Aranya Natural’s “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference in Munnar

aranya natural conference


The purpose of my trip to India in February was to attend a natural dyeing conference. And it took place before COVID-19 changed our lives. Aranya Natural is a natural dyeing organisation under Srishti Trust in Munnar, supported by TATA Global Beverages Limited, which runs programs for the education training and rehabilitation of the differently abled children of Munnar’s tea plantation workers. Last year, it was the organisation’s 25th anniversary, and “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference was organised as part of the celebration. However, the conference was postponed by a year after a major flood in Kerala devasted many parts of the state. It was fortunate that the conference managed to take place before COVID-19 started to spread in India, otherwise it would have been cancelled for the second time.

Honestly, I am not a big fan of conference and would rarely volunteerily attend one. Yet this conference was like no other, and I felt that it would be beneficial if I want to continue my natural dyeing practice. To me, natural dyeing is not merely a hobby, it has become my passion and aspiration in recent years. Currently, we are seeing a revival of natural and indigo dyeing as many people realise the harmful effects of synthetic dyes on our bodies and environment.


aranya natural conference  indigo farmer aranya natural conference

Left: The conference schedule; Right: A local indigo farmer and conference attendee


The 2-day conference took place at Eastend Hotel in Munnar, bringing dyers, manufacturers, teachers, designers, farmers, and enthusiasts etc together from Indian and around the world. One huge draw for me was the list of speakers, which included experts like Yoshiko Wada, Jenny Balfour Paul, Michel Garcia, Charlotte Kwon (Maiwa), Dominique Cardon, Jagada Rajappa and Buaisou… these are all big names in the natural dyeing and textiles world, so it was a rare opportunity to meet them all in one room.

One factor differentiates Aranya Natural from other organisations – it is an all-women team led by a visionary founder, Ratna Krishnakumar. Since India is a patriarchal society, it is inspiring to see the empowerment of women here. The fact is women in India are likely to face more challenges than women in the West, so being able to run an all-female team here is highly commendable.

The conference also addressed the most important issue that we are facing in the textiles and fashion industry today – sustainability. The rise of fast fashion has done immense damage to our environment in the past decade or so, hence the conference aimed to increase the awareness of natural dyes, and discuss how the industry can shift from using synthetic dyes to more sustainable ones.


aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference


Until recently, sustainability has been fashion industry’s last concern. If you trace the path of your favourite item from Primark, then you might be in for a surprise. Your ‘bargain’ £10 shirt probably costs about £3-4 to make, meanwhile the garment factory worker in Bangladesh would receive less than £1 for a day’s work (14-16 hours). Aside from exploitation of these workers, the environmental damage caused by the chemicals used is unaccountable. Although India has had a long history with natural dyes, many garment manufacturers have now switched to synthetic dyes to cope with the high demand from the fast fashion sector. Natural dyes have been pushed aside due to higher costs. lower production rate and more labour intensive.

So, how can we re-introduce natural dyes back into the profit-driven industry? There are no easy answers, but I did meet some young Indian designers at the conference who are using natural dyes to create beautiful designs. I do hope that they will change the landscape of Indian fashion in the future.


aranya natural conference

Soham Dave and his sustainable collection


When I was still a student years ago, I bought my first shibori book, “Shibori: The Inventive Art Of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing” by artist, author, and curator, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada. This is an important book to me and I never thought I would get the chance to meet Yoshiko in person, but I did – we even exchanged contacts, and later had dinner together, which all felt a bit surreal. Besides Yoshida, I also spoke to other speakers like Dominique Cardon, Michel Garcia, Axel Becker, Jagada Rajappa, William Ingram from Threads of Life, and Rashmi Bharti, the co-founder of Avani. The conference also enabled me to connect and make friends with attendees from around the world. Many of them are dyers, designers, textiles teachers, and shop owners etc, so I found the whole experience valuable and unforgettable.


aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference


The talks on both days covered a wide range of topics relating to sustainability and natural dyeing, but the word ‘indigo’ was a key term at the conference. Indigo is probably the most mysterious and complex natural dye of all. Indigofera is a flowering plant of over 750 species and belongs to the pea family, Fabaceae. It has been in cultivation in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide for many centuries, yet the characteristics of each specie varies and can yield different shades of blue. The world-renowned indigo expert writer, artist and curator, Jenny Balfour-Paul has published several indigo-related books, and she was the last speaker to give a talk on indigo. Not long ago, I read her novel “Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer, hence it was interesting to hear her examine the colour ‘blue’ from many angles.


aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

Talks and slides on indigo


On both evenings after the conference, there were entertainments including dance and music performances, violin recital, and fashion show. The fashion show featured natural dyed designs created by Riddhi Jain (Studio Medium), Sreejith Jeevan (Studio Rouka) and Sunita Shankar. Unlike other fashion shows, their show was modelled by workers at Srishti, which was more authentic and fun.

