I was recently shopping at my local farmer’s market when I came upon the stall that, week after week, takes the biggest chunk of my cash: the mushroom vendor. The young woman manning the stall had her usual display of shiitakes and portobellos and chanterelles and oysters. But she also had something I hadn’t seen before: reishi mushrooms. They were flat, round and dried, and could be used to make tea, she told me. What she did not tell me: they also could also be used to make furniture.
The artist Phil Ross has been interested in mushrooms since the late 1980s, when he worked in hospice care and patients would drink reishi tea to strengthen their immune systems. Since then, he’s delved deeper in the fungal world. He discovered that mushrooms could be used to create a super durable, fireproof, water-resistant material.
He hopes to one day build buildings from the stuff. In the meantime, he will be in residence at San Francisco’s Workshop Residence space this fall, where he’ll be producing a limited-edition line of furniture built almost entirely out of fungus. Once you’re done lounging on it, you can boil into a nice, hot cup of tea. I had to ask, when I finally got a chance to speak to Ross:
Is this for real?
I will be using locally grown ingredients, so it will be organic, 100% American-grown, manufactured and made. The piece will be put together while I’m there. I want to demonstrate how you can create this kind of fabrication using local agricultural waste.
How do mushrooms become a building material?
I work in conjunction with a place called Far West Fungi and their mushroom farm near Monterey. They grow exotic mushrooms like reishi, shiitake and oyster mushrooms using sawdust as the primary food source for the mushrooms. Mushrooms are like us in that they need to eat things that were once alive to derive their energy. The way they do it is they grow these slender roots [that connect to each other making a huge network, called mycelium]. The mycelium can grow very dense. When it’s dried, it can be used as a [surprisingly strong] building material.
Is it true that you will boil down the furniture to serve as tea?
Reishi usually grows off trees in these flat, semi-circular discs. It’s a traditional ingredient in Asian medicine, but it’s also taken in every sort of native culture on the planet. When they’re dried and boiled into tea, it’s like a tonic. You take it to keep yourself in peak physical condition more so than in the Western view of medicine where it’s supposed to cure something specific. We will be serving tea to people coming to visit and we might just demonstrate it by boiling down a piece of furniture.
Is this a viable material that companies can use to build their products?
Yes, it is! There is about to be born a multi-billion dollar industry based on this very same technology. The race is on to figure out how to do it because it is so conservative energy-wise and [not at all harmful] to the environment.
What else can be made out of mushrooms besides furniture?
You can make almost anything you can imagine. Almost anything you can build out of plastic or wood you can make out of mushrooms. You can grow buildings. You can grow artificial organs. It’s almost like, you name it, you can probably make it out of mushrooms.
Have you worked with any other edible materials?
I’ve worked with oysters and I’ve grown a lot of plants – not something quite as specific as edible architecture, but more from my familiarity and history with food. I’m just always thinking about the way things grow.
Why do you think there is so much crossover between food and art?
Well, they’re both absolutely creativity-packed. A lot of people are into cooking because it’s the way they share their creativity. Cooking is very much like social sculpture or social/relational artwork. It’s very immediate. You can bring people together for a certain period of time. You can even have a certain conversation that’s brewing during the meal. Now you can achieve a very poetic form of expression, which is sometimes more difficult than traditional artwork. Food is always a fertile subject area. It has to do with everything we hold dear.
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