Trend Watch: Living Materials In Design


Yesterday we explored the phenomenon of objects that look like people, so it makes sense to today examine objects that are actually alive! Never mind all of the crazy arbor-sculpting and tree-bending that’s going on, today’s designers are finding mind blowing, innovative ways to harness the power of technology’s convergence with living things. From a moss-powered table to waste-digesting kitchens to a DNA hard drive, click through to see some of the coolest uses of living materials in design.

Madlabs’ stunning Bacterioptica chandelier cultivates and displays bacteria samples harvested from its owner. “Bacterioptica is not your typical chandelier, just as no household is a typical portrait of family life,” as they explain on the website. “It is itself a household organism – living and breathing the same air and bacteria we are. It is alive in a very literal sense: it cultivates, distributes and illuminates the bacterial life of its family members by way of a branching assembly of metal rods, glass petri dishes and fiber optics.” Hmm…

Microbial Home is a Philips-designed “ecosystem” of furniture and appliances that re-imagine kitchen waste disposal and energy use. The “bio-digester” kitchen island includes regular counter features like a chopping surface and gas stove in addition to a culture of sustainable bacteria that break down organic waste materials, producing methane gas that power the range and lighting.

Ginger Doiser at Vergelabs grows building materials! This is a brick created out of sand, urea, and bacteria using a process known as microbial-induced calcite precipitation (MICP) in which microbes on the sand initiate a series of chemical reactions that bind the grains together. It won Metropolis Magazine’s 2010 Next Generation Design Competition.

Moss Table was unveiled just this September at the London Furniture Festival and showcases an emerging technology called biophotovoltaics (BPV) that uses the natural process of photosynthesis to generate electrical energy. They explain how it works:

When the moss photosynthesises it releases some of these organic compounds into the soil which contains symbiotic bacteria. The bacteria break down the compounds, which they need to survive, liberating by-products that include electrons. The table designed by the Cambridge University team captures these electrons to produce an electrical current.

Lung-on-a-chip was developed by researchers at Harvard University. It contains living human lung cells and mimics the way a lung actually breathes, potentially enabling a safer and more humane medical testing process.

Ecovative grows eco-friendly, compostable packaging out of seed husks and mushroom roots! Wonder if you could dispose of it in the Philips bio-digester? Only time will tell.

Do any of you drink Kombucha tea? These gorgeous garments are made from the SCOBY! Clothes! Made out of symbiotic yeast and bacteria! Magically machine-washable!

BioCouture is a UK-based research project harnessing nature to propose a radical future fashion vision. They investigate the use of laboratory-grown microbial-cellulose to produce clothing.

Local River is food growing furniture, essentially a self-contained ecosystem supplying fresh produce and fish, conceived by French designer Mathieu Lehanneur. “The plants extract nutrients from the nitrate-rich dejecta of the fish,” he explains. “In doing so they act as a natural filter that purifies the water and maintains a vital balance for the eco-system in which the fish live. The same technique is used on large-scale pioneer aquaponics/fish-farms, which raise tilapia (a food fish from the Far East) and lettuce planted in trays floating on the surface of ponds.”

A team of students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong devised a strategy for encoding large amounts of data including images and text into DNA.

From their press release:

In order to store a massive amount of data, the team proposed to fragment the information and store them in bacteria. A novel information processing system was invented to reconstruct the original information. With this technology, it is estimated that one gram of bacteria can store data of up to 900,000 GB (gigabytes), which is equivalent to 450 hard drives, each with 2 TB (terabytes) of storage capacity. The biocryptography system has a great potential for long term and large scale data storage, and is also applicable to the production of genetically modified food and organisms.

Another winner of Metropolis Magazine’s Next Generation competition, this retro-fit scheme by architects and engineers from HOK / Vanderweil, calls for 25,000 square feet of algae-filled tubes to generate 9% of the building’s power supply. The microalgae produce fuel lipids to form a giant bioreactor system while literally greening the building’s facade.

All of these projects and more will be featured in the upcoming book Bio Design by William Myers, published by Thames & Hudson, fall of 2011.