Based in New Dehli, Riddhi Jain is a rising star in India’s fashion world who has won the Elle Decor India Design Awards, International Craft Awards and India Story design awards amongst others. She told me that she employs a small team of artisans and designers to create beautiful hand-dyed and hand-stitched shibori pieces that are one of a kind. I love her designs, and honestly, I would rather spend my money on an unique handmade piece that supports a local craft community than a designer piece that supports its marketing campaigns and executives.


aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference  aranya natural conference

Riddhi Jain (Studio Medium)

 Sunita Shankar

Sreejith Jeevan (Studio Rouka)

3rd row: Riddhi Jain and her collection; 4th row: Sunita Shankar and her collection; bottom row: Sreejith Jeevan and his collection.


I never knew that conferences could be so exhausting! Besides two full-day talks from 9am to 5pm, I did not anticipate two hours of evening entertainments, followed by dinners at 9 pm on both nights. Despite the lack of rest, I was still looking forward to attending two more days of workshops led by different experts. And I got to visit the beautiful site of Aranya Natural, which is located outside of the polluted town centre.

To be continued…


aranya natural conference

I loved my conference gift bag



London design festival & Kengo Kuma at the V & A museum

bamboo ring


Over the past few years, I have been quite disappointed with design industry’s ‘slow response’ in tackling the sustainability issues, and felt the same way when I visited trade shows and exhibitions at the London design festival. Finally, things have changed this year. Sustainability and handmade crafts became the main focus of this year’s festival, and it was conspicuous at the V & A museum, the official hub of the festival.

At the entrance of the festival, visitors had to walk under a massive cube suspended from the ceiling. The ‘Sea Things’ installation, created by Sam Jacob studio, addressed the ocean plastic waste issue that we face today. An animated motion graphic created by Rory Cahill was projected within the cube, which showed the growing numbers of plastic waste alongside with sea creatures. It reflected an infinity that seemec both as wide as the ocean and as large as the challenges we face.


sea things sam jacob

sea things sam jacob

Sea things by Sam Jacob studio


At the John Madejski Garden, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma worked with Ejiri Structural Engineers and the Kengo Kuma Laboratory at The University of Tokyo, to create a nest or cocoon by weaving rings of bamboo and carbon fibre together. The 2m-diameter ring was made from strips of the bamboo Phyllostachys edulis, and was combined with carbon fibre to achieve a certain rigidity while maintaining the unique material properties and beauty of bamboo. The installation was intended to be a catalyst for weaving people and place together.


bamboo ring kengo kuma

bamboo ring kengo kuma

bamboo ring kengo kuma

Bamboo ring by Kengo Kuma


At the Global Design Forum, Kengo Kuma was invited to give a talk on material explorations. Kengo, who recently designed the £80m V&A Dundee, his first building in the UK, as well as the New National Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, revealed that nature has always been his main source of inspiration. Located on the edge of the River Tay, the V&A Dundee was inspired by the eastern cliff edges of Scotland, and it is partly built on the water to emphasis the connection with nature.

It was interesting to hear him talk about his past projects and the materials he used for them. The world will certainly be focusing on him next year when the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opens. After so much controversy over his timber stadium, I wonder if it will prove the critics wrong.


kengo kuma

kengo kuma

kengo kuma

Kengo Kuma at the Global Design forum


Non-Pavilion by Studio MICAT, There Project and Proud Studio

Non-Pavilion by Studio MICAT, There Project and Proud Studio. The Non-Pavilion is a digital pavilion and it used AR technology to invite visitors to engage with the idea of ‘less’ as enrichment rather than loss.


robin hood gardens

robin hood gardens

The demolition of Robin Hood Gardens –the Brutalist housing estate in Poplar, East London, completed in 1972 by British architects Alison and Peter Smithson– was recorded by London-based Korean artist Do Ho Suh in 2017. His panoramic film used time-lapse photography, drone footage, 3D-scanning and photogrammetry to create a fascinating visual journey.


sacred geometry

sacred geometry

Rony Plesl’s unique glass installation draws inspiration from fire and wood – key components of glass making – and from the idea of Sacred Geometry, a universal language organising all visible and invisible reality according to basic geometrical principles. 


affinity in autonomy  affinity in autonomy

Supported by Sony Design, Affinity in Autonomy is an A.I. installation featuring a pendulus moving in random directions inside a round cage. However, human presence would be detected and the pendulus would respond to visitors’ physical movements outside of the cage.


