MycoWorks leather coil.
Courtesy MycoWorks MycoWorks leather coil.

San Francisco–based startup MycoWorks found an unlikely source to make a product that performs like leather: plant waste. The material, a mix of wood fibers and mycelium—the part of the mushroom that grows beneath the soil—has become a popular alternative material due to its organic, durable nature. Other recent examples of mycelium in action include Brooklyn, N.Y.–based nonprofit Terreform One's Mycoform Surface and Green Island, N.Y.–based biomaterials company Ecovative Design's work with mycelium since 2007—famously used in the 2014 MoMA PS1 Installation by Brooklyn design practice The Living.

MycoWorks' leather-like material is grown through a closed-loop process with a low energy conversion rate that uses minimal water. The biodegradable material can be grown in nearly any size or texture, unlike conventional leather sourced from animal hides. MycoWorks' material is also water resistant, and it comes in a variety of finishes.

The company is producing sheet stock of the material and is working with designers and manufacturers to prototype products and applications, says its co-founder Sophia Wang. She adds that while the company is currently focusing on making soft, flexible materials, the technology can and has been used in more rigid building materials. MycoWorks chief technology officer Phil Ross has been at the forefront of using mycelium as a natural alternative to more energy-intensive building products such as cement blocks.

The startup's work is currently on display in the Swiss Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale, in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

This article is the first in a series of weekly spotlights covering the latest in innovative products and materials. Read more of ARCHITECT's Object of the Moment coverage here.

MycoWorks patterns library.
Courtesy MycoWorks MycoWorks patterns library.
MycoWorks product demo.
Courtesy MycoWorks MycoWorks product demo.
MycoWorks leather valise.
Courtesy MycoWorks MycoWorks leather valise.