Spotlight: Human Nature

Maurizio Montalti on Design & Nature 

Wava Carpenter

A conversation with the Italian-born, Amsterdam-based biomaterials expert and designer

In the Human Nature series, we explore the critical, evolving relationship between humans and our environment through conversations with some of today’s most inspiring, influential, and boundary breaking design creatives.

This time around, we speak with biomaterials expert Maurizio Montalti, a pioneer in the experimental field of fungal mycelium-based technologies who is dedicated to creating innovative concepts for both speculative projects and day-to-day application. Working at the intersection of design and biotech, Montalti is the Founder of Amsterdam-based multidisciplinary studio Officina Corpuscoli; Cofounder, Chairman, and R&D Director at Mogu, a brand dedicated to crafting biomaterial designs for everyday living; and Artistic Director of the new dieDAS - Design Akademie Saaleck. Across the board, Montalti’s work is beautifully inspired by and executed in collaboration with living systems and organisms.

Maurizio Montalti. Photo by Falko Matte; © Officina Corpuscoli and dieDAS

For those less familiar with your work, please explain your focus and approach.

I am a designer, researcher, educator and entrepreneur. More than a decade ago, I founded the Amsterdam-based design practice Officina Corpuscoli, as part of which we develop projects investigating inclusive and regenerative opportunities for the establishment of symbiotic relations among the spheres of the living and beyond. The studio’s projects mostly stem from critical explorations of contemporary material culture as well as attempts to decipher the ways in which human and non-human come together within our dynamic ecosystem. By distilling research and analysis through the materialization of tangible narratives, our work strives to create visions and conditions that allow for constructively critical, resonant experiences.

CASKIA / Growing a MarsBoot (2017) by Liz Ciokajlo of OurOwnsKIN and Maurizio Montalti of Officina Corpuscoli. An astronaut’s sweat is filtered and fed to fungal mycelium, partly contributing to feed the fungal culture for the creation of bio-fabricated materials for garments, tools, and more for space travel. Photo by George Ellsworth; © Officina Corpuscoli and Maurizio Montalti

Furthermore, working at the junction of design and biotech, I have been one of the early pioneers committed to the study and development of wide-ranging, mycelium-based technologies, focusing on the creation of multiple innovative biomaterials and related artifacts and products.

Montalti's Bio Ex-Machina project investigates the merging of digital algorithms, livingagents, robotic behavior and additive bio-facturing, aiming to design bespoke bio-fabricatedfurniture (i.e. room dividers) for interior environments. Photo © Officina Corpuscoli, Maurizio Montalti, and Co-de-iT

Moreover, I am also co-founder, chairman, and R&D Director of Mogu, an innovation-driven design company, where we develop technologies and products deriving from the valorization of residual streams. By means of processes rooted in microbial fermentation, we employ fungal mycelium as a key agent for creating and consequently commercializing truly responsible, technically sound, and aesthetically pleasing products and solutions for everyday life.

Mogu Acoustic Mycelium Panels. Photos © Mogu srl

How would you encapsulate your work in 3 sentences?

Instead of three sentences, I would rather identify some key notions and associated values embedded in each and every project that I develop across my practices and ventures: 

—critically experimental
—symbiotically inclusive
—regeneratively transitional

How does the way humans think about nature need to change? And what is the most important lesson we can—and must—learn from the natural world?

These days you hear lots about regeneration. And that’s a good thing for sure. However, to understand what regeneration implies, we humans must urgently decipher what it truly means to be inclusive. We live in a time of separation, from fellow humans as well as from nature, and from the many agents participating in nature’s dynamic dance. And we are just one agent, and one only, within a multitude of “others.”

Fungal Futures materials samples. Photo © Officina Corpuscoli and  Maurizio Montalti

Mankind’s activities and rather selfish behavior are core factors at the origin of contemporary instabilities and our most urgent concerns. The way we live serves neither us nor the planet, whose functioning has now reached a worrying breaking point. In response to such a complex time, we must equip ourselves with great reactivity and adaptability to a set of conditions—e.g., climate crisis, hyper-exploitation and the ultimate depletion of finite resources, biodiversity decline, environmental emergencies, social iniquities, discrimination, pandemics, etc.—that were previously perhaps unconceivable, or at least not entirely understood.

Objects grown using Mycelia-based technology from Officina Corpuscoli's Growing Lab. Photo © Officina Corpuscoli /  Maurizio Montalti

That is why it is so very important to decipher the relational and transitional qualities of what we call nature. Nature is continuously morphing, through the actions of multiple forces—of which culture is just one, and not something separated from it, as many still seem to think. Such misleading ideas of nature and culture as two entirely divided notions must be finally surpassed.

Nature is our home, it is our origin and it is our habitat, evolving through active processes of entanglement that we call symbiosis, the very process at the origin of life on earth. To put it in simple terms, symbiosis is nothing more than the capacity of living agents to interact and establish partnerships with others, beyond their species, to sustain their own life and to continue their legacy through special forms of interaction. It is through such interactions that nature, and we as agents immersed in it, happen to exist—within  a continuous process of dynamic becoming.That means that, if we investigate, understand, and embrace the profound meaning of notions such as temporality, transitioning, and ultimately death, we introduce opportunities for encountering what regeneration truly is, and therefore we are given the chance to identify potential routes to move forward.

Regeneration is not about mitigating harm. Rather, it is about restoring, enriching, nurturing, replenishing, and creating the conditions where ecosystems, economies, and any living agent, including us, could flourish and thrive. Hence, thinking regeneratively means trying to think as a fungus would: with nature, for nature, and as nature.

Seating created from Mycelia at Officina Corposcoli's Growing Lab. Photos © Officina Corpuscoli and Maurizio Montalti

Finally, regeneration might imply giving up our human passion for timeless conservation, or even eternity, calling for an evolution of collective thought and sensitivity, which appears to be rather scary and unwanted for many. And yet, this is precisely what we humans seem to be in great need of, and what non-human “others, “and particularly fungi, could ultimately help inspire—and enable.

Thank you, Maurizio.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

This article is part of a special editorial series inspired by the 2021 Design Miami/ Basel theme “Human Nature.” On the eve of the event, Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Design Miami and Anava Projects took the opportunity to connect with a short list of exceptional creatives working at the forefront of environmentally minded, and therefore socially minded, design. The series explores the evolving relationship between humans and our environment—and asks how that relationship must shift—through conversations with some of today’s most inspiring, influential, and boundary breaking design creatives.

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