ECA Product Design got a new webspace.
This is our new home.
Image by Wikimedia Commons
My intentions with The Creature are to, through intimate interaction and physical conversation, create a platform on which people can form their own opinions on what it is to contain consciousness or utilise intelligence and therefore form their own opinions on AI. To achieve this I played on the aesthetic connotations of Frankenstein’s monster and galvani’s experiments to create an interactive bionic hand.
My boxes are an embodiment of biological system’s ability to problem solve by creating energy, in our current energy crisis I expect to see a dramatic rise in energy prices and energy making schemes and projects will become more abundant. I see these objects as an example of ways that energy production can be and will be scaled down to personal and community based production methods in which groups and individuals will have to take the initiative to start creating our own cleaner sources of energy for economical reasons as well as moral ones.
When studying the Polaroids of Andy Warhol, and examining photographs of his studio space – it is easy to understand how the two arenas went hand-in-hand. The aesthetic style of each Polaroid and the interior architecture of “The Factory” (as it was called) were created and evolve together, in symbiosis – during the early 1960s at the opening of The Factory, his artwork was harshly lit and overblown – taken with consumer Polaroids under cold studio lighting in the otherwise dark warehouse space. By 1986, he had relocated into a conventional office building with a brownstone façade – a much brighter, window-lit space that reflected in his works more tonal variety, subtlety and softness of light.
It is this relationship between light, environment, medium, and the artist that is important to me – and poses design questions not often considered within the remit of traditional industrial light and furniture design. The light which we create work under can influence a great deal of our impressions of it – as designers, the materials we handle can appear drastically different under the right and wrong kinds of light.
Created as an exploration into colour, light, space and the work that we create, Shift is a lamp made intelligent through the use of micro-processing and colour sensing.
Shift is designed to both receive input manually and sense the surrounding environment for information that can be used to change the ways we experience colour, light and space. Interaction with the large track-pad base is a way for users to dictate directly what hues should be displayed – but brightness and colour can also be controlled by automated reading of the surrounding environment, through an embedded RGB sensor.
The lamp is designed to be sleek, almost anthropomorphised in form – with elongated armatures and a geometric head; the circular fillet motifs drawing parallel with the design of a magnifying glass. All hinged joints are suspended with tension grips, in an effort to minimise visual clutter and promote clean interactions.
Light is fascinating to design for – as the environment created through product form is often more important than the object itself – the interactions designed into Shift emboldened through minimalist form.
In choosing a lamp to explore the possibilities of design interaction and relationship with form when electronics are introduced, I am attempting to create an object that has familiar overtones, but pushes the boundaries of what interactions can be achieved in ways thought of as intelligent, or not achievable with mechanical technologies.
In order to understand the process through which I went we have to go on a journey that starts somewhere in September. It was back then when during the first week we discovered that our next project,
which was to last 3 months, will be exploring synthetic biology. It
might seem odd to do biology in a Product Design course but soon it
all started to make sense with the help of frequent visits to the
laboratory and of other people from the domain talking to us about all the possibilities.
Final artefact for PD3 Electronic Things
I made a divination rod enhanced by GPS this semester, here’s a video of it in use.
You message the stick coordinates via SMS and it quivers when pointed in the correct direction.
Over the summer a colleague told me about a nice pub in Duddingston he had visited with his boyfriend, so I looked up the coordinates to see if I could find it.
Barriers between design practitioners and scientific researchers have blurred in recent decades – particularly within the commercial application of scientific developments – but it’s still important to acknowledge that it’s quite obvious that i’m not a practising scientist, and most scientists don’t make embracing design their prime objective.
Context is everything – current projects struggle to grip because they rely on prescient without proper historical arguments, or on technologies that aren’t fully understood by designers or the (viewing) general public – what use is a table lamp powered by moss if we can plug in a lamp at home? Producing Bio-fuel is a process; simply replacing petroleum extraction with algae growth in industrial tanks, and to consumers, the end product is identical, with the designed process completely invisible.
