Design TED Fellows

The secret life of textiles: Fellows Friday with Elaine Ng Yan Ling

Elaine Ng Yan Ling

Clusters of fabric blossoms wave in response to movement, delicately laser-cut wood panels expand and contract in moisture or heat. Elaine Ng Yan Ling‘s textile and furnishing designs weave the magical movements of nature with manmade technologies, creating functional art that harmonizes urban spaces with the elements.

How would you describe your design principle of Naturology?

Fundamentally, Naturology is about nature working in partnership with smart materials. It’s based on biomimicry, and focuses on hybrid materialisation of craft and technology. Right now I’m exploring the use of electronics and shape-memory materials — polymers or alloys that “remember” shapes in response to environmental changes — to trigger and bring natural materials alive. I also want to render micro, unobservable movements in macro scale, using materials such as wood, cane and wool. With both natural and manmade materials, I’m creating objects that echo and augment the movements of nature in response to various external stimuli, like shifts in humidity and temperature.

Not only do I want to enhance modern architecture and interior design by bringing a subtle and fluid awareness of outside ecosystems indoors, evoking harmony and natural movement within an urban environment, but I am reaching for sustainable and eco-conscious design models.

What’s your background?

I’m a traditional weaver. Actually, I was really interested in fashion to start with at Central Saint Martins, in London. I had only been exposed to fashion — I didn’t really know what textile could be used for otherwise. But after the tutors looked at my sketchbooks, they didn’t let me into the fashion course. They said I wasn’t made for fashion, I’m made for textiles. I said, “What do you mean?”

A lot of my work is in mixed media, and incorporates a lot of textures. I give a lot of space for material to grow within the sketchbook, and I make things 3D a lot. So my tutors felt I would be much better off exploring the material side of things first, then decide on a direction. I was really frustrated to start with, really upset. But I’m so happy now that I got put into textiles, where I could explore weaving. I got access to different types of looms — hand looms, arm looms and jacquards. And I thought, “This is really cool, because you can get real action from these” — you can be really angry with your machine and make loads of noise. I’m quite self-expressive.

The Clusters

The Cluster creates a moving surface that changes in response to nearby movement. Each cluster is made up of different compositions of shape-memory material, so their movements are independent from one another, mimicking the behavior of leaves on a tree. Click to see larger size.

How did the idea of Naturology evolve?

It was a long and indirect journey of discovery. First, found I could do so much with weaving. For example, I started collecting stuff on the street for a renovation concept project for East London’s Walton Music Hall. It’s the most beautiful derelict building, 150 years old. I started picking up bits and pieces around the area and weaving with it, creating really nice textures, full of surprises. They didn’t look very professional, but I thought the weaves would be good textures for the wall, as an artistic reinterpretation of its blemishes. You don’t want to hide blemishes — they are a natural gradation of the history of the wall. So the flaws of the building were celebrated through the uneven and imperfect weave.

Then, at one point during my course, I got so frustrated I started melting and burning the samples I made. That’s how I found my true direction. You get completely new textures, and actually the process of it is much more interesting than actually just weaving alone.

How do you melt samples?

There’s a heat press machine, which is usually used for transferring ink onto billows of silk. But I was melting woven plastic stuff.

Doesn’t it make a gigantic mess?

No. You sandwich it in sheets of Teflon paper, and obviously you tell the technician, “I’m experimenting.” I decided maybe I could really use the way I weave to create structures and also make fabrics that are water resistant. When you weave there are still holes, but then I could melt the weave afterwards and make it completely water resistant. I got really experimental and loved it, but then my tutor said I had to find a project that would be more presentable to clients.

That’s how I got into 3D forms. I absolutely love higher-luxury furnishings. So then I began to work with colored metal, weaving it in different ways and then embossing it. From working with metal I began looking at origami — transforming flat woven metal into 3D structures.

Then I thought, this is really manual; I want to make it a bit magical, which is how I began working with smart materials. My original idea was to bring a cloth into a private space, then somehow magically it would just unfold itself into a bigger piece. Earlier that year that I had started looking into alternative materials like LEDs and shape-memory yarns.

Living Furnishing Fabric
Living Furnishing Fabric 2

Living Furnishing Fabric uses shape-memory polymer to allow the textile to respond to humidity. Click to see larger size.

Where is your work shown, and do you think there will be any practical application for Naturology?

I’ve exhibited Naturology design concepts at galleries and trend shows, just to promote the idea of the material and formulation that I’ve designed. The idea is to show large sample pieces rather than full finished products, so there is room for imagining how it might be applied, which I hope will bring in more possibilities for collaboration. My designs have been shown at Milan Design Week and London Design Week and museums such as the Victoria & Albert in London and the Audax Textielmuseum, Tilburg, Netherlands.

As far as practical application, my designs are about transforming invisible data into a visual performance. There are many possibilities, but I’m currently thinking about how I can use sensors that will take data from outdoors to affect indoor installations, so people inside can actually read the movement of the circulation of people outdoors, for example. The visual poetic performance is a dialogue between people, space and nature, helping to bring awareness of how important nature is to us.

Like a barometer that’s made of fabrics?

Exactly. High-end hotels, for example, are often very secluded environments. That means you’ve got no clue what’s going on outside until you step out. So it’s quite nice, just before you go out, to have a hint of the outdoor temperature or moisture or light. And of course I’d like to incorporate Naturology into clothing.

The SAD house

The SAD House is a conceptual architectural design made from shape memory polymers and wood veneer. Meant to create a “lace” roof that opens to allow in light in winter and project shadows indoors, its shape changes in response to heat. Click to see larger size.

What’s your TED Fellows experience been like so far?

It’s been the most overwhelming experience of my life — seriously. The first day it felt a bit like an exploration camp: the best camp ever. You feel like everyone’s part of your family, especially the Fellows. Senior Fellows really look after the new ones. And you get a lot of respect from the TED community, which is really nice. A lot of people said they were happy they’d made it to the Fellows Talks at TEDGlobal 2012 and that they really, really enjoyed them.

When I applied to the program, the Fellows team said TED would support us, but we didn’t have the faintest idea the extent to which they were going to help. I feel so blessed. I was telling my dad about it. He said, “Are you making these things up, Elaine? Is there such a program that can be that good?”