The Shit Mug is one in a series of merdacotta products created by Museo della Merda – or the Shit Museum – which was founded in 2015. Situated in the province of Piacenza, northern Italy, it stands on the grounds of the Castelbosco dairy farm, whose 2,500 cows produce 100,000kg of dung each day.
The farm is owned by Gianantonio Locatelli, a local farmer who has spent the past 12 years transforming dung into biofuel. Compelled by the environmental potential of animal faeces, he converted his 14th-century castle into a museum dedicated to the substance, helped along by the architect Luca Cipelletti, the curator Gaspare Luigi Marcone and the gallerist Massimo Valsecchi.
The museum’s latest offering is a series of tiles, flowerpots, vases and tableware formed out of merdacotta, a material produced by mixing Tuscan clay with cow dung from which all the methane and urea have been extracted.
In the interview below, Disegno speaks to Cipelletti about the collection.
The Shit Mug is made from merdacotta, a material produced from cow dung. How did the project begin?
Our philosophy at the Museo della Merda is to get back to the basic elements of nature, so merdacotta is made from cow dung mixed with Tuscan clay. It looks like terracotta, but performs far better. It’s lighter and it looks a lot more natural because it’s all handmade in artisanal moulds. By contrast, most terracotta is produced in a very industrial manner.
How is the material formed?
We first take the methane, which is the polluting substance, out of the cow dung. The methane forms approximately 10 per cent of cow dung and once it is removed, you still have 90 per cent raw material. You then take out the water but you are left with a huge amount of dry dung that is considered redundant. So the starting point of the project was simply, what can we do? We didn't want to consider that material as waste so instead we sought to transform the manure into something else.
The entire philosophy of the project is the back to basics element of nature. We thought that mixing dried manure with clay was a good place to start. We sourced high quality clay from Tuscany and we decided to experiment with mixing the materials together. In the end we found that merdacotta is much better than terracotta, which is now very industrialised. Nowadays if you see a terracotta pot you almost have to check to see if it is plastic or terracotta; because it has no texture it is often very flat. We realised that this mixture of clay and dried manure with straw was very effective. Once it is put in the oven at 1000°C, the straw burns and leaves these little holes that create a beautiful texture.
Let's talk about the performance of the material and the comparison to terracotta. Are there any functional improvements?
Merdacotta is lighter than terracotta and it also looks more natural. We combined the cow dung with high quality clay from Tuscany, which is very resistant and has anti-freezing qualities. It is also handmade.
How does Merdacotta compare to Terracotta in production costs?
The fact that merdacotta is not industrialised makes it more expensive than terracotta but this project is just a starting point. We wanted to start with an experimental handmade project but then we will see. If we were asked to produce the tiles in large quantities for example, we would be open to the idea of industrialising the process as it would allow us to lower the price. The easiest products to sell from the merdacotta range are flowerpots because they can be sold for a relatively competitive price. The tiles however are much more expensive because people often need them in large quantities. We are now in the process of experimenting with industrialising everything. It will allow us to lower the price but we don't want to lose the natural aesthetic of the tiles, which is a result of them being handmade. We don't want to lose the texture, basically – which is a risk when you industrialise.
It is interesting how you have chosen to present the material. Why is it important to have that link to terracotta?
The choice of the name is very basic. The Italian word merda translates to shit in English. It's exactly like terracotta, that's why it has that name: terra and then cotta, cotta meaning baked in Italian. It is not that we wanted to compare it to terracotta, but simply because the name terracotta is just formed by combining the words terra and cotta and this is merda and cotta. A simple translation of merdacotta is baked manure. Once you get to a name, which is so basic, it's perfect. Because it is what it is.
Why create a mug as one of the first demonstrations of the material? It’s a very simple product.
I didn’t want to over-design anything and we really wanted to talk about substance rather than form. Our approach could be defined as an anti-design, but we felt a need to get back to basics. Nowadays, there is an excess of designing everything. This is a radical approach. It is radical because, essentially, a pot is a pot. We didn't want to add any element of design because we didn't want to distract from the origin of the subject.
Tableware is not something you would expect to communicate a strong design philosophy.
We could have made so many things with merdacotta, but the project as a whole is about the food cycle. You go from food to digestion and then to faeces, but we all eat vegetables and grains that are fed by manure. Tableware really let us get at that idea of the cycle.
Is there a provocation in creating tableware made from dung?
It didn’t start from a desire to provoke, although I can easily understand if someone feels a barrier. But from our side, everything is about the cycle of nature. Merdacotta is totally safe. First of all it’s sanitised – the smell, methane and urea are removed – and then it’s put in the oven at 1,000°C, so all the bacteria are killed. It's then glazed and put in the oven at 1000°C degrees again. There’s no reason to be scared of this product. Eating with manure tableware can be a shock. But that just strengthens the message.