One of my favourite exhibits at the V & A was the Black Masking Culture inside the Tapestries Gallery – the huge Mardi Gras Indian suits are composed of intricately hand-sewn beadwork created by New Orleans artist, Demond Melancon. The beaded suits illustrate actual and imagined events of the indigenous people in America and enslaved Africans, with imagery rich with symbolism and meaning. The suits blended surprisingly well with the tapastries in the background despite being made centuries apart.


black masking in culture

black masking in culture

black masking in culture

black masking in culture  black masking in culture

Black Masking Culture


blanc de chine

blanc de chine  blanc de chine

blanc de chine

blanc de chine  blanc de chine

blanc de chine

blanc de chine

Blanc de Chine, a Continuous Conversation (ongoing until 2020) showcases historic pieces from the V&A’s Asian and European ceramics collections, as well as a selection of new works by contemporary makers including: Babs Haenen, Lucille Lewin, Liang Wanying, Jeffry Mitchell, Su Xianzhong, and Peter Ting. Retelling the story of porcelain-making in Dehua, the display builds a bridge between the past and the current, tradition and innovation, and breaking the boundary of Chinese and non-Chinese ceramic practices.


sea things sam jacob

sea things sam jacob

sea things sam jacob  sea things sam jacob

Sea things by Sam Jacob studio showcased eight historic water vessels remade in new sustainable materials such as recycled plastic, sea shells and bioresin etc.




Repair-Making and the Museum – V & A resident maker Bridget Harvey examined repaired and broken objects in the collections, and conservation practices.


bamboo futures

bamboo futures

Bamboo Futures – Bali-based designer Elora Hardy and her team at IBUKU construct sustainable bamboo buildings across the world, with every IBUKU building being devised using a bamboo model. This installation of miniature buildings demonstrates how IBUKU’s model-making is both integral to their creative process and an invaluable tool throughout construction.


Leaders of London’s cultural institutions were invited to collaborate with some of the world’s most prolific designers to create a ‘Legacy’ piece of design – an object of personal or professional relevance to them. The 10 pieces were beautifully crafted in American red oak, a sustainable hardwood species that grows abundantly in American forests, and were fabricated at Benchmark Furniture in Berkshire.


KWAME KWEI-ARMAH OBE Artistic Director, Young Vic, with TOMOKO AZUMI  legacy v & A

legacy v & A

legacy v & A  legacy v & A

legacy v & A

Top left: Kwame Kwei-Arwah, Artistic Director of Young Vic, with Tomoko Azumi; Top right: Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Artistic Director of Serpentine Galleries, with Studiomama; 2nd row: Sir Ian Blatchford, Director and Chief Executive of Science Museum Group, with Marlene Huissoud; 3rd row: Dr Maria Balshaw CBE, Director of Tate, with Max Lamb; Last row: Alex Beard, Chief Executive of Royal Opera House, with Terence Woodgate






The Ingenious Mr Leman: Designing Spitalfields Silks (on display until October) showcases James Leman’s silk textiles from the early 18th century. 

staging places

staging places

staging places

Staging Places: UK Design for Performance (ongoing until 2020)






Pioneered by the V&A Research Institute (VARI) and Design Thinker in Residence, Ella Britton, this experimental school inside the V&A will collectively create a design curriculum for the 21st century. The School is about exploring what a design education could be. And who it should be for. 


East London Comics & Arts Festival 2016

round chapel

The Grade II listed Round Chapel, Hackney


Organised by London-based Nobrow Press, the fifth annual East London Comics Art Festival (ELCAF) took place over three days at the Round Chapel and MKII gallery in Hackney.

The festival is designed to showcase some of the most exciting works in comics and illustrations, and it features independent publishers and illustrators from UK and internationally. It also include talks, masterclasses, and workshops for adults and children. Together with Pick me up Graphics Arts Festival at Somerset House (which has become too commercial) and the London Art Book Fair at the Whitechapel Gallery, this show has become the leading festivals of its kind in the UK.


East London Comic Arts Festival

East London Comic Arts Festival

East London Comic Arts Festival  East London Comic Arts Festival

Bottom row: The lovely mid-century inspired illustrated books and cards at Design for Today’s stall


It was my first visit to the festival, and I was delighted to see a variety of illustrated books, zines and prints available at affordable prices. It also enjoyed the opportunity to meet and talk to the illustrators and publishers about their works. At the show, I discovered many impressive works by the London-based Design For Today, Otto Press, Peow Studio, Day Job, and I like the comic zines by British illustrator John Cei Douglas.

