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Meet the French luthier making music out of mushrooms

Leave mushroom spores in a mold for a couple weeks and they’ll bloom into a puffy material akin to brie, says Rachel Rosenkrantz, a sustainability-minded guitar-maker innovating with biomaterials.

Once her mycelium, the root-like structure of fungus that produces mushrooms, mimics the rind of a soft-ripened cheese Rosenkrantz dehydrates it into a lightweight, biodegradable building material — in this case, the body of a guitar.

The musician trained as an industrial designer embarked on her career as a luthier — maker of string instruments — about a decade ago, and over the past several years has integrated mycelium and other biomaterials in her quest to create more environmentally friendly, plastic-free instruments.

Rosenkrantz chuckles as she delivers her brie analogy that’s also a nod to her French roots; the designer was raised in Montfermeil, an eastern suburb of Paris, and now resides near Providence where she teaches at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

The basement atelier below her sunny apartment full of plants and books is home to her craft and doubles as a science lab, where she’s growing materials like kombucha leather to make banjo heads, and using fish leather to make pickguards.

“In the design world, everybody’s working with biomaterial, it’s exponential,” the 42-year-old told AFP from her workshop. 

“It’s not, like, a hippie solution anymore,” she continued, pointing to BMW which has used flax fiber in dashboard construction, or Hermes, which has used mushroom-derived leather in their purse linings.

“It’s not a pie in the sky like just five years ago. It’s actually very tangible.”

– ‘Potential’ –

Traditionally luthiers construct guitars with woods including cedar, rosewood, mahogany and ebony, depending on the tonal qualities sought. 

Wood of course is also biodegradable, but issues including overforesting have led makers like Rosenkrantz toward more sustainable options, reclaiming wood and sourcing from local woods.

“Do we really need to use the same species as 400 years ago, because who really plays music like 400 years ago? A few students at Juilliard,” she said, referring to the elite Manhattan conservatory.

“This is an industry where I feel because it’s craft-based, there’s a lot of ‘how things are supposed to be,'” she continued, adding that woods like poplar or bamboo were long ignored but could offer new opportunities.

“What if it’s frankensteining parts of guitars that are still good, so we don’t discard the whole instruments?” Rosenkrantz said.

“We have to keep our eyes peeled and see the potential in different things.”

– ‘Mushroom sound’ –

Cue mycelium, the fungal network that lies beneath the fruit we know as mushrooms.

It’s easy to grow, easy to mold and easy to replace even if it begins to disintegrate, and can be made into both acoustic and electric instruments.

And sound-wise? Rosenkrantz’s mushroom guitar is layered and fine-tuned, and doesn’t sound…

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