Elaine Ng Yan Ling's interactive installation fuses art and nature

Interview by Nonie Niesewand
Portrait by Amanda Kho

The 30-year-old Hong Kong-based designer discusses a recent commission from Swarovski and tells us what "naturology" is.

You're one of three winners chosen by Swarovski to launch the crystal maker's Designers of the Future exhibition this summer at Design Miami in Basel, Switzerland. What makes the Sundew project you created for the brand tick?

Visitor participation. As a choreographer, I influence the part of the audience plays. Combinations of three materials - the thread, Swarovski crystals, and hidden sensors - respond to their audience. Lifeless, they all look like a tangle of pear-shaped threads on a pole, but speak to them, and they come alive. If you wolf-whistle at the orange feathers in a mop of threads, it shakes itself, fluffs up, gathers up its skirts as it moves up the pole, and at the top, it turns into a turban - or a dome, depending on your response.

     I wanted to encourage conversation with each piece. With Facebook and Instagram, you always look down your screen, you don't really look at artwork, and I really want to engage with the piece. Then it rewards you. Ambient noise makes it move. One visitor even said to the pink-feathered piece, "I love you," and it fluttered off. That one is the attention seeker, woven on bands of cane cut from my grandmother's village in China. The next, printed on polymer threads, is a bit nosey, moving around to seek out its viewer, and the one of stainless steel fused with fiber and crystal is big and bold. All three have individual characteristics quite like me, really. But the three pieces have the same idea, the same structure, twisting and turning in form, undeterred by the weight of the fabric, polymer, cane, or stainless steel. The crystal is integral to it, so that the drooping pear shape turns into an uplifting dome.

Where do you get the inspiration?

A tiny carnivorous Drosera plant that lays out its tentacles and releases a sweet scent that lures in the insect. When the insect settles, the plant draws up its scented tendrils to curl over it and ingest it. The Drosera grows everywhere in the world except the Antarctic. The responsive twisting lanternlike Sundew form uses fabric, fused with polymer glues and Swarovski crystals, in an adaptation of bio structures in nature. I call them "biometrics," also known as biomimicry. 

This field seems to be the latest thing in science. How can you explain its future in the world of textiles, which for centuries - after tools for hunting and gathering - has remained the most basic of human needs?

It's a new science that studies nature's models, and then uses the designs and processes them to solve human patterns. Anything that shows how nature creates shapes and forms and colors - and when it responds the kinetic side of biometrics - seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges. I want to explore further biomimicry design principles to find out how to improve life. In my studio, I've been studying lotus leaves to think about waterproofing textiles with a nanocoating. Lotus leaves are waxy, so studying the biological structures of the leaf - waxy on one side only - I explore the idea of going inside the molecular structures of the leaf. Nanocoating particles are as small as dust and can be carcinogenic. I love research. I want to know why and why and why.

Last year, you founded your studio, The Fabrick Lab, in Hong Kong. Did you make the Sundew designs in your studio?

Yes, but with a lot of back up from the management in Asia of Swarovski. Working with Swarovski was super easy. The key is the crystals; the fabric we developed can be used for the fashion industry and for furniture upholstery. It can be customized to any size and shape. The crystal is integrated into the fabric, which is cane in one, polymer in another, and stainless steel in the third. I applied different adhesive according to different material, but with the same crystal. The textiles aren't woven; they're hand-spun and laminated with crystals. Every single piece needed exactly the right amount of crystal for the look of it encrusted on the outside. The weight of the crystals encrusted inside is dependent on the weight and the length of the fabric. There are two pieces of crystal at the core.

     Turning crystals into structures that support the whole design, rather than just the application of sparkle, was critical to the project. A huge concern of mine was how to apply these crystals. I glued them all individually. It takes 20 hours to make one strand, and there are 32 strands in each Sundew. I learned to be a stronger person. Going to the Swarovski school in Wattens, in Austria, I was trained with tools for the application of polymers to crystals. Back in the studio in Hong Kong, I added electronics, and later, scent.

     The speed of motion triggered by these sensors is important. When the pieces move, there's a slowness about their folding up and unfolding. It's not a static artwork. You don't feel you're missing out on a moment. There should be more slowness is life. We are missing the moment. Maybe that's why I don't think is Sundew project is useless. I stress-tested the threads, spinning them five times faster than they currently move and taking them up and down the poles on which they're suspended. In the program, we had to slow it down by 75 percent; others it whiplashes around so fast that it could spin out of control and make people dizzy. Now it just jumps and shivers.

Have you woven metal into textiles before?

Yes, copper thread, which dents easily, is used now in my project in a rural village in Guizhou called "Unfold: A Stitch in Time Saves Nine." I've been working with rural handcraft weavers there for two years. The women traditionally weave household things of great beauty on their looms, but there is no commercial demand. Only about 10 percent of the women stay in the village to learn the handcraft. Either they find expression in a cultural form, or leave it behind in history. First, I bought nylon, which is slippery and fine, and introduced it as the weft across their coarse threads. I sat with them, weaving the first three lengths myself, and section by section drew the pattern and measured it on a one-to-one scale. Then I introduced copper to the weavers, whose burnished golden fabrics are wonderful. You know, when I show people pictures on my iPhone of these weavers in their remote village in rural China, they say, "What amazing ceremonial costumes they're wearing!" But they're not. That's how they dress every day.

You call the Sundew pieces "artworks." Does the project have any practical application?

Sundew could pop up in stores or hotels, even a museum. A lot of people think it's a crowd puller. I would love more than anything for it to be an installation in a building. On a smaller scale it could work domestically as a night-light. But it does have to be site-specific, as there is a lot of hidden installation work we have to do. 

What kind of installation work is required?

Movement and scent. I wanted the experience to register with everyone who saw it. The sensors to make the crystals respond to sound are hidden in the platform on the floor. The scent is designed in London. Visiting a "nose," as they call the perfumer, is like a mind-mapping session. I was asked, "What is the sent to be? Industrial? Like a flycatcher plant with a hint of danger? What is your ambition?" I knew it mustn't be like a nectar, or have floral sweetness to it. Grasslands came to mind. I wanted it to be like the scent of winds across grasslands. There's a bit of dampness in it, which changes as you progress, deepening, a bit more mossy, like a story on a timer, blown through the hidden fan in the platform floor below. It's all about how the molecular sends triggers to the brain. 

You received your master's degree in design, in textiles futures, from Central Saint Martin in London. Have you always been interested in biomimicry?

My master's degree show in 2010 was called "Naturology" and showed how nature and technology can work together. I used natural materials like wooden veneers laminated together that responded as they mature in peculiar ways to the warmth of the sun and humidity, pushing up into strange shapes, like fungi, on headdresses and bodily adornments. I did research into shape-memory alloys, normally sed by orthodontists with intelligent, luxury fabrics like jacquard weaves that could respond to passing visitors, pushing up little bumps and nudges to respond to the sitter and cradle them.

     I left my job as a senior color designer at Nokia more than two years ago. I set up The Fabrick Lab in early 2013, and opened my studio in Hong Kong nearly one year ago. The second-best thing in my life after being chosen by Swarovski to be one of their "Designers of the Future" was being nominated to apply for a TED fellowship. TEC contacted me and said they'd love to have me in a program. For it, I wrote about my passion for craft and electronics textiles and sciences. I talked about my "Naturology" program and the secret life of plants. It was titled: "Design as a Vehicle to Bridge Tradition and Sustainable Science: Applying Craft Skills to Modern Society."