If you haven’t heard, competition is out, and collaboration is in, especially when it comes to sustainability. And in the race to avert climate catastrophe, we need all hands on deck. But innovation is messy, and behind the hype of the emerging biofabrication industry is a lot of trial and error, and failed experiments that go unseen.
I had the rare chance to step behind the curtain of the elusive material solutions company Bolt Threads as their first Creative Resident and swap ideas with the people behind Microsilk™ and Mylo™ to explore how we can build better systems for biodesign. Though some of our more ambitious goals for the collaboration were paused by a microbial invader none of us saw coming, the learnings from the process were immensely valuable.
The Bolt Threads Creative Residency
I’ve been a Bolt Threads fan from afar for a long time. Bolt’s Microsilk™ was actually one of the first industrial applications of bio-fabricated materials I found aimed at the fashion industry and served as a major inspiration for my own biodesign work. So when the chance to temporarily embed myself within their team as Creative resident came up, I jumped at it.
Bolt Threads is one of the few places where you can find industry leading biologists and material scientists alongside creatives, engineers, and skilled makers working side-by-side to quite literally build an industry from scratch. Bolt’s motto is ‘Way better materials for a way better world,’ and speaking early on with Jamie Bainbridge, VP of Product Development, and Mitch Heinrich, Director of Special Projects, it was clear we shared the same vision for a new order of materiality. The Creative Residency was an opportunity to share ideas and build stronger connections between the people within our fledgling industry, and perhaps offer proposals to what that better world could look like.
Forging connections to build a way better world
My MA project, This is Grown. was about showing the technical and aesthetic potential of biomaterials. I wanted to demonstrate that if design, science, and tech work together, we can come up with new, inspiring ways to keep making the things we love but with less damage to our environment.
But the leap from concept to reality, or in this case from petri dish to the high street, is not a trivial one. Designing with living systems presents as many new challenges as it does opportunities. For an independent designer in the field of biodesign hell-bent on pushing past the speculative realms of our discipline, the technical obstacles are immense. But as I soon realised, the economic and institutional challenges may be even more daunting because the infrastructure for the world I was designing for doesn’t exist yet.
Not one of us can take on this challenge alone, and true innovation rarely happens in a vacuum. Connection with people with different skills, backgrounds, and perspectives is critical to not only spark ideas but to help those ideas thrive. This is especially important when we are talking about biomaterials, because having more sustainable material options available is good for all of us.
Microbial weaving workshop
When formulating ideas for my residency together with Mitch and the rest of the Bolt Projects team, our first focus was on getting people out of their silos. We kicked off the residency with a workshop where members from the wider Bolt community joined us in the studio to try their hand at microbial weaving, and design and grow their own shoe upper patterns.
“Science and Design, two disciplines that don’t frequently overlap, need to get better acquainted. This is one of the first opportunities where we saw it first hand.”
Mitch Heinrich | Sr. Director Projects | Bolt Threads
“The creative residency is an exciting opportunity to play with one of a kind materials, that no one has played with before.”
David Breslauer | Chief Scientific Officer | Bolt Threads
“A huge proportion of the environmental impact of a product is depicted in the design stage.”
Julian Goldman | Designer | Bolt Threads
These cross disciplinary connections also highlighted an important aspect of innovation often overlooked, which is craft. The importance of craft in industry should not be underestimated. In fact, the textile industry we know today exists only upon the cumulative knowledge of thousands of years of craft knowledge. I believe one of the main reasons we find ourselves in the consumer culture conundrum we have today is that people have lost touch with how things are made. We also need to really focus on not just making new things with biomaterials, but how do we make better things, and make them well? This is where I believe designers and artisans can play a critical role.
Craft (as a verb) in my opinion is also a way of thinking. Sketching can be great for ideation or representation, but I think the real magic is in the making. The tacit knowledge that comes from experimenting with a material (or organism) by hand or even tinkering with a machine can create outcomes and opportunities unimaginable otherwise. People seem to think designers have visions which are then enabled by science, or vice versa, scientists make discoveries that engineers apply and designers embed into culture. But it’s the grey area between them, where craft, iteration, and failure reside, that is far more interesting
I think the biggest challenges that face designers today in working with biomaterials are access and expectation. One of the things many people don’t realise is I had a really hard time continuing with my microbial weaving work after graduating because I lacked the equipment and resources to move forward. My original process was labor intensive and difficult to control simply because I lacked the basic tools or knowledge that biologists employ every day in their experiments. Or, in many cases, the tools I need don’t actually exist. Modern lab equipment is made for the scientific process, so it’s designed for specificity and repetition. That’s exactly the opposite of what you want in a creative process. But creating the tools for biological practice requires two things: (1) a different kind of material mastery not covered in most design schools, and (2) equipment for processing tricky metals like stainless steel and performance plastics (yes, it’s rather ironic) that can withstand rigorous sterilisation procedures.
