When you think about fungi what comes to mind? You might think of mushrooms in a supermarket or spores spreading in a dark space, but where we see the conventional, Italian designer Maurizio Montalti sees a series of possibilities that transcends the boundaries of design, art, science and engineering.
After receiving a degree in engineering from the University of Bologna, Maurizio left his native Italy for the Netherlands where he completed a Master’s from the Design Academy Eindhoven and opened his own studio, Officina Corpuscoli. From Continuous Bodies, a project that included a dress inoculated with fungal organisms to safely decompose human corpses, to System Synthetics, which used a fungus and a yeast to degrade plastic and produce bio-fuel, Maurizio’s work asks us to think critically about the role of organic materials in our culture. It’s this capacity to think beyond the paradigms of contemporary consumer culture while finding the surprisingly poetic possibilities of under-appreciated materials that led us to ask Maurizio about his work.
What led you to the decision to stay on in the Netherlands instead of returning to Italy after you finished your Master’s degree?
The master I did was a course attended by a large number of different people of different nationalities and so somehow in the two years you create a sort of reciprocal addiction to each other … During the course of your studies you also build quite an extensive network that’s beneficial once you start your professional activities. Also, I must say that 3-4 years ago there were possibilities to stay here, incentives to start up your own business. They still exist but have since been reduced…
Are there any advantages or disadvantages to being an Italian designer working internationally?
I don’t think there are necessarily advantages. If there is an advantage it might be the social attitude, but I don’t think you need to be Italian to be social, it’s more of a personal warmth, the capacity to be open and approachable…
From the micro-organisms in beer making kits and mushroom logs to the skulls printed on t-shirts and scarves, pop culture seems to be obsessed with visualizing the unseen aspects of life and death. Given the nature of your projects do you have any opinion on why people might be so interested in these two seemingly opposite, but interconnected themes?
I don’t know exactly why these phenomena occur in the minds of other people, although the trend industry contributes a lot to eliciting this kind of reaction from the public. Nevertheless, I can imagine that using living things for activities which are beneficial to the individual is something that’s attractive to a large audience because it enables them to be in control of processes which belong to industry, are treated as secrets, and weren’t previously accessible. This is where the web, new media, and the revolution in digital technology have been enabling the public to grasp more knowledge and share their passion for such activities.
In relation to death, I wouldn’t know why things are like that, if not for the way the public is continuously bombarded with images, messages and news that relates to [death]. This is usually a little bit more of a traumatic and serious issue and you could say that it gets played down through fashion.
At the same time, what made me interested in approaching topics such as the death issue, was not primarily its social relevance, but more of a personal critical reflection. The specific project that I’m talking about, Bodies of Change, is a project that started from a personal experience; I lost a loved one, as happens to everyone. I looked around, first at my own reaction, and at the reactions of the people around me, the way they behaved when talking about and looking at dead bodies, their process of mourning and celebration of death.
That is where I started thinking critically about why we bury corpses, why we try to conserve them, why we dress them up, a series of issues which didn’t make any sense in my mind, if not for that they’re a cultural habit … At the same time the project was, of course, seen in the context of so-called sustainability. Thinking about practices of death, about cremation, about the enormous amount of energy that gets used for no reason and the dioxins which spread in the environment because of burning bodies. The whole idea was how the living could benefit from death, how we could use their organic material to become life again. That’s where the whole investigation into fungi, which was a previous interest of mine, just exploded, because it put me in contact with the scientific field, with scientists and microbiologists…
Do natural burials exist in Europe?
There are some small movements … The interesting thing for me is that there are actually some studies which say the problem is the toxicity of our bodies, so when we put our toxic bodies in the soil that’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s an anecdote regarding an Indian tribe which used to give their bodies to the vultures after they died. Now the birds are dying because they eat the [human] bodies. So, for me it’s interesting to actually go beyond the simple act of just placing a body outside. It’s enabling the organism together with the bacteria responsible for decomposition to grasp the material from the body and channel all the nutrients…
To what degree does this remain a theoretical project? Do you hope for it to have a practical application?
The project was born as a critical reflection, as food for thought for questioning common practices and natural habits that too often are taken for granted … Nevertheless, the project has been presented in various venues and the interesting thing that I spotted is the fact that a lot of old people visiting were very interested in having such a practice used for them. They would say “in a few years I’m not going to be here anymore, so will this be possible?” And then there were a couple of death-related companies that were interested in the concept. I had a conversation with them about it for two or three months because there are quite a few obstacles in regulations and legislation. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done first in changing people’s attitudes particularly when we’re talking about micro-organisms and fungi.
Fungi is something people normally associate with disgusting feelings. When people think about fungi they think about moulds, spores, infections and viruses. They can be harmful and pathogenic, but there are also a lot which are extremely beneficial, so that’s one of the reasons why it’s been extremely interesting for me to start working with these organisms to try and rehab them in the eyes of the public.
Well you’ve already answered my next question which was going to be if fungi are misunderstood and you seem to be saying they are…
They mostly are. I recognize that people are becoming more and more informed, but while my projects start as artistic / design projects, they have the main objective of capturing information which is usually within a specific field, such as science, and translating that information into a more accessible form that allows the public to become interested in and learn about the issues.
It seems that interdisciplinary has become just another catchphrase we use without really defining it, so when you call yourself an interdisciplinary translator what does it mean for you?
…I call myself interdisciplinary in a very easy way. I prefer the word trans-disciplinary: bridging the gap between different fields and starting to enable a different conversation, which was missing or very limited a few years ago. This is becoming more and more relevant. The industry is finally starting to listen to the necessity of a conversation instead of continuing on a separate road…