After travelling around the world to explore materials, work with famous design companies and showcase her works at world-renowned exhibition spaces, British-Chinese materialogist Elaine Ng has opened her first studio in the New Territories in Hong Kong. Perspective spoke to her about her workshop at Detour 2014, her passion for materials and her company The Fabrick Lab — a bespoke textile consultancy that creates and develops experimental textile surfaces and materials for bespoke luxury environments
Can you tell us more about what a materialogist does?
It is a general name given to anyone who wants to play with materials, not just material scientists, because a lot of people assume designers just deal with chemicals in the lab. Materialogists know the characters of the features of the materials. It's a little bit more playful, really giving the material character rather than just application.
How did you get into working with materials?
I trained as a weaver for eight years. As a weaver, I have to know and understand every single pick, every single yarn of the thread in one fabric — basically, every thread in a fabric and every single yarn will affect the texture of a textile.
My first job was at Nissan Design Europe, as a colour material designer. That's how I got into the corporate design industry. After that, I was employed by Nokia Design and moved to Beijing. As a colour material designer there, I worked with architects and engineers on polymers and plastic palettes.
Can you tell us the story behind The Fabrick Lab?
Being trained in textiles, I have become quite attached to fabric, but I don't want people to have the wrong perception of fabric as being restricted to only soft materials. Hard materials can also become part of a textile, such as wood, plastic, etcetera.
I want people to take art knowledge and our passion for materials seriously, and that's how The Fabrick Lab got started.
Central to our material creation process is climatology — how do we create a material that can adapt to the changes of the four seasons just like our skin? Materials are affected by a combination of humidity, temperature and light. How do we produce a material that can be sensitive to the changes in our surroundings so that we can increase the longevity of the material? How can we make a material so that the owner doesn't get bored with it and also have a poetic dialogue with it according to the changes in shapes caused by the different seasons and the movements of the hand, for example?
In making these materials, are there certain guiding principles to which you adhere?
First, experiment with nature. The concept of biomimicry always guides me to look into efficient ways of design. It sounds clichéd, but it is a huge inspiration or resource for me. For example, the latest collection of Climatology is inspired by the Resurrection plant, which has the ability to live for 100 years… Something so beautiful has been hidden in nature and no one really discovered it for a long time.
Second is digital heritage — the combination of traditional heritage with digital crafting techniques, putting the old and the new together.
Can you tell us about your workshop for Detour 2014?
The first part was a material playground, showcasing to the general public that materials can be used in different ways. We encouraged people to play and feel, explore how to draw with eyes and how to draw with light. It is important to understand your tool to help you win the battle. For example, when you print something, the pH of the paper affects the brightness and the colours of the pigments significantly.
The second part of the workshop was a teaser of a regular workshop that I am hosting in Guizhou. Parents and children from ages 6-12 came together for exploration and expedition.
We explain what we do and not what you see, since you shouldn't always believe what you see, but should really experiment. For example, the dye of a dragon fruit is never pink; it is a shade of yellow. So, we should find out why. Or, how do we turn a liquid into a hard material?
The most important thing is that the workshop was not just about creating your own dye, it's about exploration. How do you extract crystal pigments? How do your create material substrate from it? There are a couple things you can pick up in between.
We also borrowed papermaking methods to create a textile pulp and made bed sheets into tableware like cups or plates. The question is: how do we rediscover the potential that one material has by deconstructing it?
One of your major current projects involves working with weavers in Guizhou — can you tell us more about it?
These days, digital design is quite generic because once you programme, you can generate it. It doesn't have personality and individuality. We are at an age in which we are craving for personalisation and luxury.
In visiting Guizhou, we found an opportunity to pair the tandem weaving industry with digital laser-cutting. We paired the extremes together: one is really time-consuming and the other one is high-speed. I travelled to Guizhou a couple of times last year to understand how the techniques are used and how we can embed heritage work into modern design.
Laser-cutting technology has been used widely and has really changed a lot of people's perception of design and how things can be used, but I think there is a new opportunity to pair the cotton industry with it because then it redresses the balance. Sometimes it takes too long to make something in the cotton industry and people can't wait, so we can create a good balance by introducing the cotton industry into the production line and bring back individuality.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
To be able to explore and experiment. I am really happy that I get to play using my hands a lot.