Last Updated on 2022/04/22
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Multimedia artist, textile designer, and the brains behind The Fabrick Lab
Elaine Ng Yan Ling has her MA in Design for Textile Futures at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design exploring the function of shape-memory materials. She has focused on how the behavior of natural elements can be manifested in man-made materials to enhance the modern architecture and interior design. After graduating she founds her own studio, The Fabrick Lab, in Hong Kong. Elaine’s design principle is based on Biomimicry, focusing on the hybrid materialization of craft and technology. By programming shape-memory materials she explores how tectonic movement can be achieved through natural responses to heat, light, and electricity. With a sustainable and eco-conscious design philosophy, she explores living urban textiles and their responses to sun, wind, and rain. Ng was named one of Swarovski’s Designers of the Future, with the first in her Sundew series unveiled at Design Miami/Basel 2015. Her work has been exhibited at V&A and Science Museum in London, Textile Museum in Tilburg, Netherlands, Harbour Front Centre in Toronto, Espace EDF Art Foundation in Paris, Wuhao in Beijing, and Moleskine global galleries. Her art and design research has been widely featured internationally including Wired UK, Elle Decoration China, Surface Asia, AD Italia, AD China, China Daily, Yazter and Core 77, and many more.
This interview appeared first on Planet China Vol 11, Celebrating Women who push boundaries.
Did you always want to work with textiles? Where does your interest in textiles come from? How did you develop your interest?
I didn’t know I always wanted to work in textiles. When I was a kid, I was a lot exposed to it. But, I didn’t know that you can make a career out of it, but I always have an interest in creating things. I didn’t have a sewing machine, so I start sewing paper to make mock-ups as my grandma taught me. I find that very interesting. I made my first paper pouch, all with paper and cardboard box sewing which was more accessible to me as a kid. My interest slowly moved when I entered Central Saint Martins. A lot of my inspiration was coming from sculpture, ceramics, and glass. But I was never really good at ceramics, or glassmaking because everything was a little bit more unconventional. I love installations and so, I applied to fashion sketches. My tutor said to me “Elaine, you are definitely more a textiles person.” And I think he didn’t even know what was going to happen to me. So I went to visit the school where the degree took place, it was the first time I saw a loom and a knit. I find it really interesting. People were developing textile swatches.
Elaine Yan Ling Ng is a creative entrepreneur who wants to make the design more human and encourage people to use their five senses since that’s how we live naturally
This really opened up my mind, on how you can actually focus on building materials surfaces by intersecting yarns and components. I found that extremely interesting because when you weave, you don’t have to just focus on using textiles. It can be paper, it can be anything, you can mold different components and then create a different type of weave construction. So then I decided to learn textile techniques to enable me to design. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for functional interiors or for installation. I didn’t see that far. I thought it was fascinating. The possibilities are endless. When you start looking at discipline out of its comfort zone and also not immediately apply to an application when you try to experiment. That’s what I really love, the laboratory approach to investigating. And that’s how the beginning of my design career kicked off. Then I carried on with a master’s degree in textiles feature, which investigated, and focused on textiles for future application with a Biomimicry base. I was specializing in shape memory alloy, where you can program and include titanium in textiles.
Who influenced you and who was your source of inspiration?
I love the traditional fashion approach, but I also love scientists, so, for example, Darwin is one of my key inspirations because he’s the one who rediscovered the relationship between humans, biology, and species. I love Philip Beesley’s work. So basically, he’s one of the world-renowned scientists, and also he’s one of the first ones who used shape memory alloy to create an installation. It’s really amazing engineering work that opened up my mind. And earlier on, around twenty years ago, there was a famous department from Philips, called Probe. They have invested a lot. This special department investigates the possibility of how textiles can be applied in future living and really opened up a lot of people’s minds with a new multimedia approach as to how we build narratives for work in textiles. And of course Lucy McRae’s work. She’s a body architect. Thomas Heatherwick is also a very amazing architect. I love him because he looks into the textiles approach and construction in his work and he is curious. I love also Peter Cook from Archigram, which is one of the very early inspirations in my work.
