by Manu SharmaAug 25, 2023
The London studio of innovation designer Scarlett Yang is filled with curious translucent prototypes, tinted in a spectrum of colours from vibrant pink to algae green. They are made from a liquid mix of algae and silk proteins, pushed through the nozzle of a 3D printer or cast into moulds designed by 3D modelling. The organic material looks and behaves similarly to plastic but is biodegradable. It’s the result of craft tinkering, lab experimentation, digital modelling, and technological manipulation.
Yang has a background in both fashion design and engineering; she treats material like programmable software with properties that can respond to their purpose and surroundings. Skeletal garments hang on rails around the studio, resembling shells, lace and leaf structures—half familiar from nature and half futuristic. We met to discuss her work, its applications, and the potential of adaptive materials.
Riya Patel: What led you to working with biomaterials?
Scarlett Yang: I am interested in materials generally, and changing the way we perceive them. I had the opportunity to work in an innovation lab in Amsterdam, in late 2018. I was there in a residency for five months and that was the first time I became aware of this whole world of making, researching, experimenting, and applying biotech.
Riya: What was your background prior to that?
Scarlett: Design. I did my degree in fashion womenswear at Central Saint Martin’s. I was heavily into digital processes. A lot of 3D printing, 3D-modelling and programming algorithms for creative purposes. From that point I started to get invested in this idea of incorporating biotech into my work. I have a background in design engineering too. So my practice is all about bringing this scientific and technological knowledge into the art.
Riya: What have you experimented with so far?
Scarlett: In the beginning I was mostly experimenting with extracting algae from seaweed to produce different colours and textures. Using algae from different lakes and oceans. Also silk protein extraction taken from cocoons which are usually considered waste in silk manufacturing. I have played with bacteria and wood as well. Making colours from natural origins. All of them are somehow incorporated with digital tech. By 3D printing with it or making a simulation of how the material performs. A lot of them are digitally enhanced.
Riya: What do you find most exciting about working with these materials?
Scarlett: The algae and silk combination was a project I did almost three years ago, and I have done so much more after that. But the principle is similar. With a lot of biomaterials you can engineer the properties. Say if I want to make this material into a couture dress then I can make it softer. Or a harder one that’s more sculptural. It’s all modifiable. All of these materials you can pick and choose, blend and collide. There is a perception that naturally made colours have to be nude or beige, for example. But you can do so much more.
Riya: Can you explain a bit about your process?
Scarlett: I have made some samples and prototypes using robotics. Where I have needed to be more precise, I use 3D printing a lot more. A syringe to really treat the material accurately. For a dress that we want to be really organic, we can use lots of different techniques. Like CNC-milling which is often used in furniture and architecture. It’s sustainable because it is efficient. It saves a lot of material, time and energy.
Riya: How much do the digital nature and the hands-on aspects of your work influence each other?
Scarlett: They complement each other. And they both have their pros and cons. When I am crafting a prototype and doing design research I might realise a step of the process might be improved by digital enhancement—to make it better or quicker. Say we want to predict how this material will warp. Or manage stress and weight. This is achieved more efficiently by rendering it, programming it to try and work out the physics. Visualisations also help us predict. But we need the physical input to even get to that stage. So it’s interwoven. In one case, the pattern and shape might be created digitally first and then the liquid was cast in a mould. We had the origin of the pattern on the computer first and we could play with it.
Riya: Where has your work been applied?
Scarlett: I have worked with luxury fashion brands but not really on an entire dress because it would be absolutely so expensive. Last year I did a project with Rolls-Royce—an artist collaboration and also a design strategy. That has been applied in the automotive industry, both the digital and physical aspects. It’s still ongoing but the initial stage has been shown. I have also made a performative experiment for the Tropenmuseum in the Netherlands—a gown that decomposes over the course of the exhibition and will be documented in real time. The documentation will become a piece of work in itself that has both artistic and research value.
Riya: How does it decompose and on what timescale?
Scarlett: It depends. That as well is engineerable. Because we want the decomposition to be very dramatic and visible in this case, the material will be pure with no coating. It will react to humidity and temperature. But in other pieces it could be affected by human presence, the number of people in the room. We can put robotic sensors and a lot of tech into the whole experience.
Riya: What else could we programme materials to do?
Scarlett: The same technique could be applied with scent. I did a project like this with Paco Rabanne, a French perfume brand. Among the luxury brands there's an entire pool of knowledge emerging in terms of engineering colour, shape, rigidity, usage, and durability into different types of products. A lot of this is in conversation.
Riya: Are adaptive materials the future? Are they leading to more responsible use?
Scarlett: Yes, the change is already underway. Materials that can be programmable and customisable. It’s not just about the product though, it’s the entire chain. To get to this material there was the sourcing, the extracting, the colouring, making the shape, coating it, predicting using 3D-modelling. There are so many steps. The information and data behind it could also be consumed as part of the product. That could also be a moment of realisation. Challenge the current mindset, and show that circularity and sustainable invention isn’t just about an end product. What if you could see the whole system and not just the end?
Riya: You draw on various skill sets and fields of knowledge to create your work. Is wider collaboration the key to problem solving?
Scarlett: Yes. It’s about first understanding each other's language. How can a designer and engineer understand each other? You need some sort of bridge. Either we learn each other’s disciplines so we can talk. Or find new structures of collaboration. Designers also need to know how things are manufactured. Students would just purchase material not knowing what it’s made of and doing what they are told, or what it can do. It’s time for people to really look at it and say: What’s inside this? Is there anything I can modify?
Riya: Why isn’t there more collaboration across industries and fields?
Scarlett: In industry it’s really difficult for scientists and engineers to understand the value of aesthetics and how design decisions are made. But information is a lot more transparent now, we are living in a time of open-source and being able to ask AI to find anything that’s online. I am really interested to see what will come of removing these barriers and it being easier to find new areas of knowledge.