Biochemistry into fashion – twenty years of scientific work fostered a mushroom-based, alternative to fashion industry’s leather-problem. An exposition by co-founder Sophia Wang
MycoWorks is a biomaterials company that was founded by Philip Ross and Sophia Wang in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2013. The company specializes in finding natural alternatives for conventional materials using mycelium – a material consisting of mushroom-organisms. In the beginning of 2020, MycoWorks presented their newest innovation: Reishi. Reishi is a sustainable material made from mycelium that is able to compete with the properties of the highest standard of leather in strength, durability and appearance. With seventeen million dollars raised in 2019 alone, MycoWorks and especially Reishi as the company’s poster child, are candidates for the next top spots in product-development and innovation. While the key facts about MycoWorks are tangent to the realms of biotechnology and education, the story behind the company is one about art and its relation to science.
Philip Ross began working with mycelium as a medium to build sculptures in the nineties. Ross’s experiments with the fungus lead him to the realization that mycelium can take varying shapes, materialities, haptics and functions depending on its process of formation. As the root fibers of mushrooms, mycelium is not created, it is grown. Mycelium can, however, be cultivated with its result being determined by its process or, in other words, «the recipe used». As a living organism, mycelium can be found underground, beyond the surface, it is omnipresent, it communicates, it delivers nutrients and, thus, binds the soil with its networking qualities. «We know from the way that mycelium grows in nature that it is a symbiotic connection and a channel right between the roots of trees and plants. Mycelium is crucial in making nutrients within that system bioavailable to the organisms that need them, so it is a connection point. The fungus is mysterious underfoot and then it is everywhere if you start looking for it. And mycelium is something you find beneath the forest floor or within wood and trees, so it is not immediately visible and obvious. We are more familiar with the obvious forms in the world, the mushrooms, which are the fruiting body of the organism. Seeing this new material and then understanding the wide range of esthetic expressions was an initial revelation of a new material in the world», says Sophia Wang, the CEO and co-founder of MycoWorks. The mentioned ‘wide range‘ extends to art installations, interior- and design-objects, building blocks for children, leather or textiles. «Whether it is in rigid forms that are more structural or in architectural forms or sculptural forms that have a range in pigmentation. Artists are responding to the esthetic potential. Since Phil started developing this as a design material in the nineties, we have seen an exponential growth in artists, designers, art institutes and curators around the world who were interested in this as a new material field» Sophia explains.
In 2014 the New York-based studio The Living created a gallery pavilion made of mycelium bricks for MoMa. In 2018, Sophia Wang visited the Taipei Biennial to find a «big living installation of suspended vessels created of growing, living mycelium, which were all wired to pick up biodata to have a sound installation component. The electromagnetic conductivity of the mycelium was being translated into soundwaves». At the Dutch Design Week in 2019 the set designer and artist Pascal Lebouq collaborated with Brown Design to build a pop-up performance space from mycelium. In the same year, at Milan Design Week, Italian architect Carlo Ratti used mycelium to grow an architectural outside-installation.
While these designs are connected by their architectural features, Philip Ross sought to add an educational level to the discourse: his 2007 exhibition BioTechnique at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco focused on the story of biotechnology by touching different fields of application. This project did not only connect science and art but also paved the way for MycoWorks. «Phil and I started working together on a curatorial project that was about the history of bio-techniques – a history of biotechnology within an art context».
Sophia believes in the power of art as story-telling, especially to make scientific developments visible for a wider audience and to create different perspectives on the matter. She continued to rely on art to tell the story of mycelium, even in commercial environments, to make it tangible: «It was during a time that I encountered his work creating sculptures out of mycelium and they clearly communicated in the way that art can have the effect of helping us see something new, helping us view the world and its established materials, its established forms and modes of representation in a new light». What, on first sight, seems to be at odds, maybe even a contradiction, has a lot in common: art and science, both, are not about the end-result or a product, rather they are about a continuous cycle of learning, about exploring and discovering. As Sophia understands, art can help science flourish by offering the alternative, yet thorough view of an artist on a material. The story of mycelium testifies the prospect of a simple act, such as looking very closely at a natural material. «Art and science both share open-ended curiosity. Those practices share curiosity as an initial step, there is not a known outcome. First, there is a hypothesis and then an experiment. People tend to think of the two disciplines as disparate practices but curiosity is portable across many fields and the most interesting ideas come at the intersection».
The intersectionality of disciplines is the most defining factor for what Sophia Wang does. A literature major, dancer and choreographer and a daughter of two biochemistry researchers, Sophia is familiar with both worlds and is able to find and understand their overlaps. She describes herself as being raised to understand both practices and fields as intertwined. When asked about her emotional connection between her artistic training and her scientific career, she says «I think about the sort of intersection and portability of everything that I do. A theme that runs through my practices is materiality and deeply understanding materiality, whether it is the materiality of language, or the materiality of the body. I do a lifelong practice study of what close attention to materials enable in the realm of language and storytelling. Deeply understanding the material of language and its expressive capacities and the structures of stories, is most important. It has served me in translating ideas across different realms, which is what we have to do as a company to be able to translate mycelium’s potential across the realms of art, science, craft and the tradition of leather making».
Mycelium as a story, is approachable from different angles: On the one hand, mycelium can be seen in a symbolic way – a living organism that could stand for live, connectivity, communication, transience or even death – on the other hand, it allows a physical approach, with responsiveness, variability and versatility at its core: «It incites curiosity, imagination and excitement. It is mysterious and it is a network, and it communicates and it regenerates. And it is an essential agent in decay and transformation in our environment. It is a very rich place to start storytelling, which is how I have stayed absolutely fascinated and can continue telling the story forever». Sophia Wang compares mycelium’s story with the one of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic jewelry, Coco Chanel showcased in 1927: «Bakelite provided a shift. Design and fashion paved the way for plastic to be seen as this expressive esthetic material. It paves the way for its introduction to furniture, fine objects, clothing and beyond». Even though MycoWorks’ sustainable fine Mycelium cannot be compared with synthetic plastic from an environmental point of view, Sophia Wang uses this analogy to illustrate the potential of art and design to introduce material-science to the market: «Understanding its dynamics and its expressive capacities is the bridge between the art practice and what we are doing as a company, as a team, as biochemists and as mycologists. We are now advancing the art and craft of it into a science, a bio-technique and a methodology that is compatible with process-engineering and scaling in order to produce that mass scale.» What started as an art project developed into functional form climaxing in Reishi.
Thirteen years after the BioTechnique exhibition, we’ll have to see how the mycelium story’s next chapter proceeds, with the next chapter’s title being ‘Reishi’. The material-innovation invites a comparison with leather, even though it is something else entirely. Reishi is fashioned to be used for the production of leather goods and strives for a leather-look and -feel, its woven structure allows for high strength and durability and it can be tanned, cured, stitched and embossed. All of this comes with Reishi neither being an animal product nor plastic while being completely biodegradable and sustainable. It is a material that is non-exhaustible. Reishi has the potential to pose an alternative to traditional leathers and, thus, change the industry without compromising in esthetics. Reishi is promising. But we will not know for sure, before we have seen cooperations with fashion companies, before we have seen and touched finished products and before Reishi has proven its artistic and design qualities or before MycoWorks announces its brand cooperations – or as Sophia Wang calls it «the best kept secret in the world».