She brings together textiles, electronics, biomimicry, and combines fabrics and technology to create pioneering products, installations, and interiors
Because, I love architecture, but I also love how they go out and create this philosophy and possibilities of how the future can live through the way how they sketch and make models. I remember when they had the Archigram exhibition at Barbican in London, in the early 2000s. I revisited it so many times because it was so interesting. It inspired me to understand that it’s OK to think wild and to think out of the box, and decorate narrative. It’s really quite extraordinary, how it influences some buildings nowadays in Japan. So this is how it scoped my work from avant-garde to being realistic and practical.
The World Health Organization has identified air pollution as a public health emergency. Nexus aims to provide an engaging visual reminder of this significant global problem. By inviting the public to interact with the information, Nexus seeks to present the data on a human scale
THE FABRICK LAB is a bespoke textile consultancy, located in Hong Kong, creating and developing experimental textile surfaces and materials for bespoke luxury environments. Elaine brand builds installations that combine natural, lived, and experienced materials with new technologies. These environments are responsive, smart, and functional, creating beautiful pieces for interiors and exteriors. The Fabrick Lab has worked in partnership with Scientists, Technologists, Botanists, and Engineers, enabling the studio to provide fresh and innovative insights through the fabrication of thought-provoking outputs.
What are the greatest satisfactions? What do you love most about your work?
I think being able to collaborate with different individuals. Being able to complete projects with cross-disciplinary areas and genius scientists, prototyping makers, and big brands, that a great collective exercise in memory. Because if you talk about small scale, if you work with individuals, it’s great because it provides you a source of some exchange of knowledge and equips each other better. But if you work with multiple levels of work with different discipline areas, you are essentially pushing the boundaries between people and understanding what could be done, with the knowledge and skills of others. And then thirdly, when you work with larger scales and different large companies you are understanding how you can influence a brand. You can have a much better power to make an impact working with a brand and collaborate with them to create a campaign. So, for example, one of the latest projects that I was working on was with UBS.
Techno Naturology offers a tangible link between craft, architecture, and engineering, using high-tech smart materials in combination with the technology of nature. As a TED Fellow, Elaine presented “Techno-Naturology: The secret life of textiles” at the Ted Global Conference 2012, in Edinburgh, UK
I was commissioned by them to create an installation for Art Basel. Before that, it was an installation for one of the greatest China conferences. But what was so great is they then understood how the design and art is a tools to allow the client to understand art in a more transparent level because I was working with the data research lab. So I was using interactive installation to translate some mundane figures to understand visually and through colors of pixels and with desktop touch screen 4K interaction. So. I think on that level, it’s not only to build a beautiful installation I’ve to get funded to, but also to allow an external party to understand the importance that sustainability at a data value. And so it proves that design has a good proposition within this world. So that would be great satisfaction.
I love working with natural fibers, so it was important for me to understand the quality and behavior of crystals, to help engineer how the textile flows with the machine” – Elaine Yan Ling Ng
Sundew is an extraordinary installation a multisensory series inspired by carnivorous plants. These spatial installation movements are designed to mimic the actions of the carnivorous Sundew plant. Around 20 million Swarovski crystals were used. Sundew has been described as a “sound-interactive kinetic textile installation,” but even that sentence doesn’t quite convey the intricacy of the work.
Your works are cross-disciplinary since you combine fabrics and technology and you use different materials. Can you tell us about your Swarovski installation? What difficulties did you encounter?
Swarovski installation was one of my favorite projects of all time. Because we had the access of working with the engineers from Swarovski, they were very transparent and left us a lot of freedom of imagination. They even said we don’t really have to use the Swarovski crystals as long as we don’t have got a reason. I was really interested to understand Swarovski crystals. Many people think that they are the typical animal-shaped characters, ornaments, decorations, or that they are used as fashion decorations for weddings, dresses, etc. In some sense, they actually invent engineering, everything is about precision. The process was engineering and top quality. It’s not about decoration. It’s about pursuing this precision. I really wanted to adopt the philosophies of engineering into the work. So then I worked with the engineers to look into how can we create a new perception and understanding of the Swarovski crystals. So then I really wanted to move with the light to create this sparkle and allow it to be a non-static form. So then I engineered it to create a kinetic part of the sculpture. Then with the research, I was looking at how the relationship between nature and crystals works. And then I found a plant called Sundew.
