A Mushroom Chair That Whispers Mycelial Myths
Design Research
experience design
Maybe Ventures created an art installation for the 2023 annual festival of House of Beautiful Business, The ___ Dream as one of eleven featured artists at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former estate in Sintra, Portugal.

In the summer of 2023, Maybe Ventures was commissioned to create an art piece in response to the prompt “what if the universe was conscious?” for House of Beautiful Business’ annual conference, this year entitled “The___Dream”. The setting was in Sintra, a castle-laden countryside of Portugal, at the former estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

KT and Shuya salvaged a chair from a junkyard in Oakland and reupholstered it with live plants. They then transformed it into a musical instrument that sitters could play by tickling the mushrooms wired into the armrests. The chair generated “musical myths” about how the coastline of Portugal came to be, and how the land might return back to the sea—listeners walking around the exhibition could hold the seashells lying around the chair up to their ear to hear the whispered “myths”.

Here’s the story of how the chair came to be, what it represented, and the significance of art in Maybe Ventures’ regenerative design process.

This interview was recorded in Fall of 2023, after the chair made it back to Oakland. Bruno Olmedo, Partner and Co-founder of Maybe Ventures, hosts a conversation to debrief on what we learned. The article that follows is edited for clarity and brevity.

BRUNO: We have to talk about where this idea came from. This was not a typical consulting project, we didn’t really have a client, so how did this all start?

SHUYA: We’ve always wanted to explore principles of regenerative design and understand better the interface between humans, technology, and nature by blurring these lines through an art piece. Originally, this started as a more tried and true offering—a workshop at the House of Beautiful Business’ annual festival, but as we started working with the team putting together the programming, we kept coming back to this sticky idea of “what if your furniture could grow itself?” It was just this bit around the seed of a strange idea, and we really wanted it to see how people would interact with something regenerative. When Shannon from The House mentioned that they were interested in it and wanted more art at the festival, we knew we had to commit to the bit.

“How do we bring the wonder, excitement, and funding that people throw at technology into conversations around the environment?”
Kt Wilhoit — Artist, Partner, Maybe Ventures

KT: But we also wanted it to be a deeper exploration of regenerative design beyond furniture that could literally regenerate itself—the prompt from The House was to explore this question of “what if the universe was conscious” and Shuya and I wanted to ground the conversations around the chair to the place that it would be, in Sintra. We were having brunch together and trying to sketch out how to represent this and very quickly pieced together a few concepts that seemed interesting in concert. What we kept coming back was how nature—and especially mycelial networks must have witnessed wild moments throughout geological time - imagine the stories they must have to share. We kept coming back to the art and technology that have inspired us for years—Marina Abramovi’s The Artist is Present and folks hooking synths up to mushrooms to hear music.

“What if nature inspired the same anticipatory attention as we see in consumer electronics?”

From Oakland to Sintra, with love and turbulence

SHUYA: So all that was pulled into this conceptual piece of furniture. We built this musical chair in Oakland, KT packed it up and got on a plane with it to Portugal, and installed it in Sintra. After delays at the airport and watching the AirTag that we taped onto the chair take a little detour flight on its own, followed by strange looks at the drive-thru hardware store for the parts that didn’t pass airport security, and 2AM FaceTiming across the world to Shuya for remote chair building instructions, and implementing backup plans B through Q, the mushroom chair took ground in Sintra.

BRUNO: Wow, and what were people's reactions to the chair

KT: A black snake slithered up rocks behind the chair as what felt as a blessing to the chair. As someone afraid of snakes, I felt a sense of calm and warmth and knew we were ready. But people’s reactions were surprising—they would experience the chair either with a new friend or long time love, playing together while one person tickled mushrooms and the other listened. For some, the experience was playful and brought them back to running free, cartwheeling, on a hill. The level of play and experimentation brought nature as a teacher back to these adults. Some folks had intimate moments of solitude where they held the shell up to their ear to listen to themselves play the mushrooms. Some people had intense emotional reactions—a woman who heard a child laughing on the beach through the shell started to cry, and shared how it reminded her of going to the beach with her sister as a child. She divulged how she hadn’t experienced carefree play like this in a long while, “simple moments but they are amazing”.

“Wait, I can sit on this? But I don't want to sit on the chair if it’s alive?”

Tears, whispers, and nostalgia

KT: Another story I love is a couple from New Zealand who mentioned how the mushroom chair reminded them of where they're from. They shared how rivers in New Zealand have rights, how nature around us has a voice, and when this voice is shared and we can listen, it helps our whole ecosystem. There were a lot of reflections around feeling reminded to listen to nature in our day to day. But yeah, I enjoyed watching people's reactions—we managed to capture a couple of literal jaws dropping. It’s always special to see people have such a reaction to an idea we built, inserting a pause for connection and getting back to the sense of wonder and play found in childhood.

BRUNO: Were those the reactions you were hoping for, or are there things you wish people had gotten out of it that will be leading your next iteration of the installation?

KT: We needed to invite people to the chair. Because the upholstery on it was growing and looked alive, there was a common question folks had of, “wait I can sit on this? But I don't want to sit on the chair if it’s alive?!” and so it sparked this question of why when it comes to furniture and things that we build for ourselves, we second guess if nature should be there. But when we take from nature to build those things we take it as the norm.

SHUYA: We’re not usually supposed to touch art, we’ve become wary of touching nature—this chair wanted to defy both these constructs.

“How do we look to nature to help us navigate through the climate crisis?”
KT Wilhoit

Why is Maybe Ventures doing art?

BRUNO: What’s next for Maybe Ventures and art?

KT: As Maybe Ventures, we've helped some of the largest brands and some of the most forward thinking organizations create strategies to shift culture. Art is historically a lever for shifting culture and consciousness, and it’s why we're exploring art as a pillar of what we do in our business. We believe art can shift conversations through engaging the senses to attract new audiences around a cause. When we get more people to participate in some of these questions like, “How do we look to nature to help us navigate through the climate crisis?” we spark a collective culture change from individual perspectives.

SHUYA: What we do as designers in our consulting practice is rooted in the present, where as our role as artists looks into a near term future. Working as artists inspires us to stretch our imaginations farther into the future and reference the past, to bridge between the normal consulting project timeframe of several weeks to the longer-term framing of a cultural narrative that shifts across decades, if not centuries.

Where is the chair going next?

SHUYA: The original intent of the installation is to have it travel to multiple different cities collect these whispered myths from all around the world, in all different languages. We’d then feed these whispers get back into the music generated by the mushrooms and continue to build out a global anthology of future myths. Let us know if you'd want to see this in your space — we’d love to send it out on the road again.

In the process of building the chair, we stumbled upon some fascinating core interactions that didn’t quite make it into the final piece, but were interesting enough to seed new artistic collaboration—stay tuned.

Read More
Arrow pointing right
Let’s work on ideas that may be ventures together
Book an intro call