Cover Elaine Yan Ling Ng (Photo: Marco@wow productions / UBS)

The founder of The Fabrick Lab and chief material innovator of Nature Squared realised the importance of sustainability early on, and it has informed her innovative design ever since. She opens up about her career journey

Elaine Yan Ling Ng’s design is both functional and beautiful. But it also has a greater purpose. Take the British-Chinese materials designer’s most recent work for Nature Squared, a company that seeks to transform sustainable natural materials into products for luxury interiors. As the brand’s chief material innovator since 2020, Ng’s first project for the brand was CArrelé, eco-friendly high-performance tiles made from upcycled eggshells that are baked or naturally dyed in a range of colours. They make use of some of the 250,000 tonnes of eggshell waste that end up in landfill annually. 

This is regenerative design, which goes further than sustainable design. The latter aims to be carbon neutral, while the former has a net positive impact. “If we look at how we are exhausting our planet year on year, regenerative design should be the direction we go in,” says Ng. “Sustainable design is only putting a plaster on the problem.”

Eggshell is just the beginning. Ng has plans to look at other natural materials such as fish skin and seashells. The latter is another sustainably sourced biowaste that is traditionally used in furniture and interiors, particularly as inlay, the offcuts of which Ng plans to focus on. “It’s interesting when a product is being filtered from the sea to various industries, and then we are at the bottom of the supply chain, so what do we do with it?” questions Ng of her next challenge.

Alongside her role with Nature Squared, Ng runs The Fabrick Lab, an art and design studio and material consultancy that she founded in 2013.

“The Fabrick Lab is technology-driven with handcrafted textiles, while Nature Squared is focused on natural material supply chain and recyclability. The two are quite complementary. With The Fabrick Lab, we prototype and investigate materials, and a lot of what we do is textiles,” says the designer, who trained as a weaver. Ng also works in large-scale installation, incorporating electronics and technology as well as biomimicry into her work. Take her project commissioned by UBS, an interactive sculpture inspired by nature and technology and powered by big data. The concept was based on the way trees share data through mycelium systems and the resulting sculpture was inlaid with handwoven jacquard, reflecting the relationship between computer and craft, and programmed to light up according to air quality data collected from selected locations and analysed by UBS, and in response to viewer interaction.

Textiles have always been important for Ng—a visit to her studio in Hong Kong will reveal a proliferation of looms—and textiles were the foundation of an early project that was pivotal for her, inspiring an initial interest in sustainability. Ng’s Un/Fold project, which she began in 2013, sought to innovate the traditional weaving of Chinese ethnic minorities, specifically in Guizhou, for an urban consumer.

“When you start working in mountain villages in such a remote area, you understand fully what circular means within that economy, never mind the whole world,” says Ng, who wanted to create a sustainable way for the Guizhou villagers to make a living through their craft by innovating the materials and techniques, and upskilling the villagers. She had to ensure the project could be self-sufficient, from making the indigo dye locally, which meant seeding, planting and growing, as well as harvesting the plant leaves, fermenting them into a dye, and keeping the indigo dye alive in order for it to be effectively used in the textiles.

Ng was always aware of waste and the need to minimise it, as it would otherwise be dumped in the local river, which was supplying the water the villagers used for eating, drinking and washing. “When we started to help them, we were bringing more waste into their space, so when I was planning, I really had to think about maximising the use of every inch of fabric to turn it into a product. That’s what encouraged me to learn about natural dyes, and to work in the ecosystem and understand what that really means,” says Ng.

This experience was the beginning of Ng’s heightened awareness of waste, particularly in the textile industry, which has informed her work since. Here, she shares in her own words more about her career to date, some of her proudest moments, and what it’s like to be a woman in her field.

What was it like when you were starting out?

When I first came to Hong Kong, having worked in England and then in Beijing, it was really difficult. When I told people I was a textile designer they thought I was a lady who collected material swatches in Sham Shui Po [an area in Hong Kong known for its fabric stores]. They had no concept of what being a textiles designer or a weaver might entail or the technology or engineering you need to understand how to operate, for example, a jacquard loom.