Exhibitors from outside of the UK were equally captivating. I met and chatted to Singaporean illustrator Michal Ng and the Madrid-based Ruohong Wu about her books that are influenced by her architecture background.


Katsumi Komagata talk  Katsumi Komagata design

les trois ourses

Katsumi Komagata  Katsumi Komagata petit arbre

Katsumi Komagata

Top left: Nobrow founding partner Sam Arthur with Japanese graphic designer Katsumi Komagata at the Artist Talk by The Japan Foundation; Top right: Komagata’s design for children’s hospital ward in Japan; last 3 rows: Komagata’s books at Les Trois Ourses’ stall


Though the highlight of the festival for me was Les Trois Ourses – the French publisher that features graphical books by award-winning Japanese graphic designer Katsumi Komagata.

A few days before the festival, I attended The Japan Foundation‘s Artist Talk by Katsumi Komagata at Foyles. The talk was organised in conjunction with the festival, and Nobrow’s founding partner Sam Arthur was also present to join the conversation.

This was Komagata‘s first trip to the UK, and so it was a fantastic opportunity to hear the designer talk about the inspirations behind his works. Renowned in France, Komagata was less well-known in Japan until he started to design for hospitals children’s wards in Japan. He founded graphic design studio and later publishing press One Stroke in 1983, and started designing books for children after the birth of his daughter. In 1994, he started collaborating with Les Trois Ourses, and has published picture books for children with disabilities. Komagata‘s books have often been compared to the books designed by the great Italian designer/artist Bruno Munari, and Komagata acknowledged that Munari’s designs did inspire some of his works.

Unfortunately, I did not attend Komagata‘s workshop at the festival, but I did manage to chat to Alexis from Les Trois Ourses about Komagata‘s wonderful books like Petit Arbres and Aller-Retour – which I bought at the festival.


round chapel

East London Comic Arts Festival  East London Comic Arts Festival

Top & bottom left: The historical interior of the Round Chapel; Bottom right: comics and zines bought from the festival


I never expected to feel fulfilled after spending all the cash in my wallet, but I was! I think the festival was an inspiring event, and I especially liked the fact that it featured many non-mainstream illustrators and publishers that are hard to find in the city’s generic bookshops. Now I just need to save up for next year’s festival!


Strand Buildings in Clapton

Strand Buildings in Clapton  Strand Buildings in Clapton

Strand Buildings in Clapton

The Art deco Strand Buildings in Clapton


IMG_5723-min  IMG_5724-min

IMG_5727-min  IMG_5725-min

The super cool Cine Real super 8 and 16mm film shop and club at 35 Lower Clapton Road



The Eric Gill series exhibition

the eric gill series the eric gill seriesthe eric gill series


It is rare to visit an exhibition dedicated to typography, even in London.

Therefore, an exhibition on the development of the Gill Sans typeface by British artist/ sculptor/ type designer/ printmaker Eric Gill proved to be popular among graphic designers and typography lovers.

Gill designed the hugely popular Gill Sans sans-serif typeface between 1927-30 for Monotype, one of the world’s best-known providers of type-related products, technologies and expertise. This timeless typeface is still being used widely today, from BBC to Benetton and our website! I chose this over other popular typefaces because it is inviting, legible, and most importantly, it is quintessentially British (which is why it is called the ‘Helvetica’ of England)!


the eric gill series the eric gill seriesthe eric gill seriesthe eric gill series the eric gill series


At the exhibition, rarely seen materials including Gill’s hand-drawings from the Monotype Archive and private collections were presented for the first time. There were test prints for display fonts that were never digitized, and copper plates revealing the production process of early letterpress typefaces.

The exhibition also celebrates the launch of The Eric Gill Series, a collection of 77 fonts in three families: Gill Sans® Nova, Joanna® Nova and Joanna Sans Nova. Derived from the original work of Gill, these are contemporary digital typefaces – with a wide range of weights, alternate characters and extended language support – that pay homage to Gill’s original designs.


the eric gill series the eric gill series

Contemporary usage of Gill Sans – promotional materials for British fashion label Margaret Howell


On the last day of the exhibition, I also attended the Type Tuesday talk where Dan Rhatigan, David Hitner and James Mosley presented three different yet complementary aspects of Gill’s design legacy. It was fascinating to hear from researchers and designers who are passionate about typography. I often feel that typography has been sidelined in our image-driven world, so it is about time that we pay more respect to this art form that is ubiquitous and influential in our everyday lives.


