A building made of wool and mushrooms? Meet Felecia Davis, the textile expert who makes it happen.

Felecia Davis, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University's Stuckemann Design Computing Center, and her textile panel.
Felecia Davis, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Stuckemann Design Computing Center, and her textile panel. (Rebecca Kiger for The Washington Post)

Felecia Davis is a pioneer in all-fiber construction materials, health-monitoring clothing, and more.


Imagine you are standing in an outdoor pavilion. This is a pavilion designed to resemble a covered picnic area in a local park or amphitheater, but instead of concrete, wood or stone pillars, the structure appears to be supported. supported by something. It becomes a crochet wool post. Above you, a vast expanse of undulating roof is made of the same knit material. The fungus covers this woolen frame, forming walls and ceilings. This is similar to how plaster covers the crate of a wall.

This is the premise of an experimental material known as MycoKnit. “It’s a great way to design and build,” says designer Feresia Davis, principal investigator and associate professor of architecture at the Stuckemann Center for Design Computing at Pennsylvania State University. She is part of a multidisciplinary team testing how knitted materials such as wool yarns act as the framework for buildings, and how a mixture of straw and mycelium fungi is embedded in this knitted fabric to create the rest. doing. Mycelium is composed of individual fibers known as hyphae, which in nature form vast and intricate networks throughout the soil, producing things like mushrooms. The basic thing is that it can be both a structure (yarn) and a filler (fungus).

Davis and her partners harness the fast-growing power of mycelium to modulate environmental conditions in the laboratory to encourage mycelium growth in braided structures. A computer created by one of Davis’s PhD students, with the help of her algorithm, the team virtually assembled the structure, examined it stitch by stitch, predicted its shape, and then built it. can grow fungi on top.

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In 2021, when he awarded MycoKnit a research award from the foundation arm of his design partner SOM, architect Scott Duncan said, “Future building materials can be ‘grown’ rather than manufactured.” The idea of ​​flexibility is tempting.

Projects like this have cemented Davis as a star in computerized textile design. This is a subset of the architecture and design disciplines that use technologies such as processors, sensors, actuators, cloud computing, and networking to develop new possibilities for soft-his materials. Davis is currently working with his students to build his MycoKnit prototype, which measures 12 x 12 x 12 feet. This prototype can be manufactured and grown in one place, brought to the site and assembled like an IKEA kit. She envisions a future where biofabricated materials will replace less sustainable building materials, many of which end up in landfills.

Davis is the architect of Three Threats. He is both an architect and an engineer by training and has a penchant for technology. Through a lab at Pennsylvania State University and her company, her Felecia Davis Studio, she combines time-honored craftsmanship and frugal materials with high-tech, such as clothing that warns of excess carbon monoxide in the air. , like to send a signal. When the infant stops breathing in the crib. Davis works with textiles, she says. building. city. “

In September, Davis was named a 2022 National Design Award winner by the Smithsonian Design Museum’s Cooper Hewitt for her portfolio of projects. “We are not just valuing the work that people like Felecia have done in the past,” says Raja Schaar, one of the judges and an industrial designer. “We are also interested in how the work they have done and continue to do will inspire and catalyze their field,” Davis said in his lab and studio. What he envisions is “the future of design,” says his Schaar.

Davis loved experimenting with objects and materials. He was the eldest of three children, and his first collaborator was his sister Audrey, now a neonatal specialist. As children in the ’60s and his ’70s, they explored the foothills of Altadena, California, near their home, gathering fresh bay leaves and other natural materials for their projects. Together with their friends, they made dolls out of flour-based papier-mâché and carved out apple heads. “Some worked, some were moldy and terrible, and some had to be thrown away,” Davis said in a video for her PBS series “Women in Science Profiles.” “We were basically creating the perfect conditions for fungal growth,” she says, even though the joy was born.

