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The ultimate sustainable furniture – mushroom lamps and flax seed chairs

Matthew Hague reports on the newest innovation in sustainable design – materials so non-toxic, you could eat them

Light fixtures from designer Sebastian Cox’s latest collection use mushroom-based materials and local wood.

Imagine your living room full of pine needles. It's not because you've procrastinated until February to take down your Christmas tree, and they won't wreck your rug or prick your feet. These firs actually look good, adhere to form following function and are the latest in super sustainable furniture.

Until recently, the only way style-conscious enviro-obsessives could appease their ethical standards, while still meeting their high criteria for nice stuff, was to buy items that were either recycled or upcycled or, better yet, both.

But, very often, that still entailed products produced from plastics, damaging dyes or other harmful synthetics that would, one day, inevitably, end up in a garbage dump or bobbing up and down in one of our already too-polluted waterways.

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A new crop of ecologically minded designers, though, are motivated to truly get back to nature. In Canada and abroad, these designers are innovating sustainable materials that are so non-toxic you could just as easily eat them (really) as showcase them in a picture-perfect living room. They are not only using pine needles, but mushrooms, flax seeds, algae and other natural materials to make light fixtures, chairs, purses and more.

One home-grown case in point: Vancouver designers Amber Frid-Jimenez and Joseph Dahmen, co-founders of experimental studio AFJD, are experimenting with making furniture from oyster mushrooms. "We came to it after working on an installation using recycled polystyrene," Dahmen says, "which is a pretty noxious material. It made us think: 'There has to be a better way.' "

After researching several alternatives, including popcorn, the AFJD team discovered that locally grown fungi could be turned into a variety of materials, including leather-like fabrics and weight-bearing seats. Their Mycobenches – named for the part of the mushroom, mycelium, that is used to make furniture – are just as sturdy as those made from polycarbons, but are warm to the touch with a naturally varying surface that's interesting to look at. As an added bonus, making them was fun, Frid-Jimenez says: "We had a nice time playing in the dirt, gardening."

AFJD is hardly alone in the burgeoning sustainable-furniture field. Here are eight innovative examples.

Examples of Eric Klarenbeek’s 3-D printed, algae-based decor items.

France-based designer Eric Klarenbeek, co-founder of Studio Klarenbeek & Dros, has made chairs, lighting and decor using a variety of organic materials, including potatoes and cocoa beans. Algae is his latest experiment, which he likes because it acts as a carbon store as it grows and can be easily harvested just about everywhere on Earth. In keeping with the sustainable cause, the 3-D printing process Klarenbeek employs to create his cups, bowls and candle sticks produces very little waste.

Christien Meindertsma’s Flax Chair is made entirely from seeds mixed with starch and sugar pulp.

Flax is nutritious for its high-fibre content and omega-3 fatty acids and, according to Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma, the seed is also quite good for making furniture. Her Flax Chair, which was immediately bought by the prestigious Vitra Design Museum in Switzerland when it was unveiled in 2016, is made entirely from pulped seeds mixed with starch and sugar pulp. Almost no waste is created during production, as the chair's back, seat and legs are all cut from a single, compact rectangular sheet.

This Jan Berbee light fixture uses a Styrofoam-like material made from mushrooms.

Four years ago, Jan Berbee quit his job selling packing supplies – boxes, tapes – because he was disturbed by the resultant garbage. "Once you unpack something," he says, "the packaging is immediately waste." Moving in the opposite direction, he started a business consulting for companies seeking sustainable packaging solutions. Topping the Dutch designer's list was a Styrofoam-like material made from mushrooms, which he quickly realized had potential for more than packaging. Since then, Berbee has used the versatile material to start making lamps, along with pendants that have remnants of mushroom caps. "People sometimes find it odd," he says, "because it's biodegradable. But so is paper. So is wood. And we all have those things in our homes."

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Karin Auran Frankenstein’s clock has a sculptural base made from cow manure.

If the idea of home decor derived from cow manure is disturbing, perhaps it's worth keeping in mind that in many parts of the world, it is highly valued for its peat-y durability, which is why it has been used for centuries to make abode houses. Swedish designer Karin Auran Frankenstein was inspired by the tradition to make the sculptural frames of her unique clocks, which are moulded and sculpted in "Cowdungpulp," thereby making them completely biodegradable. Frankenstein scoured antique shops and flea markets for clock parts that would tie her unconventional material to a more familiar, European design aesthetic – creating an entirely new look in the process.

Tamara Orjola’s Forest Wool stool is made of processed pine needles.

According to Dutch designer Tamara Orjola, more than 600 million pine trees are felled each year in Europe alone for timber production. The pine needles, however, typically go to waste, despite being rich in fibres that can be pulped and repurposed into furniture. Orjola's Forest Wool stool embodies the potential of pine needles beautifully. She has pulped, soaked, steamed and pressed the needles into a contemporary and clean-lined seat.

Billie van Katwijk’s Ventri purse is made of discarded cow stomach.

At first glance, Dutch designer Billie van Katwijk's Ventri purses appear as though they are made from the skin of some exotic alligator, or possibly 3-D printed using material of unknown origins. In truth, they are composed of something far less glamorous: cow stomachs discarded during slaughter, which are normally thought of as being unfit for anything but dog food. While Katwijk notes the smell of the stomachs was initially "disgusting" when she first salvaged them from the abattoir, she has developed a proprietary tanning process that elevates them into something luxurious (and odour-free).

Sebastian Cox uses offcuts of his home-grown willow as a base for his mushroom-based upholstery.

British designer Sebastian Cox is well known for using local woods – many of them grown on his own property in the English countryside – to create pared-down, ultramodern furniture. His latest collection, produced in conjunction with researcher Ninela Ivanova, uses offcuts of his home-grown willow as a base over which he has stretched a mushroom-based upholstery that looks very much like well-worn, vintage leather. The collection generated positive buzz when it debuted at London Design Week last fall.

AFJD’s Mycobenches are produced from local oyster mushrooms.

Amber Frid-Jimenez and Dahmen believe that design should taste as good as it looks. Their Mycobenches are produced from locally harvested oyster mushrooms, which the pair not only cultivate for furniture, but have also sautéed and served as apps at gallery showings of their work.

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