Finalist 2022

Phenomenal Fungi

Commissioned by KFIVE Pty Ltd

Phenomenal Fungi is biodegradable, non-toxic furniture commissioned by KFive that brings a new sustainable aesthetic.

KFive, a furniture company in Melbourne, commissioned Monash University to design sustainable furniture. Students from architecture, spatial design, product design and art collaborated, utilising mycelium and waste to grow furniture. Mycelium, the subterranean portion of mushrooms, was grown on organic waste – rice husks and woodchips, used coffee grounds and discarded textiles – to be lighting, wall tiles and space dividers with excellent acoustic properties. The furniture is designed to last, yet when discarded, it is completely biodegradable and unharmful to the environment. Mycelium furniture minimises environmental impact, and the project has fostered future designers to adopt more ecological design practices.

Design Brief:

Mark Vender, in his article "Landfill: Australia's 'Underground' Furniture Movement" states the "equivalent of 800,000 three-seater sofas, 1.65 million dining tables, 3.4 million coffee tables or 6.85 million chairs, thrown away every year" in Sydney only without counting illegal dumping and other undetected discards. Even if furniture may be designed to last, the average lifespan of home furnishings is 5-15 years, and office furnishings is 3-10 years. What might be a way to design long-lasting furniture that, when discarded, would not harm the environment? KFive furniture values sustainable design through highly well-crafted and timeless designs. In collaboration with them, Phenomenal Fungi explored creating more sustainable furniture that does not end up as mountains of landfill. For this task, a team of interdisciplinary students experimented and produced furniture prototypes made of mycelium that could return to where it came from – soil – without harm at the end of its life.


This project was developed by:

Design Process

Students from Architecture, Spatial Design, Product Design and Art were formed into eight interdisciplinary teams led by Gyungju Chyon, Lecturer in Spatial Design and embarked on the journey for 12 weeks. Mycelium grows on cellulose substrates, such as banana, wood, cotton and paper. As students did not have experience in working with mycelium or any other biomaterials, they started the project by experimenting with mycelium.

They researched what organic waste could be substrates for the mycelium to grow on. Each team collected 10 to 15 kinds of substrates, including waste from their homes, the fashion industry, and coffee shops. They observed mycelium growth patterns on different substrates. They also tested different growing environments with respect to temperature, humidity, light conditions and durations. Unlike industrially processed materials such as timber, steel and plastics, a live material such as mycelium is unpredictable and hard to control. Mycelium is sensitive to its surrounding temperature, humidity, and light. If environmental conditions are not set right, another unwanted organism, such as mould, may grow instead of mycelium. Students had to practice and learn how to create favourable growing conditions for mycelium with various substrates.

Once they understood the environmental conditions for growing mycelium, they explored ways to embody the idea of 'living material' in their design by experimenting with its behaviour. When creating a mycelium panel, each panel may result in a different colour and pattern, even if they grow in exactly the same conditions. Wooden furniture may change its colour due to its usage and sunlight over long exposure to the elements. Mycelium panels change their colour much quicker than untreated wood. Rather than fitting the materials to a standardised industrially designed aesthetic, where everything is precisely controlled to be the same, students investigated ways to highlight the unpredictable nature of the living material.

Design Excellence

The prototypes made for KFive explore a collection of furniture that could revolutionise not only sustainable production and living but also enable healthier indoor environments. Typical furniture made of wood and textiles emits harmful volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde from glues, dyes, and surface treatments for fire protection and longevity.

Mycelium, on the other hand, is naturally fire-resistant, water-resistant, and microbe-resistant and also has naturally great acoustic performance. Because of these natural properties, the surface of the mycelium furniture does not need chemical treatments. Thus, it is much healthier for both the environment and humans during its lifespan. When it needs to be discarded, it can be biodegraded completely, with no harmful impact on the environment. The Phenomenal Fungi furniture collection includes lighting, wall panels, and space dividers. Each wall panel, lighting object or space divider will express slightly different colour changes over time, as if they are living and evolving, thus creating a livelier and more diverse interior atmosphere. The Phenomenal Fungi furniture collection could be applied not only to walls and ceilings but also to other spatial conditions in homes, offices, retail and public spaces.

Design Innovation

The materials and processes we use to make our buildings and objects contribute to environmental degradation. In order to address this, together with technologists, architects and designers are working with biomaterials, such as microorganisms, to replace traditional materials such as plastics, leathers, bricks, and concretes. Mycelium has played a central role in a shift away from materials that are extracted toward materials that are grown.

Companies like Hermes and Adidas have launched handbags and garments made of mycelium leather. Phenomenal Fungi furniture is made of mycelium and organic substrates. They can last approximately 20 years in certain environmental conditions. They are biodegradable and decompose in several weeks to months, depending on the organic substrates. Charcoal for lamps, discarded organic cotton, silk and hemp for chandeliers, coffee grounds for wall panels, and rice husks and woodchips for space dividers are used as substrates for the mycelium to grow on, enabling furniture that is biodegradable at the end of its life. Also, Phenomenal Fungi furniture collections bring a new idea of aesthetic experience in sustainable design.

Industrially produced products are intended to stay the same as when they came out of the factory. If they discolour or deviate from the expected surface quality, they are considered defects or worn out and will likely be replaced with another new product. Rather than remaining static, however, Phenomenal Fungi furniture collections feel ‘alive' in the sense that they bring variability, unpredictability and constant flux. As the colours change and visible patterns emerge, the collection offers a different aesthetic experience, as if the objects are themselves alive. Thus, the furniture changes over time, thereby challenging people's conceptions of beauty and value.

Design Impact

Phenomenal Fungi has social, environmental and educational impacts. Phenomenal Fungi minimises the use of virgin materials and avoids waste production. Most of the substrate materials used were biodegradable waste from textile, agricultural and service industries. At the end of its life, the furniture can biodegrade with the least possible environmental impact. Phenomenal Fungi gave students first-hand experience working with biomaterials and processes and fostered the next generation of designers to build more ecological ways of living. Its interdisciplinary design process offered students the experience of collaborating with others.

As students interacted with the client KFive, they learned to work with a design brief, to professionally present ideas to the client, and to negotiate the design process from blue-sky concept to producible outcomes. Gaining knowledge and confidence in working with biomaterials, the next generation of designers will implement more sustainable ways of production in the wider public when designing homes, offices, products, architecture, and art.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

Phenomenal Fungi utilised mycelium and organic waste – rice husks and woodchips, used coffee grounds and discarded textiles – to grow lighting, wall tiles and space dividers. It minimises the use of virgin materials and avoids waste production. Most of the substrate materials used were biodegradable waste from textile, agricultural and service industries. The furniture is designed to last, yet when discarded, it is completely biodegradable and unharmful to the environment. Thus, it minimises environmental impact, and the project has fostered future designers to adopt more ecological design practices.

Phenomenal Fungi could revolutionise how we understand sustainable production and living by enabling healthier indoor environments. Typical furniture made of wood and textiles emits harmful volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde from glues, dyes, and surface treatments for fire protection and longevity. Mycelium, on the other hand, is naturally fire-resistant, water-resistant, and microbe-resistant and also has naturally great acoustic performance. Because of these natural properties, the surface of the mycelium furniture does not need chemical treatments. Thus, it addresses the concept of sustainability holistic way, encompassing the health of the environment and humans.

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