Hong Kong-based Elaine Yan pushes boundaries in textile design
Using Swarovski crystals to create 'biosculptures', British-Chinese designer explores how the behaviour of natural elements can be translated into man-made materials to enhance urban spaces
It’s the weekend in Kwai Chung industrial district, and in an airy workshop amid a magpie-like collection of leather, lacquered wood and rolls of glistening fabrics, Elaine Yan Ling Ng is meticulously applying tiny triangles of crystal by hand to a tightly woven rope of steel.
The British Chinese designer’s latest experiment in cutting-edge textile technology is an ambitious interactive installation of five pear-shaped “bio-sculptures” combining hand-made threads and about 20 million Swarovski crystals, and programmed to respond to different sounds.
Inspired by the exotic sundew, a carnivorous plant that attracts its prey with scent and reflected light before encircling it in a deadly embrace, the kaleidoscopic kinetic sculptures were showcased at this year’s Art Central exhibition.
The young designer says she was keen to push the boundaries turning crystals from a decorative surface into structures.
"Sometimes I’m greedy because I want to work with everything like Swarovski’s new technique of printing directly onto crystals or weaving them into the fabric itself,” Ng laughs.
However, even minor alterations that affect weight or movement had unforeseen impacts.
“The physical sculptures are similar but just adding a double layer of textile strips means the shapes don’t attach properly when the strands are in motion,” Ng explains.
Ng has made a career of experimenting. From the time a tutor at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design recommended she study textiles instead of fashion design, she has found herself drawn to researching materials, exploring in particular how the behaviour of natural elements can be translated into man-made materials to enhance urban spaces.
After graduating with an MA in Design for Textile Futures, Ng worked as a colour and material specialist for the automotive and mobile-phone industries before founding The Fabrick Lab in 2013, a year before she relocated her studio to Hong Kong.
Her works have been shown at Milan and London Design weeks; Dubai Design Days; Beijing Design Week; and museums such as the Victoria & Albert in London; the Audax Textielmuseum, Netherlands; and Espace Fondation EDF, Paris.
“It’s very difficult to have the freedom to experiment and undertake the level of research I need to do within a larger commercial organisation so I took the risk and set up my own studio,” she says.
Although born and raised in Britain, Ng was attracted by Hong Kong’s increasing importance as an arts world hub and its access to a wide range of materials.
Current projects include a series of private commissions, including hand weaving copper into three-dimensional sculptural forms in which the colour of the yarn is changed every couple of picks of metal yarn to create a seamless gradation effect.
“One enormous copper sculpture I’ve been working on for a home [on the Peak in Hong Kong] has taken over three months to prepare the material and dress the loom, and four months to hand-weave,” says Ng.
Other new projects include a new collection of leather tiles for the avant-garde Italian-leather Studioart brand, due to be launched in September. Here, Ng explored innovative new ways of balancing the limitations of existing tooling and geometry with handmade craftwork. The product application is intended for the bespoke luxury residential and hospitality markets.
For the past year, Ng has also been occupied with UN/FOLD: A Stitch in Time saves Nine, a longer-term project supported by Hong Kong’s non-profit Design Trust.
The project’s goal is to create a sustainable economic model of fabric production that supports traditional hand weaving and batik work in the Jiao Xi Liang village in Guizhou.
“Their weaving and batik craft work is incredibly sophisticated but there is no commercial demand for the handmade aesthetic,” says Ng, whose project has seen new materials such as high-strength nylon and copper introduced to the traditional weave, creating the sorts of fabrics sought after by the fashion and interior-design industries.
“It seems like such a simple project compared to working with smart materials or bio-mimicry but even these investigations are extremely complicated,” Ng says, pointing to the small wooden stool that the villagers use in their own homes.
After redesigning it with better joints and a box for easy storage, delivery and at-home assembly, Ng noticed the new birch wood selected for its smooth texture and light weight caused its traditional decoration of cobalt blue indigo dye to “bleed” into sketch-like lines.
“It takes time to get even the most simple things right but when they eventually work the way you have imagined it is almost magical,” she says. “It just as well that I love research and am constantly asking, ‘Why, why, why?’”