We have reached a point where we treat biology as technology – as knowledge, the art of modification and the usage of tools, techniques and systems. Tools and techniques have throughout history been adapted to our changing needs, and so will the science of living organisms. By rethinking our understanding about nature, we can create a radically new relationship between science and creativity.
There is an ongoing quest for integrating natural processes into design manufacturing. After mastering the art of 3D printing, biological printing is on the rise. The idea of bio-printing brings to mind the engineering of human organs for their replacement, but medicine is not the only application of that novelty. New design directions have become a natural consequence of this neo-evolution. Science has gone so far in influencing the design and production of everyday objects that growing a jacket directly from bacteria or making a fungi hat no longer is unthinkable. Though derived from biology, the discipline also brings together advancements in material sciences, chemical engineering and other new technology. Culturally emerged nature helps to develop sustainable fashion as well as other goods of our daily life.
Artists and designers have only recently been trying to use the still undeveloped potential lying in microbes – not only plants – in their creative activities. There is a visible tendency among them to remove boundaries between the artistic and the technological, the natural and the constructed, the grown and the manufactured.
Growing materials and objects with the use of microorganisms such as bacteria, algae and fungi or vegetables and plants opens possibilities of bio-customisation as well as genetic material modification along the production processes. Sooner or later, not only clothes and accessories, but also tech devices and buildings will be able to grow directly on the cultivated ground. However, in the immediate future bio-manufactured and grown products will be considered a new luxury; a neo-primitive advancement accessible only to a few.
One of the pioneers in the field, Suzanne Lee, made biodesign the core of her business. She started to work on her BioCouture project ten years ago. Since her first jackets made of leather-like cultivated cellulose, the field has developed new opportunities for advancement. Technology and science have been present in a close relation to fashion for a long time. As these fields have always driven innovations not only in materials, but also in forms and shapes, designers constantly search for scientific resources. Some of the most evident examples are by Issey Miyake and Hussein Chalayan, who incorporated technology into textiles and thus expanded the functionality of their products. At the dawn of the digital era in the late 1980s, automation and multi-functionality were prioritised.
In the beginning, the work of these designers was treated as science fiction, but they eventually became part of the history of innovation. Today, the quest for innovative solutions is often driven by sustainability concerns. Following that need, designers like Carole Collet and Suzanne Lee go as far as they can in their understanding of sustainable fashion.
Collet, who is both a designer and an academic researcher, has developed a speculative project crossing the apparently distinct fields of synthetic biology and textile design to propose new methods of material fabrication. There is a growing theory that living technology can help solve some of the key sustainable challenges of the 21st century. In her experiment, Collett shows that it is possible to program plants to produce lace out of their roots. A strawberry plant, aided by current technology and applied design, can create durable crochet in beautiful patterns and colours while maintaining its primary functions such as food production. This incredible and still very straightforward project gives a glimpse into how plants could replace textile machinery.
Is BioCouture a harkening back to primitive nature or an attempt to push nature into the far future? It can be seen as a being both of these – taking something as rudimentary and ancient as bacteria or wild plants and bringing them to the high-tech reality of the 21st century.
With this in mind, Suzanne Lee works with selected scientists to engineer optimised organisms for growing prospective consumer products. With the results of her research, she convinces us that microbes can be treated as fibre and textile factories of the future. On her website, she even provides a detailed yet simple recipe for homemade cellulose fabric. It may be hard to imagine people growing their clothes on a massive scale, but such methods have a widening audience. Experiments like Lee’s inspire apparel companies to explore the possibilities in bio-manufacturing. As an example, Lee working together with South African designer Hamish Morrow created water-resistant silk to be used in sportswear. By taking living animal cells and growing them into a sheet of textile, the pair made it possible to maintain control over the quality, look and feel of the material designed beforehand.
Another designer predicting the popularity of biologically developed materials for the textile industry is Laerke Hooge Andersen. In her study “Synthetic Kingdom” she proposes a concept of combining natural materials across kingdoms of flora, fauna, human and technology. She envisions creating materials that possess contradicting properties in an effort to portray untapped dimensions and new approaches to fashion. In her viewpoint, the potential lies, again, in sustainability: “Material biology will rapidly change, responding to changes in planetary resources. Eventually, it will affect the definitions of design and materials. For instance, I imagine a future scenario where synthetic plastic skin, hair and lab-grown materials are the equivalent to today’s leathers, furs and fabrics.”
There is an additional argument for biodesign to increase its presence in the fashion industry. Hooge Andersen reminds us that clothing serves not only as a utility, but also as a means of expression: “The logic of fashion has always laid in differentiation and recognition. Looking from this perspective alone, it makes sense to explore opportunities that disciplines like biotechnology offer for fashion. This is also why I believe there will be a time when we develop materials in labs instead of factories, when fashion is finally defined through microscopic compositions never seen before.”
Hooge Andersen, who works at the crossroads of biology, technology and design, is not trying to convince that growing materials will entirely replace manufacturing them. Instead, she focuses on cutting edge biosynthetics – a convergent field with multiple applications. In her point of view, science holds promises of redesigning and manipulating the living world of nature to suit material human needs. Eric Klarenbeek is on the same wavelength. His design studio takes experimental materials such as biological substrate from mushroom as a starting point for printing bioplastic objects. To achieve the end product, the structure needs to be bio-printed in a lab and then fully grown. On the basis of this process, in collaboration with scientists Klarenbeek printed a Mycelium Chair. Consisting mainly of straw and thread-like fungi webs, it is covered with a thin shell of bioplastic. Though still experimental, the technique could be adopted by the fashion industry for the production of climate-responsive apparel. “Bio-printing leaves full control over the design and its outcome,” the designer convinces. “Biodesign in products is slowly finding its way to the market. As the materials are relatively new, there is still a lot to explore,” he adds.
Adornment more than practicality informs Amy Congdon’s fashion design. Combining textile craft and tissue engineering, she conducts a highly experimental, research-driven practice. One of her latest projects is Biological Atelier and its futuristic Bio Nouveau collection that envisions fashion in autumn/winter 2082. Through the couture atelier imagined at the end of the 21st century, she tries to show how roles of a designer, manufacturer and scientist become one. With the growing trend of prosumerism, where producer and consumer are one and the same, it is fairly probable that the designer-manufacturer-scientist will be the wearer of the final product. “The project envisions a world where materials are not made, they are grown – where new luxury materials are fashioned from cells, not fabrics,”Congdon explains.
As a result, we can expect hybrid materials able to manipulate our bodies seasonally and couture pieces that inhabit, grow onto and finally leave our skin. As outlandish and romantic as it may sound, it is quite possible. Fifty years of rapid biotechnological progress seems to be enough to make it happen. Some illustrative projects of Biological Atelier, together with BioCouture and many others, were presented as evidence at the ‘En Vie – Alive’ exhibition held last year in Paris. Carole Collet, who was curator of the show, highlighted that bio-designers not only use nature as a tool or an ingredient in their complex work, they also sometimes even treat living organisms as co-workers and role models for biomanufacturing processes. And this is only the beginning.
We find ourselves at a moment when hitherto stable notions like ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ start to erode and the boundaries between them disappear. It is rather certain that design landscapes will change and biotechnology will impact fashion futures. Ongoing scientific advances are already reshaping how we use objects. Involving designers in this can only lead to redefinition of the relationship between the maker and his product. Consumer behaviour following this process will eventually not only transform the manufacturing methodology and material language, but also their cultural significance.
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