Mycelium products from lampshades to tables are sold pre-grown or as grow-your-own kits (image courtesy Krown Design)

Would you buy a carpet made of pine needles? What about a rope woven from human hair? Or a lampshade grown out of fungus? Environmentally minded designers across the globe are betting that you will. In their new book, Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future, FranklinTill Studio’s Kate Franklin and Caroline Till have compiled more than 60 unique projects using alternative materials, just like these, a celebration of the people and groups behind innovative sustainable design.

Cover of Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future (image courtesy Courtesy Thames & Hudson)

The book is divided into eight categories, or “Big Ideas,” from reusing waste (both man-made and natural) to digital fabrication and community-building through DIY projects. While wood-like materials made from wastepaper and using corn husks for soundproofing and insulation are fascinating, by far the most compelling chapter, likely because the category teeters between human and natural waste, is “Shit, Hair, Dust.” (The shock factor doesn’t hurt, either.)

Together with the aforementioned hair rope, the “Shit, Hair, Dust” section also includes Studio Swine’s tortoiseshell-like barrettes and vases made from a blend of hair and resin, as well as Dutch artist Jalila Essaïdi‘s textiles, bioplastics, and papers made from animal manure. But when it comes to shit, Italy comes out on top — as is often the case.

The Museo della Merda transforms excrement into merdacotta, a clay-like material. Cow dung collected from the Castelbosco farm in Lombardy, Italy is transformed into both energy and a material for making functional and decorative objects (photo by Mike Roelofs)

Museo della Merda has one of the most ambitious manure projects, baking cow dung into “merdacotta,” which can be used to make bricks, tiles, and even tableware. The museum itself is located in a medieval castle on a dairy farm in Lombardy: “Since 2007, the Castelbosco farm has produced all its own electricity from manure-generated methane, and currently generates up to three megawatts of energy per hour,” Franklin and Till write. “When the raw manure has been processed in a digester, the remains, mixed with clay and straw, are the base for merdacotta.”

By mixing the excrement with straw and clay, merdacotta can be used to create tiles, tableware, and other decorative objects, but its potential could be considerably wider and even be applied to architectural projects (photo by Mike Roelofs)

As for those pesky dust bunnies, designers have been compressing them into jewelry and even furniture (with some help from a binding agent), and extracting dyes from them to make glazes for ceramics. (MoMA, please take note.)

The use of natural materials and wastes of all kinds to make glazes, inks, and dyes is one that comes up often in the book. Considering the long history of pigment creation, this isn’t surprising. Radical Matter features contemporary designers making dye out of seaweed, and ink out of cat hair and even compressed car exhaust. Seaweed is a particularly popular material, with people weaving it into yarn and shaping it into textiles, lampshades, and chairs.

Among those that use natural materials, the most fascinating projects come from organic functions manipulated by humans — things like roots, fungi, and gourds that actually grow into their intended shapes and uses. For example, Marjan van Aubel and James Shaw “stumbled upon a surprising and bizarre foaming reaction that occurred between soya bio resin and sawdust waste harvested from their London workshop,” so they started using the process to create chairs that look like they’re made out of lava rocks or with a crystal-growing kit. Also in London, at the Design and Living Systems Lab at Central Saint Martins, researchers are growing textile coatings (and lace) out of fungus, and if you’re curious about DIY fungal design, Netherlands-based Krown Design offers a grow-it-yourself kit to make things like lampshades and small tables at home. As for gourd-molding, the same lab that grows mushroom lace is also experimenting with this centuries-old Chinese tradition to grow things like vases straight on the vine.

This pastiglomerate is composed of a blend of molten plastic and organic beach sediment, including sand, wood, coral, and basalt rock (photo by Jeff Elstone)

Manipulating natural processes captures an element of surprise and randomness, but the darker realities of human influence on the environment come out in the form of plastiglomerates, hybrid rocks that form around plastic waste. Some designers have learned to work with plastiglomerates as a base material in their projects; others seek to find biodegradable alternatives to the plastics that litter our world.

Radical Matter is a fascinating compilation that covers the breadth of unusual materials in the creation of more sustainable design. One of my favorite projects, Israeli designer Lou Moria’s EcoGrill, is probably the epitome of environmental design. A biodegradable slow cooker, the EcoGrill comprises a clay plate wrapped in knitted tree fibers. To cook, you simply put food inside, take the whole thing outdoors, and light it. When the fibers have burned off, the food is ready, and since the clay dish is biodegradable, you can leave it in the woods with a clear conscience. Maybe in the future, the EcoGrill will even replace clay with merdacotta. Would I use such a contraption to cook my camping meals? I’d certainly like to think so.

Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future is out April 17 from Thames & Hudson.

Elena Goukassian

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Originally from Bulgaria, she grew up in Washington state and lived in Washington, DC before moving to New York in 2017. Her writing has also appeared...