Design Junction 2015

Victoria Housevictoria houseVictoria Housethe college the college the college

Top row: the art deco features at Victoria House: 2nd & bottom rows: The college


Like 100% Design, this year, Design Junction moved from its previous location (the Former Royal Mail Sorting Office on New Oxford Street) to two enormous and historical venues on Southampton Row – the art deco Victoria House (completed in 1932) and The College (the former site of Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design completed in 1908). The interior of both buildings are fascinating, but the maze-like layout (esp. at The college) made it hard for visitors to navigate and most of us were constantly going round in circles within the building.


P1140571-compressedvic leerokosAlicja Patanowskagoat story

Top: Teddy’s wish installation; 2nd left: Vic Lee working on a mural; 2nd middle: Tipping vases by Rokos; 2nd right: Plantation by Alicja Patanowska; Bottom row: Goat Story


This year, the retail section was allocated to the basement of Victoria house, which was the original home of the show back in 2011. One of the attractions was the ‘Teddy’s wish’ installation created by Anthony Dickens and Studio Make Believe, featuring 21 iconic Eames elephants customised by world renowned designers and architects.



Top & bottom left: Blackbody; Bottom middle: Ango; Bottom right: Haberdashery


Lighting had always been a strong focus at this design fair in the past, and this year was no exception. Over at The College site, the entire ground floor was dedicated to lighting, and one of the most visually spectacular was French light company Blackbody‘s installations at one of the entrances. I was also drawn to the nature-inspired lighting created by the Thai company Ango. The company’s designs have won awards at various local and international design shows including Good design award in Japan and Maison et Objet in France.


the gem roomlaufen at the gem room coelacanth shokudoucoelacanth shokudoucoelacanth shokudouYuta Segawa

Top and 2nd left: The gem room; 2nd right, 3rd & 4th rows: Scissors and crafts by Coelacanth Shokudou; Bottom: Yuta Segawa’s miniature pots


Among all the contemporary products, it was unexpected to see a Japanese craftsman sitting on the floor and making a pair of scissors in the middle of the room. Coelacanth Shokudou is a design research centre from Hyogo Prefecture in Japan that utilises local resources and traditional skills to produce functional and high quality designs.

Another surprise discovery for me was Yuta Segawa‘s miniature pots at the UAL now exhibitors section. The Camberwell MA graduate’s vast array of ceramic vessels are delicate and delightful, I absolutely adore them!


tools for everyday lifetools for everyday lifetools for everyday lifewe do wood Noble and woodTotem Mill by Tylko

Top row: Tools for everyday life; 2nd left: We do wood; 2nd right: Cape light by Noble and wood; Bottom: Totem Mill by Tylko


As a stationery fan, it was hard for me to not fiddle with the range of stationery and other tools displayed at the Tools for everyday life stand. The research project examines how skilled manufacture can lead to beautiful things, allowing the designers a space to explore and reflect on ‘making’ as a commercially relevant process in the manufacture of functionally useful things. The collection of products and furniture are created by designers who studied BA (hons) 3D Design programme at Northumbria University. The objects are playful and captivating, and the high quality craftsmanship reveals the beauty of ubiquitous every day tools in the most direct manner.

In our technology-driven society today, designers have to respond, adapt and innovate quicker than ever before. Backed by design entrepreneur Yves Behar (founder of Fuse project),the Polish furniture startup Tylko launched an app that allows users to customise each furniture piece according to their own desire and see it in their own space. Will this type of parametric design and technology change the way we shop in the future? We shall wait and see, but it is always exciting to see designers pushing the boundaries and finding new methods to innovate.


Maggie's donation box by Benjamin HubertBenjamin Hubert

Top: Maggie’s donation box by Benjamin Hubert; Bottom: Talk by Benjamin Hubert


Last but not least, it was interesting to attend a talk by designer Benjamin Hubert (founder of Layer) on his new donation box design for Maggie’s ( cancer support centre) and Worldbeing, a self-directed wearable and app supported by the Carbon Trust that tracks carbon usage. Although it has been predicted that wearable technology will be as Big as smartphones in the years to come, I still have reservation about this trend. The flop of google glass and Apple Watch indicates that perhaps consumers are not ready yet. Is it due to design flaws or psychological reasons? Again, only time will tell.



100% design 2015

100% design 2015 donar at 100% design 2015

100% design’s new venue in Olympia; right: Donar


Having visited The London design festival for many years, I somehow feel that the festival is losing its spark/edge. The guide is undoubtedly getting thicker and heavier (not sure if anyone enjoyed carrying this design festival ‘bible’ around for 10 days), yet the festival itself has become more ‘business’ like.

