As modern humans, we are out of balance with our natural environment. With use of technology, we try to prolong our human lifespan and create materials that live longer than we do. And instead of embracing our nature, we are resisting the very essence of our being: the impermanence of life. This realization fuels the work of interdisciplinary designer Maurizio Montalti. Working with living materials such as fungi and bacteria, he explores ways to renew the balance.
Educated as both an engineer and designer, Maurizio Montalti’s work stands out for its collaborative, idealistic and experimental character. In his work, biology, science, technology and design seamlessly blend together. Maurizio welcomed us in his studio to talk about life and death, and what it means to combine biology and technology in a consumerist society.
The workshop for the little bodies
In 2010, Maurizio founded Officina Corpuscoli, a multidisciplinary design studio in Amsterdam. The studio is small but intriguing, filled to the roof with objects made of fungi and flasks with undefinable liquids. Maurizio is sitting behind his desk in the center of the room, both literally and metaphorically surrounded by living systems.
The name Officina Corpuscoli demonstrates Maurizio’s Italian roots and his strong fascination with microbes. “Officina”, he explains, “is usually the place where you bring your car to repair, it's a mechanical workshop.” Corpuscoli is the diminutive of corpus, so it translates as “the little bodies”. If you take it all together, the studio is the workshop for the little bodies, mainly microbial systems. The design practice is a collaboration between himself, the studio and the other living systems such as microbes and fungi. He refers to them as his “partners.”
Life, death and decomposition
Just a few minutes in, the designer starts talking about death. Maurizio considers death to be a complimentary part of life, that is able to reconnect us with nature. It frustrates him that in our Western world we don’t embrace it at all, as we consider our human bodies a cultural artefact rather than biological substance. This attitude is revealed by traditional ways of burying; methods that focus on preserving rather than decomposing of the body.
Maurizio’s research on decomposition originates in a design frustration. During his time at the Design Academy Eindhoven, he noticed that he was often working with “synthetic materials and compounds, that are wonderful to be working with but also highly impactful once they are discarded. We are often creating and working with materials that are hyper long-lasting, that are embedded in products that have a very short life cycle.”
He started to look for alternatives and discovered how he could actually operate in a different way as a designer. “It became a little bit of an anti-design statement, where instead of introducing new objects or beautiful aspects into the market, my point was that we need to get rid of things.”
The recyclers of the natural world
These reflections on the cycles of nature led him to fungi. “I inevitably stumbled upon fungi and their role in nature as the main decomposers, the main disassemblers, the main recyclers of the natural world.” Ever since, he has been researching the specific capabilities of fungi which resulted in a series of products, projects and experiments. Especially mycelium, the fast-growing vegetative part of fungi, is very useful because it is capable of harvesting, transforming and re-distributing nutrients.
While working with fungi, Maurizio noticed the strong aversion that most people have against these organisms. “We have been educated about the fact that microbes are dangerous. We have been establishing this hyper clean society in which fungus is especially problematic.” And although it is true that there are certain organisms that can be harmful for humans, we also have to recognize that we ourselves are walking biotopes.
From anthropocentrism to inclusion
This disconnection between human beings and the natural world, between culture and nature, is what drives Maurizio’s work. “We have adopted a fully anthropocentric way of looking at the world, and we believe in human supremacy because we believe that we are able to do things that other organisms cannot.” Maurizio fiercely argues that we forget that other living systems have their own senses and qualities, and are in balance with their natural environment; qualities that we as human beings lack.
“We see ourselves as a bunch of different actors and individuals that have nothing to do with each other, as opposed to recognizing how everything somehow is connected and how everything cycles.” According to Maurizio, the human disconnection to the cycle of life is what eventually led to climate change and problems with waste. He hopefully states that, if we would really learn from biological systems, we will eventually end up in a symbiotic relationship with other biological systems.
In order to shape our future, we need to introduce “a new paradigm, a new perspective where production is not anymore exploitation, production is continuous regeneration. A regeneration of materials that are based on responsible kind of processes and that are responsible themselves because they are ultimately 100% natural. Meaning that at the end of the life cycle, no matter how long they can last despite their natural qualities, they can be reabsorbed.”
This is exactly what next nature means to Maurizio. “The idea of next nature is the capacity of looking at it all in a highly inclusional way,” meaning that all living systems are in fact cooperating and understanding the needs of one another. “I think there's no difference whatsoever between technology and biology. Biology is the ultimate form of technology by which we learn how to work with it, and not necessarily just to exploit it.”
