seasonal recipes, cooking tips and inspirations.