The plant has on top water droplets, that look like jewels. The light is sparkly and it attracts insects. I found that has a very similar visual quality to one of the types of Swarovski crystals that we’re using called Swarovski crystal fabric. So I developed the idea within the similarities. The plant attracts flies. When the fly got stuck, they struggle, the plant quickly moves and so then it will melt the insect. I really wanted people to understand the idea of that. And so people can get mesmerized by the installation. And then there’s a surprise. So I worked with amazing chemists and did two types of scents. There’s one, it’s called “Entice” which attracts you. And then the other is called “the kill”. The second scent is really pungent. So when you walk through the installation, you get really attracted and mesmerized by the installation. And as the installation moves, the scent comes out. Later on, the second scent came out. It’s really pungent and it awakes you! All to create this whole special experience. But what is really interesting is that I was very frustrated how everyone goes through all these events as a socialize to check on Facebook. They have been there, but don’t pay real attention to the work itself. You have to pay attention to it in order to get your reward. If you have a discussion or talk in front of the artwork, the artwork will then respond with your emotion.
Wow, this installation was so complicated and so fascinating!
I have really been in love because we engineer also all the textile in a studio.
Elaine presented her very first TEDx talk on her project collaborating with villagers in Guizhou, China, to help them extend and continue their traditional craft skills. She is focusing on the creation of sustainable materials through empowering women, by using local materials and harnessing heritage craft techniques.
I read you are collaborating with villagers in Guizhou, to help them extend and continue their traditional craft skills. How did this project come to life? How important is it to keep the tradition alive?
I believe in our heritage and culture. in how we stand, we speak, we interact and we work. It’s all because all the ancestors and the previous generations have built up. Like the way how we evolve. So we must rely on history and can’t allow it to wipe out itself. Something has not as economical value throughout generations. For example, the tradition of ethnic minority crafts held value until industrialization. Their skills have been wiped out and replaced by robotics. The original localization of work within their regions has been replaced by globalization. Everything can be shipped around in great logistics. It worked with certain sectors. But it is really sad to see traditions being fade away because their skills have always been passed through from generation to generation.
She is reinventing textiles: Woven and etched patterns respond to changes in environmental conditions such as light intensity or mechanical force
Once the supply chain has broken off and demand is reduced, not only that, they don’t have the income, but also the tradition to keep on has no record of how things being made. And the way how we communicate with them has completely broken off. I was training as a weaver, but I discovered that how I learned was completely different from how they have learned to weave. And that is a first-hand experience that I had when I first, visit the village. It was heartbreaking because I thought the way how I work in a factory would be able to be translatable in the village and the mountain area. But they felt very intimidated. So it was very sad. It really awakened my senses. If we don’t do something now, their history will be wiped out very soon. That will be really sad. So that’s what inspired me to start working with them. I have started research, and we develop prototypes with different brands like Lane Crawford. This also helped us to screen a documentary we made, and of course, help us with a lot of funding at the beginning of the project.
Techno-Naturology is Elaine’s discovery in the relationship between natural formations and technology design. Techno-Naturology is the use of artificial technology to activate and simulate natural reactions
You are shaping the future of innovative technology design with your latest discovery Techno-Naturology. What can you tell us about it?
Techno-Naturology is something that I’ve started researching since 2008. I stopped the research of the shape memory alloy, but I’ve carried on the principle of working with the philosophy of it. Naturology, the word is looking at the balance of nature and technology. That’s work right for the entire collections of Naturology, because we are about to use technology to enable us in the better. A lot of A.I. could replace human interaction, but actually, reduce a lot of our cognitive skills. That’s a normal romance between humans and objects. That’s how I felt at the beginning. So I stopped flipping into those cool qualities and thought about the smartness from nature to extract that. That’s what Naturology it’s about, it’s the original material that I’ve started, shape memory alloy, and how veneer and would interact, expand, according to moisture in a material that I’ve developed from that connection. That variety according to the change of moisture combining with synthetic fibers, can have better control of this natural movement and we applied it to installation.
Photos courtesy of Elaine Yan Ling Ng & The Fabrick Lab