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Meet the designer turning forest mushrooms into shoes, plates, and furniture

What is nicer after a long day than sinking your feet into comfortable slippers? But one Italian designer is hoping to show that shoes made from mushrooms can be just as cosy.

Meet the designer turning forest mushrooms into shoes, plates, and furniture
Designer Maurizio Montalti poses with some of the everyday objects he has made from mushrooms. Photo: Sophie Mignon/AFP

A pair of light brown slippers, bowls, lampshades and even a chair are also among the everyday objects that artist Maurizio Montalti has been fashioning from various fungi, such as the “mushrooms that you find in the forest when you take a walk.”

Montalti, 36, hopes one day his new, sustainable material could even replace plastic, made from diminishing fossil fuels and difficult to recycle.

“I started working with fungi as part of my design practice a few years ago,” he told AFP, saying he was seeking a “different vision” on the benefits of humans engaging “with species, which are usually disregarded, such as fungal organisms.”

His prime material is mycelium, the white, organic and underground part of a mushroom composed of a network of tiny threads. At first invisible to the human eye, the network can become so dense that it grows into a visible, furry mass.

READ ALSO: Farmers turn cowpats into crockery at Italy's Shit MuseumItaly's farmers turn cowpats into crockery at 'Shit Museum'
Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

“Mycelium is a very interesting product because it is able to break down all leaves for instance, or all kinds of products that we don't use anymore,” said Ilja Dekker, technician at the world's only microbe museum, Micropia, in Amsterdam.

This means it can be used to make different products.

“It can be used to build all types of things like vases, things that we can put inside our houses. But also to build our houses, as a building material to actually make a house,” she said.

Micropia, an interactive museum housed next to Artis, Amsterdam's zoo, is hosting a small permanent exhibition of Montalti's work as part of its mission to highlight how useful microbes are.

Cooking fungi

His concept of “growing design” allows objects to grow naturally with no external shaping, cutting or sculpting, much as plants do in the wild.

Placed into moulds made from wood, clay, plastic or plaster, the mushroom is left to gorge on organic matter like wood chips, straw, hay or linen.

“They feed on such plant matter and while degrading it, they also extend their microscopic filamentous threads and they create this very interconnected network of threads which works as a binding glue, you could say as a natural glue,” said Montalti.

File photo of forest fungus. Photo: ccaetano/Depositphotos

At some point the process has to be halted otherwise the ravenous fungi would just continue to grow, completely breaking down the organic matter.

So the mould is placed into a low-heat oven, which, in effect, cooks the fungus inside.

The fungi culture is “fully deactivated” leaving behind an “inert material, but still fully natural and fully compostable,” he said.

In this way, in ten days a sand-coloured vase was created, or a whitish, rough chair which took 20 days to make.

“Every object is unique,” said Montalti, highlighting how the kind of fungus used, the organic food source or environmental conditions can all change the object's look, colour and feel.


Agaric honey fungus pictured near a tree stump. Photo: Alekcey/Depositphotos

Natural resources

At the start of his research Montalti had been looking at using fungi to help break down materials, such as to stop pollution.

But it was when he “stumbled” upon the creation of a new material that he took a different turn.

Depending on what kind of fungi is used, the material it produces can be stiff or elastic, porous to water, brittle or resistant to heat.

The shoe industry is interested now in his work, hoping to replace traditional rubbers for instance.

There is also interest in it as “victimless leather,” which involves finding materials that resemble traditional animal leather but “do not involve any killing”.

“The ecological aspect and the ecological responsibility is rather paramount” to the whole project, Montalti said.

And he outlined a grand vision. “I foresee a future in the next ten or 20 years where such materials will strongly impact our way of life.”

By Sophie Mignon

READ ALSO: Keep up with the latest Italian art news hereItalian food chain to fund €1 million restoration of The Last Supper
Photo: AFP

 

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FOOD & DRINK

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Summer in Italy means lots of things - trips to the beach, empty cities, strikes, and metro works - but it also ushers in the spritz and negroni season. Here are some of the best drinks to cool down with in Italy this summer.

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Spritz

Venice wins all the prizes for being the home of the spritz: the jewel in Italy’s summertime daisy crown and one of the country’s most popular exports.

To first-time customers, the sweet-and-bitter combo can taste unpleasantly like a poisoned alcopop. Stick with it, however, and you’ll soon learn to appreciate this sunset-coloured aperitif, which has come to feel synonymous with summer in Italy.

The most common version is the bright orange Aperol Spritz, but if this starts to feel too sweet once your tastebuds adjust then you can graduate to the dark red Campari Spritz, which has a deeper and more complex flavour profile.

What are the best summer drinks to order in Italy?

Photo by Federica Ariemma/Unsplash.

Negroni

If you’re too cool for the unabashedly flamboyant spritz but want something not too far off flavour-wise, consider the Negroni.

It’s equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari – though if you want a more approachable version, you can order a ‘Negroni sbagliato’ – literally a ‘wrong’ Negroni – which replaces the gin with sweet sparkling Prosecco white wine.

Served with a twist of orange peel and in a low glass, the Negroni closely resembles an Old Fashioned, and is equally as stylish. A traditional Negroni may be stirred, not shaken, but it’s still the kind of cocktail that Bond would surely be happy to be seen sipping.

Crodino

Don’t fancy any alcohol but still crave that bitter, amaro-based aftertaste?

A crodino might be just what you’re after. With its bright orange hue, it both looks and tastes very similar to an Aperol Spritz – so much so that you might initially ask yourself whether you’ve in fact been served the real thing.

Similar in flavour are soft drinks produced by the San Pellegrino brand; bars that don’t have any crodino on hand will often offer you ‘un San Pellegrino’ as a substitute. These drinks are usually available in multiple flavours like blood orange, grapefruit, or prickly pears.

A barman prepares a Campari Spritz cocktail in the historic Campari bar at the entrance of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II shopping mall. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Chinotto

Much like the crodino, the chinotto is another distinctive bitter Italian aperitivo drink.

With its medium-dark brown colouring, however, the chinotto bears more of a resemblance to Coca Cola than to the spritz, leading to its occasionally being designated as the ‘Italian Coca Cola’.

In reality far less caramelly and much more tart than coke, the chinotto has its detractors, and the fact that we’re having to describe its flavour here means it clearly hasn’t set the world alight since it was first invented in the 1930s (it was subsequently popularised by San Pellegrino, which became its main Italian producer).

If you’re looking for another grown-up tasting alternative to an alcoholic aperitivo, however, the chinotto might just be the place to look.

Bellini

What’s not to love about the bellini?

Its delicate orange and rose-pink tones are reminiscent of a sunset in the same way as a spritz, but with none of the spritz’s complex and contradictory flavours.

A combination of pureed peach and sugary Prosecco wine, the bellini’s thick, creamy texture can almost make it feel smoothie or even dessert-like. It’s a sweet and simple delight, with just a slight kick in the tail to remind you it’s not a soft drink.

Shakerato

Not a fan of drinks of the fruity/citrusy/marinated herby variety?

If caffeine’s more your thing, Italy has an answer for you in the caffe shakerato: an iced coffee drink made with espresso, ice cubes, and sugar or sugar syrup.

That might not sound inspired at first, but hear us out: the three ingredients are vigorously mixed together in a cocktail shaker before the liquid is poured (ice cube-free) into a martini glass, leaving a dark elixir with a delicate caramel coloured foam on top.

You couldn’t look much more elegant drinking an iced coffee than sipping one of these.

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