Algae, Edible Culture, and Contemporary Design

The vast fields of deep sea grass and thick diffused fog of iridescent river microbes share a common ancestry – both of Familiae Eukarayota, or Algae, in a partnership going back 1,600 million years.

Human interaction with algae came after hundreds of million years of evolution, first introduced as edible seaweed to Chinese nobility around 2700BC – alongside the birth of the silk trade and the Pyramids of Giza.

Algae has been found in pre-Christian fabric dyes along the Mediterranean coast, and in medieval fertiliser along the Irish sea – with Victorians even finding art in leaves of seaweed, the first photo-book published in 1843 featuring cyanotypes of pressed algae samples collected around the Kent coast. Diatom Arrangement even became quite popular during the later 19th century, being the practise of arranging micron-sized algae into patterns under a microscope.HistoryofAlgae1


So from the fields of shallow water surrounding Yokohama Bay to the scrapbooks of Victorian housewives, algae has been found woven into a number of historical uses, cultural narratives and practises.

Algae is therefore safe from the public eye and will likely continue to be used within cuisine, fabrics – but the emerging talents of synthetic biology and design will be amongst the first to promote new uses for algae.

The field, however, suffers from an image issue – conceptual projects are too elitist and abstracted for the non-designer, attracting parody and mockery instead of provoking serious discussion. It is a disgrace to the synthetic biology industry that great ideas are hindered by public perception – both due to collective ignorance of the subject from the public, and the arrogance of the scientists and designers that work with synthetic biology.

Realistic design futures make them selves known in developed steps, rather than leaps of imagination – as William Gibson famously said of first-world development; “The future has already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”.




By Leon

Product Designer at ECA, graduating in 2018 - fascinated with informatics, semantics of the home, and our electronic object relationships.