This may sound mean but as far as I can remember, this year’s design trade shows were by far the least inspiring. Since when did design become so boring and safe?! Although 100% design moved from Earls Court to Olympia this year, the vast venue was unexpectedly quiet during my visit.


soso studio at 100% design 2015 soso studio soso studio hi design shanghaiey productssoso studio

1st, 2nd and bottom right: Soso Studio; Bottom left: Hi design Shanghai; Bottom middle: E-Y products


At the entrance of the show, one couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous booths from China. One of them was Icon’s Hi Design Shanghai, which featured ten Chinese emerging and established design brands for the first time in UK. It is interesting to see how Chinese designs have evolved in a short period of time; and although the Chinese design scene is still immature, many young Chinese designers are developing their own styles and utilising traditional skills and craftsmanship that have been passed down for centuries.


100% design 2015 100% design 2015100% design 2015 100% design 2015100% design 2015100% design 2015100% design 2015


Although I was disappointed with the show and the products in general, I did benefit from the insightful talk on the future of design by trend forecasters and 3D researcher. As we have seen in recent years, sustainability, ethics and upcycling have become the predominant factors in design; and designers are now rethinking human’s relationship with nature and consumerism. “How to make consumerism the answer rather than a thread?” is the question that designers have to deal with. It is almost ironic to talk about sustainability at these design trade shows because there are simply too many unnecessary products that are being made, and it is quite evident at these shows.

I left the show pondering how I, as a designer, e-tailer, consumer and citizen be more responsible of my actions; and at the same time make other consumers be more conscious of their behaviour. These changes cannot be made overnight, and they require collective power/movement. I believe that more collaborations and dialogues between different industries and sectors are necessary in order to create a global shift that focuses more on the quality of life than short term profits or economic gains.


LSE’s Saw Swee Hock Student Centre

Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre


A few months ago, I walked past a non-orthogonal shaped brick building in Holborn that caught my attention. Later, I learnt that this striking Riba Stirling Prize-nominated building is London School of Economics’ Saw Swee Hock student centre designed by Irish architectural practice O’Donnell + Tuomey (Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey) completed in 2014.

And when I found out the architects were conducting a guide tour of the building followed by a talk as part of the London festival of architecture, I was eager to sign up for this event.


Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre


Given the limitations of the site, the architects did an outstanding job in creating an original building that merges well with its surroundings. At the beginning of the tour, the architects lead us down the adjacent streets and explained how the streetscape played the part in shaping the building.

The multifunctional building accommodates a large music venue, pub, cafe, multi-faith centre, dance studios, careers library, gym and offices. It is designed with accessibility and inclusive design as key considerations.


Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre london view


This building can be seen as a homage to brick and bricklaying craftsmanship. There are 46 standard shape bricks and 127 specially designed and shaped ones. A total of 173,377 solid and perforated (allowing daylight in) bricks were precisely mapped on the facade before construction began. Inside, the building is supported by steel columns and concrete, it also feels airy and bright as a result of the floor to ceiling windows.


Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre Saw Swee Hock Student Centre


I especially love the concrete staircases. The angular staircases act as a prominent feature over several floors, but on the top floors and basement, they are replaced by spiral ones. The beauty of concrete is accentuated through the meticulous design.


Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey

Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey


This building somewhat reflects the impression I received from the Irish couple: humble, unconventional and heedful. Unlike many conspicuous buildings designed by celebrity architects these days, this building pays respect to its surroundings, it is functional, user-friendly and yet original. Our city needs more buildings like this rather than glass skyscrapers that convey the ego and ambition of the property developers, architects and capitalists.


Contemporary Chinese culture at The Floating Cinema

It’s not an exaggeration to say the ‘dilemma’ that faces many Londoners is not the lack of entertainment/consumption choices, but the overwhelming of choices available. And when it comes to cultural events, we are just spoiled for choice and it’s hard to keep up even if you are subscribed to hundreds of e-newsletters (because you still need to time to read them all)!

I have long wanted to attend events organised by The Floating Cinema, but somehow never got round to it. Finally, when I found out about the Contemporary Chinese culture events curated in partnership with the Manchester-based Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, I was eager to sign up for some events that took place on the canal boat.

The boat was parked by the Granary Square in Kings Cross for the weekend. The outdoor canalside steps are ideal for the outdoor screening of several Chinese films. Due to the boat’s limited seating, most events were full and I managed to book myself onto two events.


The floating cinemaThe floating cinema Yan wang preston

Main & bottom left: The Floating Cinema in Kings Cross; Bottom right: Yan Wang Preston


The first event was “Both Sides Now“, a collaboration between Jamie Wyld from Video Club (UK) and Isaac Leung from Videotage (HK). The screening included new and historical documentaries and animations created during the 1980s-2000s from China and Hong Kong exploring the impact of three decades of cultural and societal development. The screening was also followed by a discussion and Q & A session.

