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Laurence Lek

Laurence Lek







Lawrence Lek

Designer in Residence 2012

Lawrence Lek is an architect and sculptor who investigates processes of natural growth and industrial fabrication through sculptural objects and environments. His work uses modular elements which connect to create larger forms or experiential installations that heighten the visitor’s awareness of the surrounding spaces. Born in Frankfurt to Malaysian-Chinese parents, Lawrence Lek studied architecture at Trinity College, Cambridge and at the Architectural Association where he graduated in 2008. He worked with Ken Yeang in Malaysia and Foster + Partners in London before founding his studio in 2011.

For his residency Lawrence continued working with modular elements, creating Unlimited Edition where bent-plywood modules combine to form objects and environments including a pavilion and a chair. During the design process, Lawrence made numerous maquettes in paper and thin plywood to experiment with form before moving to full size pieces. Combining digital design techniques such as computer controlled (CNC) routing and laser cutting with hand assembly, Lawrence can easily adapt the modules to fit the purpose. Each plywood module is soaked in water before it is bent and held in place while it dries. Working with the inherent symmetry of the material, which bends along the grain of the wood, allowed Lawrence to achieve consistent modules. When combined they create unexpected forms, spaces and usable objects which invite users to form individual responses to the new environment.

When did you first become aware of – and interested in – design?

When I was growing up I would draw aeroplanes every day; not a particular model, but more a series of ideal type, each one improving on the last. The subconscious need to improve on whatever already exists in the world comes about naturally, and forms the essence of design. It was only much later that I became aware of design as a subject distinct from just trying to perfect a series of drawings.

Why did you decide to study design and how has your education influenced your work?

The choice to study design (or in my case, architecture) came from the desire to turn these dreams into reality, to experiment with three-dimensional space, and to share my work with a wider audience. When I started, it was about making individual beautiful objects; now I'm more interested in creating systems to play with, a material language based on modules and elements that interact to produce something unexpected.

What was the influence of your design education on your work?

Education gives you the time, space and support to crystallise your ideas – although it takes a while to realise that. My undergraduate studies emphasised the history and theory of design and its relationship to culture and artistic practice. It took a long time for somebody like me to reconcile these abstract concepts with the desire to work with real form. It was only when I started studying with Shin Egashira at the Architectural Association that I began to invent my own way of doing things. However, I'm grateful for this long process as it allowed me to balance expressive invention with critical discourse and judgment.

When and why did you start working with plywood?

My material choices are made out of necessity. Before I started working with plywood, I was constructing scale models from whatever was available – paper, cardboard packets, playing cards, and even business cards. I found that plywood had the right combination of strength and flexibility for the shapes that I wanted to create, and lent itself to the kinds of trial-and-error experiments with fabrication, cutting, bending and forming that I was interested in.

What / Who inspires you?

I have always been fascinated by nomadic structures – there is something inherently appealing about how the human body relates to tents, domes, boats, and aeroplanes. Aeroplanes are particularly important to me because of the complex associations they embody – the relationship between external form and internal space, beauty and function, and industrialised processes and organic flows.

I'm also fascinated by how the laws of energy and economy that govern the natural world create a spectacular variety of both animal and plant forms. I try to translate that into my work by creating a diverse range of objects from a controlled palette of modular elements.

How would you describe your approach to design?

Intuitive play mixed with systematic judgement.

How important is process in the making of your work?

Since my projects involve inventing a material system that is applied to several objects, the process of moving from idea to finished project is incredibly important. However, once the work is complete, I want projects to take on a life of their own, independent from the process of making them. If you are encountering the work for the first time, it should be like being in nature – you shouldn't have to know everything about evolution to appreciate what is right there in front of you.

How important is the story behind the work?

While the story is important to me and my own memories, I'm more interested in how people perceive and interact with the work. It's like a three-dimensional Rorschach inkblot test, where everybody offers their own interpretation based on their interests, desires and beliefs.

Which of your early projects was most important in defining your approach to work?

My 'Pod' project during my final year at the AA was an inhabitable sculpture that investigated the way individuals relate to an object that appears simultaneously natural and artificial. The modular design contrasts a rigid and technical structure, held stable by the balancing tensions of its interwoven components, with the warmer and more natural materials of canvas and wood. The project was the first time I had been able to combine my interests in sculpture, design and architecture through a full-sized installation, which forms the core of my work today.

How did your project for Designers in Residence develop?

“Unlimited Edition?, my Designers in Residence project, continues my investigations into processes of natural growth and industrial fabrication. By focusing on the design of a range of simple plywood modules, I have developed a system of components that can be built up into geometrically complex assemblies.

For the exhibition at the Design Museum, I constructed a pavilion and a set of furniture from my family of modules. During the exhibition I will be holding workshops to develop the system further, and will use the modular nature of the installation to incorporate new components and fittings. This environment of transportable objects will become a sort of world-within-a-world for people to inhabit.

How do see your practice developing following the residency? What are your goals as a designer?

The residency has given me the space and support to develop my prototypes into a finished project, and to think about how my work relates to the public. Recently, I have opened my studio in the White Building, a new arts centre across the canal from the Olympic Park. After the residency I will try to bring the project into an urban setting, to enable people to have a direct influence on the city, and to actively participate in its transformation. I imagine these modules as a way for people to grow their own environments - to practice, as Brian Eno puts it, 'gardening, not architecture'.

Where do you see your work fitting with other designers / design movements / broader design discourse?

My work is part of a much larger global movement that celebrates the expressive potential of the design tools that we have today. Over the past few decades, network communication technology and interactive media have developed at a much faster rate than any other field of design. Like many others who make physical objects, I'm trying to come to terms with how to bring my work into this new environment, without simply returning to an obsession with craftsmanship.

The idea of the “Unlimited Edition? is to combine the two modes of production we have today: between the digitally-enabled artisan and the industrialised assembly line. Like Buckminster Fuller and others who emphasize the system over the object, I believe design has the potential to dissolve the boundaries between individuals, society, and their collective environments.

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