It’s important that synthetic biology and design is therefore relatable and applicable – Sea Me from Dutch maker Nienke Hoogvliet is a rug woven from algae cellulose, a tactile exploration of algae in design. Farma from William Patrick poises a future in which we can grow our own drugs, a future made realistic through believable form and current product vernacular.
The Terroir Project from Jonas Edvard and Nikolaj Steenfatt is another great exhibition of how the materiality of algae within design can help the public understand real-world, actionable applications for synthetic biology.
As far back as the Ancient Greeks, algae dyes and pigments have been utilised for rudimentary makeup and clothing dye – the production of carotenoids and chlorophylls within algae allowing for strong colour penetration without the use of harmful synthesised chemicals.
Indeed, the Algaemy project from designers Essi Johanna Glomb and Rasa Weber (amongst other projects) is an exploration into modern design of a dye system using algae. It is still rather archaic in appearance however, and fails to relate to contemporary product vernacular and modes of use – why not design an algae dying system using common home products, such as an ink-jet printer?
A printer in form like others, but functionally opposed – CYMKA is a concept artefact that attempts to bridge gaps between current synthetic biology practises within major industry and the consumer realities that face us within the home everyday.
As a way of safely and considerately introducing synthetic biology to the mass market and the challenging thoughts around living with living things, the printer is designed to appear normal – but is created with the intention of cultivating a symbiotic relationship with an algae ecosystem that resides on top of the device, sustained by constant input and care from the user much in the same way as a fish tank, or terrarium.
By revealing symbiotic opportunities that a Synthetic Biology future can offer us within a consumer product space, CYMKA hopes to garner attention of the public and generate further consumer interest for interacting with living things.
Dependant on the quality of care given to the algae ecosystem within CYMKA, will be the quality and craftsmanship of the inks and printed media that can be gained from it. Differing environments can be constructed in ways to harvest many thousands of different types of algae – and differing textures of ink, with varying success.
European algae are commonly red and brown in tone – and have a tougher epidermis that can produce hardy and deep inks; historically reduced and strained around the Irish sea and within Nordic communities, as a natural fabric dye. Bright green algae populate warmer waters, including Asian and pacific arenas – slightly dryer in texture, emitting a more consistent ink with a thinner texture for detailed dye work.
In choosing a printer, I have designed CYMKA to also celebrate to the long history that exists around the usage of algae as a cultural object – throughout history, algae has not only been utilised within cuisine and agriculture; but also within fashion, design, the crafts and arts. Egyptian makeup has contained algae dyes, as has clothing from cultures along the Mediterranean coast and up toward Nordic isles. CYMKA is designed to facilitate an emotional connection between man and microbe-kind, and as a tool of artistic collaboration cross-species. Care for the algae, and it will care for your printed work.
Research and Precedent Designs
Beginning this project on designing with living material, I was tasked to choose an organism to research on. I recall learning about the basic functions yeast undergo and how it is applied to food production in GCSE Science, and wanted to learn more about yeast. Yeast is a microorganism that is used for a wide range of purposes, that include: producing cheese and wine, studied and researched to inform the human body’s cell division cycle, and used to create drugs that fight cancer. Yeast is also utilised in producing biochemical commodities such as ethanol, and R&D work is in progress to increase ethanol yield through the development of synthetic biology.
I also researched into existing designs that featuring biological material, including collection of garment made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast by Suzanne Lee of BioCouture, and Maurizio Montalti’s homeware collection made from mycelium. Quickly concluding from research, there appears to be a narrative building upon humanity’a dominance over microorganisms, specifically how they’re being utilised for our own benefit. If microorganisms are to play a more vital role in manufacturing consumer goods, then it is plausible for consumers to critically review, or at least be aware of, our lopsided relationship with microorganisms.
I envisioned creating some sort of storage device/furniture, incorporating elements of preserving bacteria that includes freezing and incubating in a freezer or autoclave respectively, but quickly abandoned as bacteria will grow in room temperature and there are alternatives to impede bacteria’s growth. Ideas were sketched out to think of that artefact that provokes my previous thought on humanity’s relationship with microorganisms. At first, I thought of an incubator-cum-freezer home appliance allowing users to grow and archive bacteria. However, the bacteria needs a purpose, perhaps something that the user can build emotional attachment towards the agar plates, for instance, a memory, that is transcribed to the microorganisms by the user, creating a sort of “biological photo” or memento of a memorable moment in time.