Some of the videos shown are quite political sensitive, hence they cannot be shown in China. The artists in the programme include: Ellen Pau, Linda Lai, Anson Mak, Kwan Sheung Chi, Lee Kit, Tse Ming Chong, Choi Sai Ho, and other 11 artists from Hong Kong.

For those who are aware of Hong Kong’s current political climate would know that it is far from rosy. The city’s largest pro-democracy rally in a decade took place on 1st July, with around 510,000 protesters participating and it made headline news across the globe. Whenever there is political and social unrest or even economical downturn in a state or region or country, it is also the time for creativity to emerge and blossom… this unsettling period may be a tough time for Hong Kong’s citizens, but it has enabled a new breed of talents to make their voices heard.

One of the most memorable video/animations at the screening was the last one by Hong Kong artist, Wong Ping. His “Under the lion’s crotch” is bizarre, grotesque, graphical and disturbing, but it is also dark and humourous. The animation is the artist’s interpretation of the current situation in Hong Kong and it won an award at the 2013 18th IFVA festival in Hong Kong. Here is an extract from the artist’s website about the work:

“Under the Lion Crotch”
Here comes the end
Our land is brutally torn apart by conglomerates
Redevelopment swept across the city
Their thriving business had left us homeless
Rotten city, rotten crowd
Luxury clothing won’t conceal the stench
Top yourself and throw a curse
Fill the streets with our merry hearses
Is the world going to end
as we’ve been longing for?
Destroy us all together with the chaos
Set us free like
the ashes in the wind

*Beware of the graphical material in this video!


No One Remains Virgin “Under the Lion Crotch” MV from Wong Ping on Vimeo.


The second event I attended was a talk by an award-winning Chinese photographer and visual artist, Yan Wang Preston. Her talk was on her long term artistic and research project, Mother River, which she has been working on since the end of 2010. Initially driven by a personal desire to reconnect with one’s Motherland, the project focuses on China’s most iconic waterway: the Yangtze River.

The artist also wanted to investigate the impact of the controversial hydroelectric dam that has had on the environment and the local people. The dam was built to prevent flooding and generate power in the local areas, yet the construction also flooded important archaeological and historical sites, displaced some 1.3 million people, and caused significant ecological damages to area.

The artist epic journey across China began from the source of the river (in Tibet) and photographed the 4,000 mile long Yangtze River with a precise interval of every 100 kilometres and 63 fixed points in total. Yan spoke about the difficulties she encountered during her journey, but despite all the mishaps and re-shoot, she finally completed the project earlier this year. Yan‘s photographs of China are fascinating, but what touched me most is her passion, courage and determination. Feeling disillusioned by the ‘new China’ and horrified by what she saw during her first research journey of the damage caused by the construction of the dam, the project became her personal quest to reconnect with her roots, heritage and culture. And the result is an admirable achievement that she should be very proud of.

Here is a video of a symposium given by Yan in 2012 about her work:


Yan Preston – Land / Water Symposium 2012 | Water Image from Land Water on Vimeo.


Daniel Libeskind in London

 London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre

London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre on Holloway Road 


Polish architect Daniel Libeskind was in London during London’s festival of architecture, though he was not here for the festival, instead he was here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre on Holloway Road.

I have never been inside this building previously but I remember seeing it from a vehicle for the first time years ago and was quite baffled by it. Although the facade looks intriguing, it is completely out of place on the aesthetically grim Holloway Road. I had no idea who built it but I was certainly curious.

When I received an email invitation for the event at the Graduation Centre, I jumped at the opportunity to book myself a place before the event was sold out. And as expected it did.


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Daniel Libeskind is a controversial figure in the architectural world because of his unusual credentials and architectural style. His buildings are often bold, imposing, asymmetric with jagged edges and sharp angles, and most of the time, they don’t seem to be in harmony with their surroundings at all!

At the talk, I learned that he was a professional musician before he became an architect and his wife (and business partner) supported him until he got his first major commission after winning the competition for Berlin’s new Jewish Museum in 1989. Libeskind was already 53 then and the building took 10 years to complete.

I visited the museum in Berlin a few years ago and I had mixed feelings about it. I didn’t like the facade/exterior very much, but I thought some of the architectural space inside was brilliantly designed. However, the overall result was not very consistent, not sure if it Libeskind could be entirely responsible for this because from the talk, I got the impression that he had issue with the museum’s curation and exhibit formats.

In my opinion, the London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre is a more successful design, probably due to its smaller size and more creative freedom. Upon completion, the Graduate Centre has won many accolades including the RIBA prize in 2004, and the Jeu d’Esprit award 2005.