Davis’ mother volunteered at the Pasadena Museum of Art, introducing children to abstract art and modernism. She was also an instructor at her House of Gambling in Pasadena. This is her one of the best preserved Arts and Crafts examples of her designs in the country. Davis credits that home in part to her early desire to pursue architecture. “We were doing our homework in the attic while she was on tour,” Davis says. “That house was a shocker.”

One day in recent October, the Pennsylvania State University SoftLab is “messy,” says Davis, but that mess is a need for theater that leads to creative flashes of insight. Fabric samples are stretched and pinned to a corkboard, sharing space next to thin conduit and network design sketches. There’s a transparent box filled with copper-coated threads and a cloth twisted with stainless steel that can conduct electricity. Davis combines existing craft techniques and materials, from wool to human hair. Using a combination of modern software and hardware such as the LilyPad Arduino, a microcontroller designed to work with electronic textiles, she keeps things fresh about her procurement. not.

Black leggings extend down the lower half of the dress form. But if you look closely, those accents are electric threads and processors. I wanted to create a way to alert. “We ended up with an algorithm that could tell us how people move,” he says.

The leggings were originally an information-gathering experiment, but “I came back to this project because I had washable yarn,” she says. He sees potential in other “smart” garments, such as medical shirts. This frees the patient from the shackles of wires attached to the machine, allowing them to move freely or, ideally, to return home sooner as their clothes are connected to the internet. Thing. To communicate important data to your doctor.

While earning a master’s degree in architecture from Princeton University, Davis said, “I realized that very few people in America talk about their emotional experiences. [a] space. “Still, our human-constructed environment—anything created by us rather than nature—is pivotal in how we feel.”You are always fundamental to your environment. It’s been very responsive,” says Davis. “You’re in on it. That’s why it’s so important to think about human emotions in design.” In this view, the aesthetics of what we design is more than an accessory; “As designers, we need to be more aware of the role that emotion plays in our designs and what we can communicate by looking at and touching objects in our environment.” You can do that,” says Davis. “The objects we see and touch shape our experiences in our brains.”

As humans, we tend to imbue the materials in our lives with emotional resonance, such as our child’s safety blanket or our favorite sweater.Davis believes that the materials themselves also have emotional feedback functions. In 2012, she partnered with two other designers to create and install a project called Textile Mirrors at the Microsoft Research Lab in Redmond, California. Activated after a person enters information about their state of mind into a mobile phone. The panels are adjusted, for example, by contracting or rumpled to reflect pain or grief, and then released. Just as the textiles “relaxed”, they also helped those in a state of agitation to relax. Emotional textiles have the potential to alert architects, building owners and residents to the effects of particular design and material choices. We can start creating emotionally responsive dwellings and objects, as Davis calls them.

This led to a research project in 2016 called FELT (Feeling Emotions Linked by Touch). This project involved a computational textile panel that could shape itself. Davis was interested in understanding how people’s emotions change when they see and feel shape-shifting materials. Her study found that computational textiles became effective non-verbal communicators, with participants noticing a range of new emotions based on their interaction with the panel. As Davis writes in his 2017 book Textiles for Advanced Applications, textiles that can move and shape can be used “for people who might benefit from visual and tactile communication, for example. , which can be used on robots as robot skin.” Research like hers is helping to foster new emotional architectures that prioritize how aesthetic experiences affect our well-being.

As a believer in the scientific method of presenting data and results, Davis recognizes that emotions can be difficult to work with. It’s nearly impossible to scientifically pinpoint exactly what people are feeling at any given time. “It’s kind of the limit that math really tells us,” she says. “We can’t read people’s minds, but we can intuitively read their emotions, so it works as a seed.”

What Schaar finds particularly appealing about Davis’ work is that it’s aesthetically pleasing. When functional. “Felecia’s work comes from this architectural point of view, but if you look at her portfolio, you can think of it as coming from her textile designer, her fashion designer, her industrial designer, or a sculptor. ,” she says Schaar. Her research is “not just confined to a lab,” she continues Schaar. “She seeks to create more accessible, healthy and inclusive technology that everyone can use.”

Elizabeth Evitz Dickinson is a writer from Baltimore.

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