During my residency with Bolt, I had the rare chance to work with engineers and skilled craftspeople to improve my tools and processes. Starting with the blank slate of an industrial warehouse, we explored different ways to create an environment suitable for growth and safe for the people working in it. Things that may seem trivial to scientists, like safety and sterilisation protocols, can make a huge difference in what I do. I spent time with microbiologists learning invaluable lab techniques. And through collaboration with Bolt designers and engineers, I was able to build low cost alternatives to normally pricey equipment, like incubators, and cobble together new loom parts to make my process easier and more efficient. This allowed me to iterate and play with new yarns including Microsilk.™
Microbial weaving with Microsilk™
Fresh off the loom | Refining the craft of microbial weaving with improved tools, processes, and future forward yarns courtesy of Bolt Threads
Systems, not stuff
This is where everyone usually jumps to: so what did you make?
But perhaps we need to reframe the question from what to how? In my residency with Bolt, I didn’t want to create just another fashion object. Instead of thinking of how we as designers can shape biomaterials, I wanted to address how biomaterials could shape the way we design? Taking biology as our guide, this means we need to think in systems.
Systems thinking is critical to the future of design, both in regards to sustainability and the technical realities of designing with and for life. To quote Mitch again, ‘Designers no longer have the luxury of designing objects in isolation.’ Everything is connected and we have the responsibility to consider the implications of our choices. Also, a lot more will be expected of designers in the future in their ability to work across disciplines and as acting ambassadors for an increasingly complex technological playground.
Even just in the purely practical sense of making (or rather growing) a physical object, biological systems are incredibly complex. If you think about materials in nature, rarely are things made up of just one material. It’s the whole system that provides the function. This was the inspiration behind This is Grown. and the process of microbial weaving. It was never meant to be a solutionist material, but rather a material system ripe for iteration.
Learning to speak machine
If we want to design materials like nature does, we need to start with rethinking our creation systems. In the case of my residency with Bolt, that meant building a better system for iteration. One of the biggest bottlenecks in designing with my material was the warping process. The original shoe design was warped by hand which means iteration was painfully slow. Also, I quickly learned the limitations in my own human ability to remember and repeat patterns, which is essential for making any sort of tangible progress. I knew this needed to be automated but lacked the technical expertise to do it on my own.
Collaborating closely with the Bolt team, we devised a plan for building a functional Warpbot to both speed up my sampling process and design new patterns more effectively. With the combined expertise of the Bolt design and engineering teams, we were able to hack an open source CNC platform and use parametric design techniques to develop a new process for digitally designing new weaving patterns. We then 3D printed and machined custom parts to build out the automated yarn placement system to bring our digital creations (quite literally) to life. Learning to ‘speak machine’ was definitely a bigger challenge than any of us expected but brought a whole new dimension to the work, and gave us a glimpse into a future where the digital and biological worlds become increasingly blurred.
Unfortunately, timing was against us and just as we successfully managed to grow our first round of digitally designed test swatches, Covid-19 hit the Bay Area and we were forced to shut down our experiments to comply with the shelter in place order.
A system for iteration | We hacked an open source CNC platform and used parametric design techniques to develop a new process for digitally designing new weaving patterns. These first digitally designed test growths were warped one week before the Covid-19 shelter in place order.
Leaving room for growth (no pun intended)
When you work with living systems, you’re used to dealing with foreign invaders, such as mold or less desirable bacteria. It’s perhaps then a little ironic that my residency with Bolt be thwarted by yet another microbe. Though no one was expecting it might be a virus such as Covid-19.
To be frank, the Warpbot was supposed to be just a small piece of my residency and it feels odd to talk about an unfinished project. But perhaps it’s appropriate for the times we live in and the messages we wanted to convey through my Creative Residency. I like to think we’re just at the beginning of a new kind of revolution, but what this bio-revolution will look like, is still very much a work in progress. There’s not one perfect solution to our climate crisis, but if we work openly and collaboratively, we’ll be sure to get closer to a future that is better for everyone.
The project has been paused indefinitely due to the ongoing global crisis though we are looking for ways for the work to live on. If you have ideas, want to get involved, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
The design with, for, or of life or living matter.
The use of biological materials and mechanisms for construction.
Skill in planning, making, or executing.
A microscopic organism, especially a bacterium, virus, or fungus.
A paradigm in design where the relationship between elements is used to manipulate and inform the design of complex geometries and structures.
A holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems.