Amsterdam-based artist Diana Scherer is among the very few (a number that includes Suzanne Lee) whose biofabricated material of choice is her sole invention and is made from materials never before used in biodesign. Unlike Lee, however, Scherer considers her material to be a work of art, rather than something to be mass-produced or available to purchase online—and rightfully so. To create it, she installs templates inside soil that she then uses to grow various crops. After the crops grow for about four weeks, with the templates manipulating their root systems, she cuts these roots from the stems. What she’s left with is an ethereal, extremely delicate, lace-like fabric. This—and the fact that her crop of choice is grass as it’s “quite dense.” And while she doesn’t consider herself to be a fashion designer, she has designed a dress from this material, which was on display at the aforementioned V&A exhibit.
These designers prove that biofabricated materials are completely viable—and that, like any other fabric, they can be fashioned into something beautiful. The latter is an essential component for these materials to be introduced into our everyday lives. As Suzanne Lee has noticed, humans are intrinsically repelled by the look and idea of biofabricated materials—it’s not something that most people are comfortable with. We want the contoured, the polished, the shellacked. We’re wired to covet our buttery Acne Studios leather trench, not a dress that’s growing in our bathtub. That’s why Lee first started creating “biocouture” from kombucha leather: “Production from bacteria is so alien,” she once said, and creating aesthetically pleasing garments from them may be one of their few entry points into the industry.
For proof, look at how the public responded to former Central Saint Martins student Tina Gorjanc’s final MA collection. For the project, she proposed designing and creating a collection from Alexander McQueen’s skin by using the genetic material from strands of his hair sealed by the late designer in little plastic baggies affixed to the garment tags on his first collection. Gorjanc would then employ this genetic material to grow a leather-like skin material, which she planned to casually fashion into a collection of biker jackets and totes. However, In order to harvest his cells, she needed a patent, so for her graduate collection, she instead created prototypes from pigskin (the material that most resembles human skin), which she painstakingly marked with every last freckle and tattoo on McQueen’s body.
The public did not take well to it. The idea made people very uncomfortable, prompting some to call her work “Frankenfashion.” Gorjanc hadn’t intended to elicit this reaction from the public, but it’s quite revealing nonetheless. Yes, on the surface, her project does have some obvious similarities with Hannibal Lecter’s favorite pastimes, but the resounding aversion that it inspired reveals an inherent fear of relinquishing control that lives in all of us. It’s not biofabricated materials that people are so uncomfortable with as much as the fact that these materials are actually alive. The very concept of someone growing your skin, independent of you and separate from your body, requires a lack of control that we’re not used to. Yet relinquishing control—over ourselves and our compulsion to achieve physical perfection, over nature—may be the only way to fully incorporate biofabricated materials.
WhiteFeather Hunter, another bioartist, refers to the microbes she works with as “semi-living” beings. “My approach is to understand and work with living systems, versus trying to conquer or control them,” she says. Likewise, Diana Scherer explains that living materials form the basis of her investigation. “Roots,” she writes on her website, “do not passively grow down, but move and observe. A root navigates, knows what’s up and down, observes gravity and localizes moisture and chemicals…plants are a lot more intelligent than everybody thought.” It’s this attitude that highlights the essence of biodesign: Perceiving nature not as something to control, but as something we can all learn from. Indeed, the term “biomimicry,” according to Janine Benyus, the woman who popularized it, is “the practice of emulating nature’s strategies to create products, processes, and policies that are well adapted to life on earth.”