London-based suzanne lee, is a senior research fellow in the school of fashion / textiles, central saint martins, london. She is also the creative director of biocouture which investigates the growth of clothing through the use of bacterial cellulose. Lee’s latest garment – which uses these growing textiles – is the ‘biocouture’ jacket made from cellulose. Instead of coming from plants, the cellulose is produced by millions of tiny bacteria grown in bathtubs of sweet green tea.
I have been growing Kombucha cultures myself for the last year or so and they grow really easily. All they need is tea, sugar and some oxygen. As long as the container is not contaminated with harmful bacteria or germs, this wonder drink will continue fermenting. Suzanne Lee has a TED talk dedicated to making clothes from the culture as well, which you can find at the bottom of this post. Its cheap, accessible, biodegradable and probably even durable. I have always been drinking the beverage, its time for me to try to dry the cultures in to pieces of clothing myself.
I think it is really important for designer to really be involved in biotechnology discourse. I truly do believe that the materials and processes of design will be merged with biological ones. We are stepping in to new boundaries, but in a sense most radical new technologies have similar potential and issue at the same time. (Niel Postman is an interesting author to look at on this topic)
Biotechnology and synbio will have much more support in plants than animals when we look at design and ethics. It seems perfectly ok to manipulate plants to make new building materials, but when we speak about animals, we consider their autonomy and sensations such as pain. For example the thought of animals as slaves is unattractive. But I believe that both have implications. Maintaining biodiversity seems to be one of these issues that will rise with biotechnology. Food and medicine will not be the only aspect of life that will sound alarming when considering biotechnology.
We have yet to discover our environment, just in the rainforest alone. And yet we fail to mention the cultural implications. An example is the people in the rainforest who have now become “westernized” and choose to no longer pursue their great ancestor’s knowledge in medicine in plants of the rainforest. This means that every year, every month when great medicine men pass away, their knowledge of those plants and animals are long gone with them. How can we access that part of earth where there is the most biodiversity. There are still so many plants that we do not use in commercial medicine that could cure the diseases scientists are researching to cure synthetically. I am not exactly sure if commercialization of these plants (with the type of mass production manufacturing processes we have today – high pressure, high temperature, monocultural farming , just to name a few) will even be possible or sustainable for our future.
And I find that before running off to new technologies, perhaps we must take a look at the problems we have today and how we got here. I am in support of biotechnology and synthetic biology, and believe that designers have so much to offer in this field not simply for application and innovation but also ethics and sustainability of our materials and processes. Every time I see a biotechnological discovery or creation made simply for our own amusement or mass entertainment, i cringe a little.