• Brooke Roberts-Islam

How biomaterials powered by organisms could replace (and clean up) synthetic textiles

In 2019, Central Saint Martins (CSM) introduced the first MA Biodesign course for fashion and textiles graduates wishing to work with materials grown from living systems. The course integrates scientific processes with design, providing a lab environment for students to design materials using a range of organisms. The first cohort of students is preparing to graduate from this new programme and showcase their work in the ‘We Are One’ MA Biodesign Symposium on June 7th. Techstyler in partnership with Conservation X Labs will then host a Fireside Chat on June 9th about the opportunities, limitations and scope for biodesign in replacing polluting textiles that threaten our environment. Read on for exclusive insights from preparatory interviews with CSM faculty members Dr Alice Taylor and Victoria Geaney and students Malu Leucking and Moises Hernandez Duque as we peer into the world of biodesign and begin to scratch the surface of the topics we will interrogate on 9th June at 3 PM BST.

"Why biodesign, and why now?" I asked Dr Alice Taylor, Lecturer, Biology and Living Systems for the MA Biodesign course at Central Saint Martins. Her response was pragmatic and direct: “Bizarre interdisciplinary environments are where boundaries are pushed and risks are taken. Biodesign, being purely interdisciplinary, results in a field where innovation is certain.” And with innovation comes our greatest hope of solving urgent climate challenges, so this approach appears valid - even overdue - for the fashion and textiles sector, which has lagged behind in materials innovation. The reason for this lag is at least partly the siloed nature of design and product development and manufacturing. With outsourced manufacturing being the primary approach of global brands, designers typically work outside of the materials processes that underpin the products they design. The MA biodesign course creates a scenario of a symbiosis of design and material creation and uses that eliminate this segmentation.

During our interview, Dr Taylor outlined the programme curriculum as involving scientific experimentation, observation and quantification of living systems. The students are taught how to work with and understand the governing biological, biochemical and biophysical processes of “an array of specimens including mycelium, micro and macro algae strains, pigmented and bioluminescent bacterium, lichens, moss and artemia,” she explained. Alongside this, students examine "complex models, natural and artificial intelligence alike, across multiple scales and time dimensions to understand interactions between living and non-living systems." The goal of the programme, she says is to “create new systems in which biology can be employed to create more sustainable futures. We instil an ethos of understanding from the micro-scale, to provide design solutions at macro and planetary scales.” Therefore, the core of the programme involves small scale experimentation and proof-of-concept projects, however, the ambition is industry applications at scale.

Victoria Geaney, Associate Lecturer, Design Studios at Central Saint Martins, conducts workshops and tutorials with the MA Biodesign students, ensuring critical thinking and design framework analysis. On the subject of balancing aesthetics and design within biodesign practice, and creating materials with a view to scaled implementation, she explained that: “The comparatively fast pace of a design cycle does not run in parallel to the relatively slower pace of realising biological innovations, experiments and developments. (Fashion) design is inherently concerned with the new, and the next, which could be viewed as at odds with biological rhythms.” Herein lies the challenge - balancing sustainability and material performance gains with commercial material demands including volume, speed and quality assurance. Dr Taylor further articulates this when stating that “naturally occurring organisms may have the capability to provide the pigment, fibre or enzyme required for (textile and fashion) applications, but the variable growth rates and unreliable biochemical production of naturally existing organisms mean that it will be difficult to integrate and use (them) in mass production systems.” By contrast, synthetic biology involves reengineering the genetic makeup of microbiological cells so that they have advantageous properties, which allow the creation of bespoke materials, pharmaceuticals and food products. Dr Taylor refers to this as the ‘advanced, engineered sibling” of biodesign using ‘natural’ organisms.

Her view is that changes in regulation and scope for synthetic biology and the use of engineered organisms for sectors outside of pharmaceuticals and food products would be the catalyst for developing biomaterials at scale, along the lines of what companies like Bolt Threads and Ginko Bioworks are doing.

MA Biodesign student Malu Leucking previously studied textile and surface design at Weissensee Art Academy in Berlin, during which time she completed an internship in Italy in the “conventional” textile industry. “Seeing all (the) waste that was produced and especially (the) toxic chemical dyes people were working with on a daily basis (with no protective clothes) was the moment I decided I didn't want to be part of this system,” she said of her shift towards biodesign. Following the internship she worked on “an installation that included bioluminescent algae,” after which she “fell in love with the underwater world and especially with algae and its potential for our material world.” Leucking's focus for her MA is seaweed and freshwater algae (when I approached her for this interview she was heading to the coast to harvest some seaweed for experiments in the CSM Grow Lab). In her role as a biodesign student, she says “we actually have a huge responsibility...to minimize the harm on other living (things). It is important that we consider the whole life cycle of a product from the resource extraction to (the) afterlife. We need to understand all the elements of the system, its interconnections, its dynamics, and its overall behaviour in order to make a sensible and proper risk assessment.”

This, I would contest, is not the conventional manner of thinking of textile and apparel designers, marking a shift in the design principles and ethical viewpoints of one of the next generation of designers from an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ position to that of ‘no more pollution on my watch’. Does Leucking's opinion indicate the woke nature of the next generation of creative talents who are determined not to contribute to (or work within’) the incumbent toxic materials and production systems? The integration of biodesign to the MA Fashion course at the Royal College of Art in the form of workshops and projects helmed by Victoria Geaney and colleague Louis Alderson-Bythella suggests the expansion of the disciple into fashion studies continues. For her part, Leucking hopes to develop algae materials that can readily form composites with other bio-based materials and sees the future as materials as ‘hybrid’ rather than displacement of existing plant-based materials.

Colombian designer Moises Hernandez Duque joined the MA biodesign course following a bachelor’s degree in design at Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Columbia, during which he worked on WOOCOA - a vegan alternative to animal wool. His design sensibilities lean towards minimising environmental impact, and during the past year, he has been examining the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on waste pollution in parks - our main place of social interaction since early in 2020. His idea for tackling this waste is implementing fungi for mycoremediation (where mycelium material absorbs and removes environmental pollutants including cigarette butts, packaging and face masks). He sees his role in the materials industry as “conceiving (materials) as part of a bigger system that aims to be not only circular, but regenerative.” Both Leucking and Hernandez Duque will present their work during the upcoming Fireside Chat on June 9th.

The benefits of harnessing organisms and designing with living systems to create innovative materials seem clear, but the path to production and implementation at scale is not. And at scale is where we stand to see the vast environmental benefits of such materials. During our Fireside Chat we will explore the current status of the biodesign sector, comparing ‘natural’ biological systems with synthetic ones and examining the role of the MA biodesign from an academic and project-based viewpoint. We will also look at work in progress from Malu Leucking and Moises Hernandez Duque and hold a live Q&A with questions from the audience.

Sign up here to attend the Fireside Chat on June 9th, with Dr Alice Taylor, Victoria Geaney, Malu Leucking and Moises Hernandez Duque, hosted by me, Brooke Roberts-Islam.

For more information, or to pose a question ahead of the event, email hello@techstyler.fashion.

To attend the ‘We Are One’ MA Biodesign Symposium on June 7th, register here.

All images: Malu Leucking