Partnership with nature
If we work together with nature rather than exploiting it, are we not losing some of our power as designers to decide what something will look like? “Of course”, he answers with a big smile, “which is wonderful. It's called co-creation.”
“The beauty of it is that no matter how much you try and direct and establish a framework within a certain process needs to happen, there is always certain autonomy in the process. The finer qualities of the artefacts can change, making therefore a very unique artefact.”
What happens if we push this autonomy a step further? “Of course, now, these objects (pointing at the mycelium designs around him) wouldn't be morphologically developed in such form out of the genetic information contained in the fungus. But somehow, I think it is not so far fetched that one day a mushroom could grow into a chair. We're not there yet for sure, very far from that. But yes, there is a fine boundary which is what interests me the most.”
Catalyzers for change
Genetically modifying mushrooms to grow into chairs might sound like science fiction, but Maurizio states that we are already living in the biotech era. “We are at the very beginning of it, but we are already part of it. And this is the revolution that I think will mostly contribute to strongly affect our capacity to reintegrate ourselves within natural cycles.”
Eventually, using and employing natural phenomena will enable us to advance the society that we are part of. “We need to have fields such as biology, chemistry, design, architecture, engineering, business development, to converge and to be capable to learn from each other, talk the same language and work towards the same aim.”
Maurizio additionally emphasizes the responsibility of designers as fundamental catalyzers change. “We shouldn't underestimate and forget about the seduction level that the design field plays towards the attention of the public. Who might much better listen to and understand a design language, rather than a scientific language.”
Standardizing natural materials
With Officina Corpuscoli, Maurizio reached out “to the design arena and the design atmosphere, through a series of lamps and plates, like signifiers of a tangible opportunity.”
But eventually, he wanted more. “Of course it is really engaging and pleasant to converse with the cultural audience, festivals, museums, lectures, galleries and so on. But at some point, that became very limited. This is a project that is way beyond speculation. It starts from a vision, but it is a vision that is very rooted into something that is achievable.”
Maurizio aims to spread his work and his vision, “not in limited edition in museums and exhibitions, but in millions of pieces coming to every single body for no money. And that was the challenge. And that's what we're doing these days. With all the exciting happenings and all the challenges around the corner every half minute.”
After several investigations on how to do this, Maurizio encountered the right people with whom he co founded the Italian-based company MOGU. “MOGU took up the responsibility to scale up, to industrialize the production of certain typologies of mycelium-based materials, and standardize such materials that, of course, is a requirement that you have to comply to when you want to act in the industry.”
Industrializing natural systems and materials is a contradictory process, that challenged his design-driven perspective. “The beauty in these materials and this process is to be found originally in for instance time, place, and letting the materials grow. This is opposed to the fast pace of production and composition these days. There are things that relate to imperfection that are of more value in the art driven practice, but are absolutely unacceptable within any industrial development.”
The fact that he eventually has to kill the fungus that he is working with in order to deliver them as a stable product, is probably his biggest frustration. “I keep preaching about the fact that I collaborate closely with living systems, that these are my partners and I need to grow them, but eventually if I want to deliver them, I have to kill them. So, I have to kill my partners.” Not because he wants to, but because our society does not know how to deal with living, and thus degrading, objects.
A new cultural perspective
“Nobody wants to commit to the fact that things might be transitory.” He encounters this issue while working for museums and the consumer-based industry. “Value is given to something that stays, while we don't understand that everything in the world we live in and are part of, is transforming. That we are part of that transformation and everything should be part of that transformation. In fact, we want to conserve. And that's a fully cultural approach that we have.”
Does he eventually aim to design a living product that can be delivered and kept alive by the consumer? “Absolutely. Yes, you could keep alive, but not forever. Because everything living must die. Must. We are putting so much effort in trying to prolong our existence, but why is that? I don't see the necessity. Ultimately, I think the whole point of being alive is impermanence. And that should not only be about us, it is not only a reflection about human beings and about living entities, it's about every single thing including materials.”
In our disbalance with nature, it seems like we are triggering our own extinction. “Oh yes, we're doing that. The planet would develop very happily without us.” Still, Maurizio stays optimistic and passionate about his work at all times. “It's not only dark, because there are a lot of motivated individuals and competent initiatives, and I hope of course that we are part of this kind of movement that are contributing to some radical transformation. And I think that is very exciting.”