Non-human regeneration, Shared knowledge


Toward a polyculture of materials and knowledge

Eugenia Morpurgo


Eugenia Morpurgo is an independent designer researching the impact that production processes have on society, with a focus on investigating and prototyping alternative scenarios and products. She works through self-initiated projects and commissioned work from companies, cultural institutions, universities and Fablabs. Since September 2014 she has been a lecturer at the Free University of Bozen in Bolzano, Italy, ENSAD - École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and NABA - Nuova Accademia delle Belle Arti in Milan. She holds an MA in Social Design from the Design Academy Eindhoven and a BA in Industrial Design at IUAV Istituto Universitario Architettura Venezia. Her work has been exhibited at the MAXXI National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome, the Triennale Museum in Milan, Total Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, Textile Arts Center in New York City and Z33 House for Contemporary in Hasselt Belgium, amongst others.


The research project looks at alternative agro-ecological models, such as regenerative agriculture, and attempts to combine these with the latest developments in natural material research. It focuses on bringing the non-human and ecosystemic perspective to the material design process, in order to design regenerative Actions for plant/animal based material production. It looks to enhance traditional craft and agricultural forms of knowledge as well as confronting them with contemporary experimentation and standard material production. How can material knowledge open new possibilities for the development of regenerative farming, and vice versa, how can the choices taken in designing polycultures define new directions in material development ?

Syntropic Materials installation at Maison POC Pur l’Economie Circulaire,
 Lille World Design Capital, exhibition curate by Giovanna Massoni.
 Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

Biofase avocado plastic straws. 
Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

Details of Maya Forest Garden maquette.
Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

Maya Forest Garden maquette.
 Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

ÖLÖTL Maize Composite 
by Anne-Sophie Flores.
 Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

Sample of linen dyed with Mango leaves by Slowstitch Studio. 
Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

Tomato Filament by Canapuglia
Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

Tomato Paper by SchutPapier
Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

The current environmental crisis has proven to be a total one, affecting all ecological domains and threatening biodiversity, soil, water and air. As a reaction to this total crisis, an ever-growing quest for sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based materials has emerged. In the field of design - products, interiors and fashion - this has translated to an increase in natural and bio-fabricated options developed at an industrial level, as well as an increase in experimental design at the studio level. Motivated by the necessity of preserving land for food production, many companies, material engineers and designers began looking into the use of industrial agricultural byproducts for the production of sustainable materials. Based strongly on local bioregional economies, this line of experimental design is creating an expanding market of natural materials. Despite utilizing a richer biodiversity of resources, however, the utilization of agricultural leftovers or byproducts for sustainable materials is only a technical solution to the use of waste materials and does not question the fundamental logic behind an agricultural system that produces so much effluvia. While these practices mitigate some of the wastefulness of industrial farming, they do not provide real alternatives to the environmental impact of monocultural industrial farming. More worryingly, in some ways, they are contributing to a climate of confusion surrounding the difference between renewable and extractive resources.

In response to the need for sustainable materials and the ecological pressures around single crop intensive industrial agriculture, the research project Syntropic Materials looks at the potential for alternative agro-ecological models to meet these pressing needs. These models include such practices as regenerative agriculture. The project attempts to combine existing alternative agro-ecological practices with the latest development in natural material research in order to design or reverse engineer regenerative processes for plant/animal based material production. Syntropic Materials asks if this innovation in the field of material science can open new possibilities for the development of poly cultural practices. More pertinently, it asks whether or not the choices undertaken in designing polycultures could define new directions for the development of alternative materials.

The project focuses on bringing the non-human and ecosystemic perspective to the material design process. It looks to enhance traditional craft and agricultural forms of knowledge as well as confronting them with contemporary experimentation and standard material production.

