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Pao Hui Kao: At the Heart of the Material

Mar 17, 2023

Last fall, Pao Hui Kao spoke with Oscar Duboÿ for our A/W 2022 issue: TLmag38: Origin. She is currently showing a selection of work, including pieces from the Original Paper Pleats series and the Urushi Paper Pleats series, as part of the exhibition, “Interlude”, at Spazio Nobile Gallery.

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Text by Oscar Duboÿ

Pao Hui Kao tells that when she was a student in Taiwan, the Design Academy Eindhoven topped the list of most desirable schools for budding young Asian designers. More open, more experimental, cooler: the famous university, through whose doors have passed Lex Pott, Sabine Marcelis, Wieki Somers and so many others, had everything to seduce the young Pao, who was already a bit frustrated by the very academic experience her Bachelor’s in Industrial Design had offered. “At university, every project had to be done according to an established order of steps, and everything was very compartmentalised. Week after week, we drew a television, then a car, etc. On the other hand, in Eindhoven we had to organise ourselves independently, and above all we were pushed to feel the material with our hands to better explore it. Individuality is really encouraged in Eindhoven, based on the principle that it is always better to produce something on our own. When I create, I want to use my hands and even when I must rely on machines, I want to be able to master them myself,” she explains.

Considering the sensitivity of the projects exhibited with Spazio Nobile for two years now, Pao Hui Kao was indeed well able to make the most of her Master’s in Contextual Design while tucked away in the Dutch city, without disavowing certain aspects of her Asian education. Much more than a politically correct fad, the issue of environmental impact remains central and sincere in her way of working, which does not tolerate any non-recyclable waste. No chemical glues, no plastics, no resins… the challenge may seem audacious, but the young designer has chosen to turn the constraints into an asset, going so far as to raise it to the rank of a manifesto: “Each project is a question of limitations: how to create from the simplest process possible?” It’s a method that resembles almost a form of asceticism, a return to basics that in particular has led Pao Hui Kao to work with paper: a material so ubiquitous in our daily lives that we hardly notice it. A material that above all must be kept away from water or risk damage, as little Pao was repeatedly reminded when she was a child. All the more reason for the designer to question that belief, by wetting several types of paper once, then twice, then three times and so on depending on the different liquids, until she finds the right elements: “As soon as I can control something, it becomes a tool… like in a laboratory,” she explains. “Thus, it is always the reaction of the material that determines the shape, and I never know what it’s going to look like. Every day I discover something new, and I come to see beauty where others would only see a nasty mistake.”

Here, the beauty is in her two series Paper Pleats Original & Urushi and Urushi Lacquer Leaf, both resulting from this long phase of experimentation to which rice glue and Urushi lacquer have also been added. So many components that are both rudimentary and sophisticated, going back centuries: “It’s true that I work with materials that have been used for a very long time, but I also want to create something contemporary. During my residency in Fukushima in 2019 to learn the Urushi technique, I realised that some artisans have been practicing it for six generations, yet no one turns to them anymore. So how to give this lacquer a new use in order to perpetuate the tradition? By finding a different application for it.” And each application results in a different outcome, sometimes misty like the Paper Pleats, sometimes more solid like the Paper Leafs trays stiffened by successive layers of lacquer. Two complementary facets of a same research that will extend to colour, as Pao Hui Kao has chosen to integrate pigments into her process; first red, then black, and so on, following the course of the 24 seasons that complete the Taiyō reki solar calendar, known for three millennia in Taiwan, China, Japan and Korea.

But of course, it’s not just a matter of colour ranges, as the designer explains: “Each season corresponds to a stage in the course of the year, linked to the environment, the climate and the changing landscapes. In the same way, temporality is central to my practice of Urushi, as I observe how the sunlight and temperature effect each layer of lacquer, particularly the colour.” Hence the idea of the subtle chromatic research, which the artist wanted to connect to the world of Van Gogh: he was Dutch and she lives in Eindhoven; he was inspired by Japanese painting, she learned lacquer work from them… the correlations become entangled and make sense. While the 24 colours emerge under the aegis of the master, the 25th will therefore be that of Pao, created expressly by and for her in order to complete this landscape of paper objects like an ode to Van Gogh. Or how to transcend the most ancestral origins and the heritage of past masters in order to draw from it a totally unexpected and resolutely modern aesthetic, capable of writing a page in the decorative arts of tomorrow, which had remained nested in the very essence of a matter so elementary. Indeed, the designer would be almost surprised: “I think my work actually surprises because it is very subtle: there are a lot of details that emerge as the eye gets closer.” Yes, it seems clear that Eindhoven was the right school for Pao Hui Kao.





Pao Hui Kao, Red Urushi Paper Pleats High & Low, tracing paper, rice glue, Urushi lacquer paint. Photos Studio Magueule, courtesy of the Artist & Spazio Nobile
Pao Hui Kao, Red Urushi Paper Pleats Side Board, tracing paper, rice glue, Urushi lacquer paint. Photo by Studio Magueule, courtesy of the Artist & Spazio Nobile
Pao Hui Kao, Black Urushi Paper Pleats Bench, finalist, Loewe Craft Prize 2022. Collection Galila Barzilai Hollander / Fondation POC, Brussels, BE, Photo by Margaux Nieto, Courtesy of the Artist & Spazio Nobile
Pao Hui Kao, Detail of Red Urushi Paper Pleats High & Low, tracing paper, rice glue, Urushi lacquer paint. Photos Studio Magueule, courtesy of the Artist & Spazio Nobile
Red Urushi Lacquer Leaf, contemplative wall installation, Urushi lacquer painting, unpolished, golden leaf kintsugi and detail, private collection, UK
Red Urushi Lacquer Leaf, contemplative wall installation, Urushi lacquer painting, unpolished, golden leaf kintsugi and detail, private collection, UK

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