Felecia Davis is a pioneer in full-fiber building materials, clothing that monitors your health – and much more
This is the premise of an experimental material called MycoKnit. “We’re trying to build an all-fiber building,” says designer Felecia Davis, associate professor of architecture and senior researcher at the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing at Pennsylvania State University. She is part of an interdisciplinary team testing how knitted materials such as wool yarn could function as a framework for a building, while a mixture of straw and mushroom mycelium embeds itself into this knitted fabric to create the rest. Mycelium is made up of individual fibers known as hyphae, which in nature form huge and intricate networks through the soil, producing things like fungi. The amazing thing, Davis says, is that something as simple as fibers can become both the structure (the wool yarn) and the fill (the mushroom).
Davis and her partners harness the mycelium’s fast-growing power by regulating environmental conditions in the lab to encourage the fungus to spread on their knitted structure. Using a computer algorithm developed by one of Davis’ graduate students, the team can virtually assemble and examine the structure stitch by stitch to predict its shape before it builds and allows the fungus to spread across it.
“The idea that building materials of the future could be ‘bred’ rather than manufactured is intriguing,” architect Scott Duncan said in 2021 when he presented MycoKnit with a research award from the founding division of SOM, the company where he is a design partner. presented. He found that a malleable, lightweight material like MycoKnit had the potential to change the shape of buildings.
It’s projects like this that have made Davis a star in computational textile design, a subset of architecture and design that uses technology—processors, sensors, actuators, cloud computing, and networks—to create new possibilities for soft materials . Davis is now working with her students to create a 12-by-12-by-12-foot MycoKnit prototype that can be made and grown in one place and then taken to build on-site, like an Ikea kit. She envisions a future where organically produced materials replace less sustainable building materials, many of which end up in landfills.
Davis is a triple threat designer: trained as both an architect and an engineer, and with a penchant for technology. At her Penn State lab and through her company, Felecia Davis Studio, she blends time-honoured craftsmanship and humble materials with high tech—so that clothing can alert the wearer to things like excess carbon monoxide in the air or signal when an infant stops breathing in their crib. Davis works with textiles, she says, because “you can approach it on a nanoscale and microscale with tiny particles that you can spin to make a thread or yarn, or you can look at it on a large scale. A building. A city.”
In September, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum named Davis a 2022 National Design Award Winner for her portfolio of projects. “We not only recognize the work that people like Felecia have done in the past,” says one of the jurors, industrial designer Raja Schaar. “We’re also interested in how the work they have done and continue to do will inspire and catalyze their field.” What Davis is dreaming up in her lab and studio, Schaar says, “is the future of design.”
Davis has always loved experimenting with objects and materials. The eldest of three siblings, her earliest associate was her sister Audrey (now a neonatologist). As kids in the ’60s and ’70s, they explored the foothills of Altadena, California, near their home, collecting fresh bay leaves and other natural materials for projects. With their friends, they made flour-based papier-mâché dolls and carved apples for the heads. “Some things worked, other things got moldy and were awful and had to be thrown out,” Davis said in a video for the PBS series Women in Science Profiles. The joy, she tells me, was nascent even though “we basically created the optimal conditions for mushroom growth.”
Davis’ mother volunteered at the Pasadena Art Museum and introduced her children to abstract and modern art; She was also an instructor at the Gamble House in Pasadena, one of the nation’s best-preserved examples of craft design. Davis partially credits this house with her early desire to explore architecture. “We did our homework in the attic while she toured,” says Davis. “This house was amazing.”
On a late October day, the SoftLab at Penn State is “chaotic,” Davis says, but that chaos is a game necessity that leads to creative sparks of insight. Fabric swatches were stretched and pinned to a corkboard, sharing space alongside thin electrical wires and sketches of network design. There are clear boxes filled with copper-coated yarn and fabrics twisted with stainless steel that can conduct electricity. Refreshingly agnostic about their sourcing, Davis uses a combination of existing crafting techniques and materials – from wool to human hair – in combination with the latest software and hardware, like the LilyPad Arduino, a microcontroller designed to work with e- textiles was developed.
A pair of black leggings span the bottom half of a dress form. From afar they resemble something a rock star might wear, bedazzled and tricked out with lines of metallic threads, but upon closer inspection these accents are electrical threads and processors. The leggings are the result of a partnership with Penn State engineer Conrad Tucker, who wanted to create a way to alert people with Parkinson’s disease to subtle changes in their gait that could predict the onset of more debilitating symptoms. “We ended up with an algorithm that could recognize how people moved,” says Davis, “and we learned that we could have an algorithm that would work through our sensors in clothing.”
The leggings were originally an information-gathering experiment, but “we took up this project again now that we have a washable yarn,” she says. “We think we can make a simpler version of our leggings.” Davis sees the potential for other “smart” clothing, like a hospital gown that frees patients from the cables attached to machines and allows them to stretch freely move around or, ideally, go home earlier because their internet-connected clothing would be able to relay important data to doctors.
While Davis was pursuing her master’s degree in architecture at Princeton University, “she noticed how little people talk about the emotional experience of people in the city [a] Space.” And yet our man-made environment — anything created by us and not by nature — is fundamental to how we feel. “You’re in fundamental reaction with your surroundings all the time,” says Davis. “You get involved with that, which is why it’s so important to think about human emotions in design.” From this perspective, the aesthetics of what we design is more than an accessory, it’s a fundamental need to support human emotional health.” We as designers can become more aware of the role emotions play in design and what is communicated through seeing and touching objects around us,” says Davis. “The objects we see and touch shape experiences in our brain .”
As humans, we tend to imbue the materials in our lives with emotional resonance—a child’s comfort blanket or a favorite sweater—and Davis wondered if we could infuse the materials themselves with emotional feedback capabilities as well. In 2012, she collaborated with two other designers to develop and install a project called Textile Mirror at the Microsoft Research Lab in Redmond, California. were activated after a person entered information about their mental state into a mobile phone. The panel adjusted, shrinking and crumpling to reflect, say, pain or sadness, and then detached. As the textile “relaxed”, it also helped to relax in an agitated state. Textiles that can reflect emotions have the potential to make architects, builders and residents aware of the impact certain design and material choices have. We can begin by creating what Davis calls emotionally reactive dwellings and objects.
This led to a 2016 research project called FELT, or Feeling Emotion Linked by Touch, which involved a computer-aided textile panel capable of self-changing shape. Davis was interested in understanding how people’s emotions might change when they see and then feel a shape-shifting material. Their study found that a computer textile can be an effective non-verbal communicator, with participants noting a variety of new feelings as a result of interactions with the panel. As Davis wrote in his 2017 book Textiles for Advanced Applications, a textile that can move or change shape “could be used on a robot as a robotic skin, for example for humans who benefit from some communication through sight and touch could benefit. Research like hers helps drive an emerging emotion architecture that prioritizes how aesthetic experiences impact our well-being.
As someone who believes in the scientific method of presenting data and results, Davis knows that working with emotions is difficult. It is almost impossible to scientifically determine exactly what people are feeling at any given time. “That’s kind of on the edge of what calculations can actually tell you,” she says. “We cannot read people’s minds, and yet we function as a species because we can read emotions intuitively.”
What Schaar finds particularly compelling about Davis’ creations is that they are aesthetically stunning and functional. “Felecia’s work comes from this architectural point of view, but if you look at her portfolio, you might think it’s by a textile designer, a fashion designer, an industrial designer or a sculptor,” says Schaar. Her work “isn’t just locked in a lab,” Schaar continues. “She wants to create more accessible, healthier and inclusive technologies that are also available to everyone.”
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a writer based in Baltimore.