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William Eliot is a transdisciplinary designer specialising in communal interaction and interspecies design. His practice, Biocrafting.Studio, sits at the intersection of design, science and nature with an emphasis on non-human collaborative design processes. During his project Mealworm Collab, he collaborated with mealworms. Together they designed a chair.

Kelly van Gemert: Why mealworms?

Will Eliot: As I was researching an area for a new project, I was inspired by the concept of degeneration, which is a fundamental aspect of life. Often overlooked due to its association with darker themes like decay, I believe it's crucial to contemplate this process in the context of our current world. Humans have produced an excess of objects that can't naturally break down. While generative design and AI are common terms, "degenerative design" remains unexplored. This led me to explore how degeneration can be a creative force. My journey led me to the fascinating world of mealworms, which possess the unique ability to safely consume and break down polystyrene as a food source.

I was inspired by the concept of degeneration, which is a fundamental aspect of life

Mealworms host a unique bacteria that enables them to safely digest polystyrene. While scientific studies explored how we might replicate this process, I was drawn to a more symbiotic approach. I aimed to shift away from the traditional anthropocentric and extractive design process and instead envision mealworms as equal partners in the design journey.

Photo courtesy of William Eliot

KG: How did the mealworms contribute to the design of the stool?

WE: The mealworms played a vital role in shaping the design of the stool through a push-and-pull process. Initially, I sketched my envisioned tunnel forms, imagining how the mealworms would consume the polystyrene. I translated these concepts into reality by injecting thin sugar trails into waste polystyrene blocks, simulating the foundation of my designs. I then introduced the mealworms to the polystyrene, with their initial attraction to the high-calorie sugar water. However, they soon ventured off on their own, creating unplanned tunnels that constitute a significant part of the design. When it became evident that they had eaten through enough, I removed the worms and cast the tunnels.

The mealworms played a vital role in shaping the design of the stool through a push-and-pull process

KG: And how long does it take to complete a stool?

WE: Mealworms are known for their slow eating pace, but the timeframe for a project depends on various factors, such as the scale and size of the project. The initial project, carried out on a small scale and later digitally enlarged, was completed over the course of approximately one month.

Photo courtesy of William Eliot

KG: Were there any challenges or surprises during your process?

WE: The experimental process brought forth various challenges and intriguing surprises. One notable challenge revolves around the fate of the mealworms after they've played their part in the project. Finding an ethical solution has proven to be an ongoing dilemma. Releasing them after a few months as they metamorphose into beetles is seemingly the most ethical choice, but this approach presents ecological risks to local wildlife. Another option is to use them as animal feed, a fascinating possibility that essentially transforms polystyrene into animal protein with mealworms serving as the catalyst. In more unconventional cases, mealworms can be processed into food or even bioplastics, as demonstrated by Doppelganger Studios' remarkable project.

Drawing from my half-Japanese heritage, I feel an affinity towards animism, and I believe it's crucial to honour the mealworms as co-collaborators

Drawing from my half-Japanese heritage, I feel an affinity towards animism, and I believe it's crucial to honour the mealworms as co-collaborators. Therefore, I feel that some form of ritual or ceremony to pay tribute to these creatures is suitable before they transition to the next stage.

Photo courtesy of William Eliot

KG: Insects are often seen as ‘creepy’ or ‘dirty’. Did your perception of these species change during the process?

WE: I've been fortunate to experience a variety of natural environments, from Tokyo in my youth to the English countryside and even a year in the mountains. Each shift required acclimation to new surroundings. As a designer in London, my interactions with nature were typically brief and superficial. However, working closely with mealworms in my project offered an intense departure from this urban environment.

This experience made me realise that humans have the potential for more intimate interactions with nature; we just need the opportunity to do so

What surprised me was how quickly I became desensitised. Instead of viewing mealworms as creepy or dirty, I began to observe patterns in their behaviour, caring for their well-being and appreciating their movements. This experience made me realise that humans have the potential for more intimate interactions with nature; we just need the opportunity to do so.

Photo courtesy of William Eliot

KG: You want more designers to look into interspecies design. Why?

The era of the solitary visionary designer or architect has long passed. Why limit collaboration to humans alone? We are woven into a complex ecosystem that we've historically sought to dominate and exploit. But what if we joined forces with nature? Nature embodies an intelligence forged over millions of years of evolution. Interspecies design offers a new realm of collaboration, yielding fresh concepts and unlocking capacities that humans alone cannot achieve. It also nurtures empathy for entities that might challenge our ability to empathise but are no less significant.

Interspecies design offers a new realm of collaboration, yielding fresh concepts and unlocking capacities that humans alone cannot achieve

In the realm of design, our primary tools are digital, emphasising control, precision, templates, and algorithms. Interspecies design necessitates surrendering this control. While we can attempt to guide and nurture the process, we must accept forces we cannot entirely master. Instead of perceiving this as a setback, it becomes a source of beauty in both the process and the end result.

Photo courtesy of William Eliot

KG: What message or inspiration do you hope people take away from your work?

WE: The message I hope to convey through my work with mealworms and the stool design is that "biodesign" is not confined to the realm of laboratories. My practice, Biocrafting.Studio, signifies a new wave of biocollaborative design that employs more accessible methods. I aspire for people to realise that they, too, can engage in experiments involving collaboration with nature. This process encourages empathy for non-human entities and fosters the creation of innovative design methods using tools readily available to all.

I aspire for people to realise that they, too, can engage in experiments involving collaboration with nature

The term "crafting" in my studio's name emphasises the active act of hands-on making, and I find it particularly exhilarating to witness individuals experimenting with mycelium in their garages or crafting materials from local resources. We are entering an exciting era of biodesign that harmonises more closely with.

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