Development work took place extensively at the ASCUS lab. First we began with growing bacteria in agar plates, then finally sealed them by sandwiching them with two microscopic slides and an extra layer of agar. However, that method did not work and I developed customer petri dishes from the vacuum former, to also transition away from the laboratory vernacular found in lab equipment. A small sample of sizes and shapes were trialled to find the right size for my custom petri dishes. Square dishes with rounded corners were chosen in the end, as they faintly resemble the size of a square image. The custom dishes were made using polystyrene sheets and vacuum formed.
Storage/shelving unit is also designed in conjunction, so dishes can be stored. This process incorporated design affordance considerations, hinting how the users should store dishes, depending if they’re growing or sealed. The shelf was made using MDF, wihich upon refelction, perhaps is not the most suitable material, as it was spray painted white, which does not appear to be a good visual match with the transparent petri dishes, and its angular form.
Sealing Custom Agar Dishes
Next I brought the custom dishes to ASCUS and grew bacteria from swabbed material samples. A number of small test tubes were hacked to fit in cotton buds to swab materials, which is a very useful tool to be swabbing material on-the-go. A range of samples from various locations in Edinburgh, to the bottom of my shoe was swabbed hoping for a visually appealing and successful petri dish. The bacteria need at least a week to grow into something that is easily perceptible to the eye. All the work is done to simulated completing the process at home. Once the bacteria has grown to the user’s requirement, he/she can seal the bacteria (impending their growth), or continue to let them grow. Sealing the bacteria involves pouring a layer of plain agar over the previous, ensuring the bacteria won’t find sufficient nutrients for growth.
Once there’s enough agar, push the 3D printed lid gently into the dish, the liquid agar will emerge, which is normal. Let the agar in the dish set before applying nail varnish on the sides to secure the lid against the square dish.
The back of the lids have a small insert in the centre for the dish’s leg, which allows the dish to be displayed once the leg is inserted. The shelving unit is designed to separately place dishes that have growing bacteria from dishes that have sealed bacteria. As bacteria needs to be placed flat when grown, such dishes need to be placed face down and stacked vertically, unlike the sealed dishes that are stacked horizontally, slight resembling disc albums.
Making mycelium material
Transactions began with a very limited understanding of what microorganisms were and their potential within the field of art and design. Over the past two years I have heard of many projects involving the design of living things such as 3D printing mushroom canapés (C.Rutzerveld, 2014) and growing bacterial cellulose into endless rolls of material (Domestic Futures, 2015), but it had remained a mystery as to how you would go about doing it yourself. Over consumption and subsequent waste being sent to landfill has lead to governments employing energy efficiency standards and sustainability development around the world (M.Braungart and W.McDonough, 2009). Although having said this, when we dispose of our waste, recycled or otherwise, we know it goes “away”, but we don’t have a connection with the remains of what has been consumed(M.Braungart and W.McDonough, p81, 2009). Where is “away”? By putting the job of recycling and waste disposal into another’s’ hands we feel justified in ignoring our responsibility when thinking about what could be done with our leftovers (be that food, packaging, old clothes etc). What would the world look like if we had to keep everything we ever bought? If we couldn’t throw anything away and had to physically recycle our waste ourselves? I had heard about growing material out of agricultural by-products and mushroom mycelium (Ecovative design, 2016), but how could people do this with their own waste in their own homes? Mycelium is the root structure of mushrooms that is made up of threads called hyphae that spread out like glue to connect substrates together. It grows all over the world in different strains and 90% of the earth’s plants are connected by it. This project looked into how I could make my own mycelium material at home with limited knowledge, and how I could communicate my designs and method effectively with others.