In the context of the exhibition Infinite Creativity for a Finite World the development of this ongoing project, its research practice and its initial findings are presented. The Milpa Forest Garden was chosen as the first case study and a selection of 13 species of flora has been made, the one more recurring in the literature, even if it’s accounted that in the Milpa Forest Garden more than 90 species can be found. Out of the 13 species 7 material typologies has been identified. Each species and associated material typology has been mapped in relation to the duration of the Milpa Cycle, giving us an overview of what potentially is producible throughout the 20 years of the Maya Forest Garden from a polycultural biomass. In the installation it’s possible to see a collection of material samples produced from the species present in the ecosystem under investigation. Together with a 3 dimensional illustration that guides you through the circular life of the Maya Forest Garden in the span of 20 years.

Syntropic Materials is a long term research project initiated in 2019 and it has been supported by the American Academy in Rome and the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart.


“Domesticated crops and useful weedy herbs are cultivated annually over approximately four years, while woody shrubs, fruit trees, and hardwoods sprout and grow in the shade of the tall maize, progressing toward the next stage in the cycle. Some perennial crops are established at this time as well. When the woody shrubs and trees have grown enough to shade annuals, the field advances through successive stages of guided reforestation, transforming from an open field into a managed forest“
From The Maya Forest Garden. Eight millennia of sustainable Cultivation of the tropical woodlands. Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh - 2016 Routledge
The Maya Forest Garden is the traditional Maya orchard plot that evolves from the milpa, a traditional Mesoamerican and Maya agricultural field that employs a system of land use which cycles from closed forest canopy to a field dominated by annual crops to an orchard garden, and from an orchard garden back to the closed canopy. The Maya Forest remains the second most biodiverse place in the world second only to the Amazon forest.
The Milpa Cycle is the conservation method of farming and managing the Maya forest. It goes through four main stages over the course of approximately 20 years.
The Maya Forest Garden system had been selected as the first case study because of the rich availability of scientific and non- scientific documentation and analysis of each growing phase. It presents a circular finite model which frames the research time-wise. It’s a successional, polycultural, agroforestal system, which allows to analyse a variety of diverse species, from annual to perennial, from weeds to trees.
For the purpose of the exhibition and to facilitate the initial steps of the research a selection of 13 species of plants has been made, the ones most recurring in the literature, although it has been accounted that in the Maya Forest Garden more than 90 species can be found.
It is important to note that while this analysis focuses exclusively on the agricultural and productive aspect of the Milpa cycle, the values of this model go way beyond that.
As Ronald Nigh says “ The making of milpa is the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe...[it] forms the core institution of Indigenous people of society in Mesoamerica and its religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance”
Références :
Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands. Book by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. Roudledge 2016
Lo-TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism. Book by Julia Watson. Taschen 2019

Maya Forest Garden materials overview, zoom in banana tree derived materials. 
Photo by Eugenia Morpurgo

Conceived as an open platform, the tool is an archive of materials catalogised through species and their typology. The library allows us to browse through this information under the logic of species coexistence. When approaching the library users will be asked to select a hardiness zone, which is a geographic area defined to encompass a certain range of climatic conditions relevant to plant growth and survival.
This will lead users to be exposed to a list of potential materials producible with species growing in the same climatic conditions. From this point users will be able to filter their way through the information by de-selecting materials or species which are not of interest to them. The library can, for example, help users to enlarge the spectrum of species taken into consideration while designing a polycultural field for material production or foster the creation of new briefs for material design based on the combinations of plants that create regenerative ecosystems.
Rather than being a simple repository of data, the platform functions as a filter and re-directory to information already published on and offline. Its primary objective is to centralise this information allowing us to create novel and meaningful connections.
What is presented now is a first iteration of the library. With the development of the research, further information and filtering tools are planned to be added.

The content presented in this space has been developed by me, Eugenia Morpurgo.
I am an Italian designer, educated in European schools of Art and Design and I care to acknowledge the sensitivity of my position while presenting content evolved from analysis of knowledge indigenous to a socio economic and cultural context to which I don't belong to.
Aware of the power dynamics at play around such topics and how this work positions itself in it, I attempt to inform my practice with the existing discourse which attempts to bring together the wisdom of traditional Indigenous environmental practices with the tools of Western science to solve the most pressing environmental problems. Discourse developed for the past forty years by authors such as Robin Wall Kimmerer Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, and Vanadana Shiva Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, and anti-globalization author.