When I wanted to start my studio, it was difficult to know what my design ability was when I didn’t have any machinery. And when I tried to knock on the doors of manufacturers, they said their minimum order was 100 metres of samples. What would I do with 100 metres? That was when I realised there’s a lot of unnecessary waste in the textiles industry, mainly due to an old-fashioned supply chain system. This pushed me to think about the industry as a whole. Sustainability was not about using a more conscious material, but taking a step back and thinking about the workflow. How do you create a prototype system? This is what I’ve done with The Fabrick Lab, to showcase what an independent designer could do, and to show that when you prototype it doesn’t have to be by conventional means. Because if I hadn’t invested in the machinery and my studio space, then I would have to go through conventional means and even if I had the money, the amount of waste I would create is unsustainable, with most of it ending up in landfill.

What’s a common misconception about your work?

That I’m a fashion designer. I’m not a fashion designer. I love fashion, but the way I operate is very different. And my textiles are not fashion orientated, but are more related to interiors or spatial design.

What’s it like being a woman in your field?

I don’t think it’s a disadvantage to run a studio as a woman, but the interactive or installation worlds are definitely male-dominated. I think it’s difficult to get people to take a girl who is all dressed up seriously in the robotics industry. But I’ve shown them how dedicated I am and how I can pull a project through and that’s how I have earned their respect. And now I’m good friends with the partners that I work with in robotics. When people see you working on the construction site with a hard hat on and standing by them and speaking up for them in meetings, they realise you are serious.

How does your work elevate other women?

My project in Guizhou started as a research initiative. With initial support from The Design Trust, I was able to understand why Guizhou textiles were not respected and sold for the money they should be. International players like WGSN, Lane Crawford and Stellar Works joined the conversation to help me look into the market positions of these products and how they could be improved. It wasn’t a women empowerment project at the start, but I saw there was a need for that after understanding the inequality in the village, and that women had the responsibility to earn and to look after kids and the elderly. So the project was really to encourage women to take a lead role and to gain managerial skills so they could continue after I left. I’ve built them a kitchen, a dye room, operation rooms. I’ve left them with all the materials, facilities and training they need to take in more interesting projects themselves. Now it's time to observe whether it works and give it time to grow, and then you can improve the model. For the next step, I want to look at other places in Southeast Asia that need me more than the villages where I’ve already worked for seven years.

What is most rewarding about your work?

The Guizhou project has been very rewarding. Some of the women can’t even write their own name, but the project has helped them to send their kids to school. Education is so important and everyone deserves the opportunity to access it.

Nature Squared has been so rewarding too. Sometimes research and development can take so long, but there’s so much trust, and the infrastructure at Nature Squared is really tight, so we don’t waste time and everything is calculable. We know how many eggshells we are using and how much waste is being diverted from landfill.

What advice would you have for your younger self?

Sometimes I think I should have worked a little longer in the corporate world to learn more. I really enjoyed working at Nokia Design in Beijing; the corporate culture was very good and we were provided with lots of resources to learn new things and elevate our skillsets, which is rare.

What is your leadership style?

I believe everyone should speak out and take part. Yes, there’s hierarchy but at the same time, no one should feel lost and alone in a company. You should have people to look up to and to ask questions to and not be left on your own. That’s very important. But you also need to participate and contribute, not just take orders. A lot of the culture in Hong Kong is about being obedient and staying longer than your boss, but it’s all about efficiency for me, not how long you stay in the office. Sitting in a meeting and just making notes and not contributing is not as good as if you speak out and challenge. I like being challenged by my team, because that means they are listening and thinking as much as I am.

How do you stay engaged and challenged in your work?

I look up to a lot of people and want to know how they do things and how they are doing so well, which keeps me on my toes. I always question myself too: am I missing an opportunity? Why can’t I do that? It helps me to be more focused. 

When I was younger, I wanted to be a textile designer. Then I found the importance of biomimicry and I became interested in interactive design and programming. Then, as my career progressed and I met more people, I realised I couldn’t work alone. Everyone exists within a larger ecosystem and it’s really important to highlight how my job and my studio can participate within this ever-evolving ecosystem to bring in benefits for others, and that keeps me challenged.

What are you most proud of?

Working with Nature Squared is an important milestone in my life, because the owners have absolute trust in me. A lot of owners would not accept a designer running their own studio while also taking on such a prominent role in the company and I have a lot of respect for them for seeing the benefit while also respecting my own interests. I think it’s also a reflection of my reputation and that makes me quite proud.

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