Process and Outcome
My research started by looking into projects that use mycelium to make structures. These included Maurizio Montalti and his ‘Growing Lab’, Ecovative designs packaging ‘MycoMake’ and MycoWorks’ leather. These projects helped to feed my imagination about what could be possible when growing mycelium materials. I looked into waste and by-products from the manufacturing and natural systems that are already in place around me, such as scrap fabric pieces from the fashion department at ECA, waste paper from illustration and graphics, used coffee grounds, waste cardboard and dead leaves fallen from trees around Edinburgh. If I could grow a useful material on such by-products, perhaps people would not think of the substrates as waste, but as food, for the mycelium to grow on.
It was essential to start making my own mycelium and testing its capabilities. I started by following Youtube tutorials and then, after looking at the outcomes, I could refine the method to make them more successful. For example, in order to prevent contamination it was essential for the components and working space to be sterile, as well as this, the mycelium needs air circulation to grow so it should have air gaps in its container. After two more experiments using different substrates for growth (including ground coffee, dead leaves, cardboard and malt agar), I was able to refine my experiment even further and after speaking to mycologists in both the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh and Kings Buildings at the University of Edinburgh I could confidently set up my final tests for my project outcomes.
This meant I had nine samples showing the stages of growth and four final baked outcomes to show the possible material types from these substrates.
Diving into the world of microorganisms was difficult at first; there was a definite knowledge gap, but I found that if you showed an interest and asked questions then researchers, scientists and students were eager to show you what they were working on. It helped to remind myself that I wasn’t meant to understand everything they said, but that I could extrapolate the important characteristics of the microorganisms that could potentially be useful for my project. Sometimes I spent a couple of hours speaking to researchers who were not very helpful in terms of the area of their research, such as focusing more on the fruiting body of mushrooms or having expertise in lichens, rather than the root structure of mushrooms. Nevertheless these interviewees helped lead me to those who would be more helpful within my project, hence my being able to find Dr Patrick Hickey, a doctor of mycology, and the first conversations were still valid and useful components of my research.
When looking at the current resources for how to grow your own mycelium I was working from YouTube videos and various tips from the Ecovative Grow-It-Yourself guide, but one thing stood out, I needed to stop researching and tangibly get hold of some mycelium. By getting my hands messy, armed with cardboard and oyster mushrooms from an Asian supermarket, I was able to discern what worked well (using cardboard as a substrate) and what needed to be improved (ensuring sterile conditions of the work place). Trial and error helped me to refine and adjust my methodology. There was a risk with this project that the mycelium would not grow and therefore would leave me with small piles of chopped up cardboard and leaves. This risk, alongside being uncertain of how best to generate mycelium, meant there was a reasonable amount of failure. Having seen these errors and refining my methods I am more confident to continue with my project; knowing the pitfalls such as contaminated apparatus means I can work to avoid infecting the mycelium by sterilising all components in the process.
My project has been able to identify how to grow my own oyster mycelium locally, but in the time allocated for the project I have not been able to grow any other strains. As another result of the time constrains I found it best to order mycelium spawn from Aberdeenshire in order to inoculate my substrates for the tests three (B) and four. The result was a fast growing feathery mycelium that spread throughout the substrates within two weeks, which was exciting to see and document. The answer is, yes, I can produce it locally, but there is still a lot of research that could be done in order to create different mycelium strains that have different material properties when being grown on various substrates. My challenge was to be able to communicate my design and making process, in order for others to be able to understand better how we can grow mycelium materials. The difficulties here were being able to document all stages of growth, since the mycelium wasn’t always growing in the same place, from the ASCUS lab to the studio to my flat, and therefore get a rounded view of the best conditions for mycelium growth. Having said this, my final artefact shows a development from the oyster mushroom, to the home grown mycelium, to the mycelium growing in different substrates and then finally to the baked samples where the mycelium has been prevented from growing further. This development helps to explain the journey of growth and that is very satisfying to see in a final outcome.
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Using the refined method of experimentation the new tests worked! Below is a picture of tests three (B) and four where the mycelium was left to grow in substrates including cardboard, cotton calico and dead leaves. In one test I left the mycelium spawn to grow in between layers of bubble wrap to see how it would take the shape.
I left test four to grow for 14 days and tests three to grow for seven days to display the different stages of growth in my presentation.