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Berlin’s Jewish Museum


Although I don’t consider myself a big fan of Liberskind‘s architecture, I found his talk very interesting. He seems charismatic, down-to-earth, funny and unconventional. He was able to handle the negative comments/ questions very well and was not at all bothered by them. He did not stop praising his wife for her organisation skills and support, and he explained the reason why he refused to work in China for years (until recently) even though many international renowned architects have all left their marks there. His reasons were partly based on ethical grounds, and partly due to the country’s poor building regulations and requirements (although he did not explain why he has changed his mind).


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Daniel Liberskind


After the talk, I realised that even for an architect, it is necessary to be convincing, and possesses the ability to deal with politics, crises and most of all, people. Despite the constant criticism from architecture critics, Liberskind continues to thrive, I wonder if it has something to do with his perseverance and people/management skills? Whatever the reason behind his success, he will continue to be in the limelight especially with this year’s opening of the new World Trade Centre in New York and various other major projects that are being constructed around the world. The critics can continue to criticise, but Liberskind is definitely here to stay.


Japanese cultural events in London

Being one of the most multicultural and diverse cities in the world, it is easy to find different arts and cultural events in London including many Asian-related ones.

Since June I have attended several Japanese cultural events which offer a glimpse of the past, current and future arts scene in Japan. As someone who sources from different parts of Asia, it is not just the designs that matter, but understanding the culture, people and habits is equally important to what I do.

Firstly, I went to see a new play “Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich” by Japan’s most exciting theatre director, Toshiki Okada at the LIFT festival. Interestingly, the play was shown at Artsdepot in North Finchley, which is a very ‘off’ West end theatre location!

Okada founded the company, chelfitsch in 1997, and the name is the baby-like disarticulation of the English word “selfish.” It is meant to evoke the social and cultural characteristics of today’s Japan, not least of Tokyo.


A clip of the play on Youtube (with commentary in Italian)


Set in a typical Japanese convenience store (where I spent most of my pastime when I am in Japan), the play takes a darkly humorous glance at Japanese consumerism through slacker language, meditative movement accompanied by J-pop and J. S. Bach. Okada‘s theatrical language is unique, bizarre and its intentional sluggishness is probably not be everyone’s cup of tea (judging from the audience’s reactions).

I am not sure if it was due to the language or subtitle issue, but I felt that something was lost in translation. There were some humourous and capitivating moments but there were also confusing and boring moments. I thought the concept sounded better on paper but the play somewhat failed to deliver what it promised.


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Seiichi Hayashi in conversation with Ryan Holmberg


Seiichi Hayashi is a legendary illustrator and manga artist in Japan, so I was excited when I found out the artist was in town to talk about his work. The talk with Dr Ryan Holmberg (an art and comics historian) took place at Japan Foundation and it was as expected, a sold out event!

In Japan, Hayashi is most famous for his illustrations feauring a young girl in kimono (see below) for Lotte‘s Koume plum candies, which debuted in 1974 and are being used 40 years later! He has been a leading figure in the avant-garde cultural scene of late 1960s and early 1970s Tokyo, and was a regular contribuor to the iconic manga magazine Garo.


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Lotte’s Koume candies, available at the Japan centre in Piccadilly


It was interesting to hear the artist talked about his previous projects, spanning from illustrations, comics, animations to art etc. Yet what struck me most was when Hayashi said that he doesn’t like to repeat himself, so he is always exploring new territories. And this I think is the most crucial mindset for any one who in the creative industry (to break boundaries and test new grounds), despite how old or successful you are.


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Macoto Murayama’s talk at the Japan Foundation


The second event I attended at the Japan Foundation was a talk by a young Japanese digital artitst, Macoto Murayama. Murayama first studied architecture before switching to design and information systems.

Murayama‘s passion for plants, traditional botantical illustrations and 3-d graphics has allowed the artist to develop work that is truly unique and beautiful. His detailed dissections of flowers and plants in digital format are not so different from architect’s blue prints of buildings. Interestly, the artist does not rely solely on technology during his design process, he actually begins the process by using traditional methods like dissecting and sketching (see video below).


An interesting behind-the-scene video of the artist’s design process by Autodesk in San Francisco


Murayama‘s work reveals what can be achieved with digital technology and the possibilities of adopting and applying it in other fields. Murayama spent six months of 2013 living and working at Metal Culture in Southend-on-Sea working on UK indegenous flowers. Now the results are being presented at a new exhibition, “Botech Compositions: New work by Macoto Muryama in Metal Culture’s Liverpool base, Edge Hil Station for the first time in the UK. The exhibition is part of the Liverpool Biennale and will be on display until 26th October.


Macoto Murayama and Lenta, “Botech Composition-1” by Frantic Gallery & Abandoned Audio