Taiwanese researcher and designer Pao Hui Kao on turning raw materials into gallery-worthy furniture pieces made for a better future.
Imagination is the ability to offer alternatives to reality. While the form and shape of a design are largely determined by the materials used, creators with an eye on the future are harnessing technology combined with traditional crafts to offer alternatives to existing materials with greater functionality and environmental value.
While a dress can now be made of seaweed, and cars out of plastic, furniture can now also be created simply with tracing paper and water, courtesy of Taiwanese researcher and designer Pao Hui Kao.
Based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, Kao experiments with raw materials, including tracing paper and natural glue made of rice, combined with folding techniques likened to those of Japanese origami, to create abstract thought-provoking furniture pieces that are 100% recyclable.
Her most renowned furniture collection – “Paper Pleats” – comprises a coffee and dining table, stools, shelves, and a ceiling lamp that looks fragile and firm, and dramatic and modest, at the same time.
We catch up with the young visionary to discover how the innovative material came to life, the challenges she encountered, and her take on the ever-evolving relationship between furniture and art.
What prompted you to create furniture pieces with tracing paper and water?
It all began with a small accident when I spilled water on a piece of paper. I was intrigued by how the paper reacted to the water – it wrinkled, and then it stiffened, and that’s when I decided to launch my research on the materials.
The wrinkles and creases demonstrate how fibres in a flat sheet of paper reform when soaked in water – much like the concept of origami. Yet, origami is a craft made by hands, whereas the chemical reaction when paper meets water happens completely naturally. My experiment shows that tracing paper is the most responsive material to water, meaning it is a much stronger and stabler material for durable furniture pieces.
How would you describe the style of your furniture work?
The style of my work represents the personality of the applied material – paper, which is fragile, yet strong. The Paper Pleats series, for instance, showcases the contrast between fragility and strength, while being raw and free-formed.
Is the paper you use recycled? How do you achieve sustainable purposes through your work?
Since my work is mostly wet-folded, how paper reacts to water determines the quality of the final result. Which is why I prefer not to use recycled paper because the fibres they contain are shorter than those of normal paper, which is less responsive to water.
Having said that, I insist on streamlining the making process to lessen the environmental impact. Also, instead of using industrial glue to assemble the pieces, I have innovated a special natural glue for this project that not only facilitates the creasing of wet paper, but also enhances the durability of my work while making sure they are 100% recyclable.
Can you walk us through the design process of your homeware collections? Do you sketch first? Or do you create the silhouette spontaneously while playing with the paper?
I always approach a project by jumping right into material experiments. I tend to feel the materials with my hands and body, and explore the characteristics and potential they possess. Then I mix different ingredients into the materials – as long as they are organic and natural – and see how they react to each other. From there, I make sketches to record the findings from the experiments and then analysis them.
I try not to temper with the details, and to keep the design process as free-flowing as possible. The only restriction I give myself is the dimension of the final object, and let the rest flow naturally. I must say I’m always surprised by the outcome. I’m convinced when you let the materials form and develop in their own ways, the result will be much more unique and enticing.
Any challenges in the making process? And how did you tackle them?
Material experiments are always unpredictable, with failures happening all the time. But a beautiful piece won’t exist without frustrations. Gladly, my intuition towards material always leads to surprising results. My experience tells me as long as I have faith in the materials I use, the outcomes are always astonishing. I would say understanding the material with patience is the key to beautiful work.
Could you name some of your favourite furniture work, and why?
I don’t have a preference, but if I have to pick one, I must say it’d be the creative journey of the “It’s Not A Cloud” collection. It is a series of ceiling light installations that I created in 2018 for Swedish brand Weleda, specifically for its concept stores in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague.
It was my very first paper furniture on an architectural-scale application. By collaborating with the Dutch construction team and an interior design studio, we made an impossible mission possible. Today, the three paper lighting sculptures are still hanging from the ceiling in one of its stores in the Netherlands.
Do you consider yourself more of an artist or designer? What do you think is the key difference between creating furniture and art?
I prefer to keep the definition of my role open for viewers; of course, I can be both or any other roles. It is interesting to see how my cultural background influences the way audiences view my work. Instead of choosing between design and art, I prefer my work to be defined as functional objects, since the function of an art piece only exists when the users approve it.
For example, most people define my “Urushi Paper Bench” collection as an art sculpture at first glance, but it turns into a bench the moment people sit on it. So, for me, art and furniture are two applications that exist at the same time.
Any new collections coming up?
I’m adding colours into my existing paper pieces. In the meantime, I’m also creating new pieces such as lamps and chandeliers, slated to launch in early 2023, so stay tuned.