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Design As Catalyst

Deirdre Dunham

Deirdre is a NYC based designer, engineer, and maker. With a BSc in Bioengineering and Computer Science, and now an MA in Design Products, her practices ties together multi-disciplinary threads of curiosity.

Deirdre's work tends to be material agnostic but advocates for accessibility and inclusivity, from humans to non-human rights. Holding true to the belief that everyone plays a role in design, she designers to foster curiosity and encourage the exploration of human connection.

Her master's dissertation, (dis)Ability: A Call for Inclusive Design in a World Without Access, was awarded the merit of distinction by the RCA. Most recently, Deirdre has spoken at The Sharing Biological Practices Symposium at the RCA, sharing her work with The Phytosapien Project.

I've always had a tough time putting a label on my work; everyone wants you to be something, not a little bit of everything. I'm an engineer, a designer, a maker, and some other things in between. What that roughly translates to is an innate curiosity for how things work and how to bring them to life.

I'm particularly passionate about working with communities that are underserved by design, advocating for inclusivity and equity. This comes into play both in a human-centric practice, but also as a global citizen in an ecosystem under duress. My recent work has reflected outwardly on the relationship between human and non-human species, humbling myself with the endless stories the earth can teach us if we simply stop to listen.

E-Textile Phytosapien Garment
E-Textile Phytosapien Garment
3D Printed Bee-mimicry Phytosapien Garment
3D Printed Bee-mimicry Phytosapien Garment
E-Textile Details — 1. Ionic diffusers with 5V batteries 2. Conductive tape 3. Conductive fabric
3D Print Details — 1. Unpollinated spikes 2. Pollinated spikes 3. Pyramid geometry for 360deg collection

The Phytosapien Project is a provocation to human and non-human interactions, all while challenging the elimination of a human design bias. This first installment of The Phytosapien Project consists of two garments to turn humans into passive pollinators, questioning what a human’s role in the ecosystem could be through a critical lens. Both garments mimic pollen collection mechanisms by bees - one garment utilizes e-textiles to generate positive static charge, while the other zooms in on bee’s hair through high resolution 3D printing technologies. As our passive pollinators interact with their environment, they also interact with each other, taking advantage of the pollination network and facilitating education, discussions, and further design.

This is about more than just humans and plants, this is about an ecosystem under stress and domesticated.

While fashion is the delivery method for this project, the roots of the project are in the research, weaving through a narrative of non-human intelligence, anthropomorphizing, the Anthropocene, ecofeminism, and even into reproductive freedom. This, and more, is discussed in the accompanied publication, linked below under Read More.


Conductive fabric, conductive thread, cotton, resin, circuitry
Ultrasonic Microphone — Often used to detected the movements of bats, this microphone can capture sound signals from 20kHz-90kHz, outside the audible range for humans (20Hz-20kHz). The rest of the circuit then converts the signal back to an audible frequency for listening and review.
Ultrasonic Microphones — When plants become severely dehydrated, the tension of water in the xylem of the plant exceeds atmospheric pressure and a small pop can be heard in ultrasonic frequencies. With a soundproofed space and an ultrasonic microphone, it is possible to hear these sounds from a tortured plant.
EKG Signals — Similar to the human nervous system, plants send electrical signals in response to stimuli in their environment. Unique electrical signals are read from different forms and location of touch.
Plant-based Bioplastics — A key factor in plant health is the pH of the soil they take root in. Red cabbage extract is a natural pH detector and is used in this bioplastic (pectin based) to detect the condition of a plant's soil.

Stuck in a small studio apartment for the last year and a half, I became close friends with my Croton Gold Dust plant (affectionately nicknamed Pollux). While riots happened outside my window, pollution destroyed the oceans, and a virus plagued our people, I took solace in the fact that this little plant needed me. 

And then, I thought, how very tragic that this organism with a longer biological history than me, is forced to rely on my memory and good will to receive life. This sparked the idea to spend my time in isolation attempting to co-design with and for my houseplant.

The design concepts explored all revolved around basic survival needs (water & nutrients) of my plant and how it might communicate these needs to me. While all of these methods proved successful, I became frustrated that it was up to me and my human bias to interpret the results.

Ie. If the ultrasonic microphone picked up cavitation, I would have to choose if that signal was translated to a scream, to an action, or something else entirely.

In this translation, it was no longer about the desires of the plant, but instead about what would make the most flashy design project. This frustration eventually lead to the creation of the Phytosapien Project, involving humans passively in design-for-plants.


Mixed media
Mycelium growth and samples - finished samples contain citrus peels and coffee grounds
Mycelium mesh, a visualization of communication networks
Digital mushroom artifacts

As designers and consumers, we are subject to contradictory and often unsustainable practices. In working with mycelium, I sought to understand a seemingly sustainable material and interrogate its assets and global impact. My research into the material was hands on and involved foraging, cultivating my own mycelium samples, and then further integrating mycelium with other natural materials to observe the growth.

As my research pushed on, I began to question my right to control the life of a living organism that I had trapped in a petri dish. Mushrooms can help empower marginalized communities and represent freedom for many foragers who culturally revere the fungus. And here we are, a society of designers content with leaving the mushroom as a conversation piece, forcing it into the mold of a chair before purging the substrate of any remaining organic life.

And before I had to confront the reality of mycelium, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and I was left without a mycelium sample to cohabitate with or a studio to work in. With every Zoom call, text message, and Google hangout, I began to think again about mycelium and its ability to transport information across an ecosystem. Leaning on rhizomatic philosophy, I took my inspiration from the mighty mycelium to create digital mushrooms. These digital mushrooms spawned and grew from the communication people across the world still achieved in isolation. Taking data points of conversation, the mushrooms connected the dots of conversation and exploded out into crystalline shapes. While these digital mushrooms may be statistically read, they are perhaps better divined as community interactions and potential warnings of propaganda.

When I can return safely to a lab-context, I want to bring these digital mushrooms to life via 3D printing to observe the predictive potential of this incredible organism.


Mycelium, PDA, waste material. Software: Blender, Python API