A group of budding engineers and designers from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne have created a collection of award-winning sustainable shop fittings and displays for a leading eco brand as part of an intern programme.
Using mycelium, the root structure of fungi, the 12 students designed and grew the objects for Seed & Sprout’s Byron Bay pop up shop Made+Mycelium. The project won a prestigious Best in Class accolade at the Good Design Awards.
The project began in mid-2021 as a professional internship offered to architecture, design and engineering students. The challenge of mastering a curious, dynamic material was compounded by successive Covid-19 lockdowns, which forced the students to work remotely and use found objects such as hard rubbish in their own neighbourhoods.
Architectural design lecturer Canhui Chen, who co-supervised the project, delivered bags of hard product to the students, which they had to break down into a soil-like consistency and compact against frames or guides to train the growth in the shape of their designs. The structures were then wrapped in plastic for several weeks to grow, before being dehydrated (often in conventional or microwave ovens) to stop the growth process when the mycelium reached its target size and shape.
‘Mycelium is unprecise and has a mind of its own,’ said Bachelor of Engineering student Adele Easton. ‘To then try to tame it and make it into a more precise object is very difficult. Cleanliness is a key factor, too; before the mycelium objects are fully dehydrated, they can grow mould if placed in the wrong environment.’
Easton produced a light installation, combining her engineering skills to embed LED light strips in disk-shaped mycelium features (picture above). Other students grew lampshades, stools, bowls, planters and even product packaging.
‘It’s definitely a sustainable material – and a renewable one,’ Easton said. ‘But maintaining precise control over the growing conditions, including a sterile environment, would make it challenging to grow on a production level.’
The research into designing with mycelium composite at Swinburne started in 2018, led by staff in the School of Design and Architecture. In 2019, students collaborated with a Spanish architectural institute to investigate implementing the material in sustainable building practices. In 2021, researchers developed floating mycelium pods to promote biodiversity at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, winning a Good Design Award for their work.
According to Chen, who led the 2019 and 2021 projects, Seed & Sprout approached Swinburne’s School of Design and Architecture with the Made+Mycelium opportunity after the 2021 research. ‘We were able to run it as a professional internship programme, where students from various backgrounds can collaborate and work together as a team and work on real-world projects,’ he said. ‘It was a real project with a real client, deadline and budget. You can think of it as if we were running a design firm and were commissioned by the client to deliver the pop-up store, and we hired a few students via the professional internship programme. In this case, the students involved in the project were not considered “students” but professionals working in a real project environment. It’s a fantastic experience for the team to learn how concepts are turned into reality.’