Future Seacraft: Christine Lew and Florian Wegenast

In the humid heat of Hong Kong summer, designers Christine Lew and Florian Wegenast meticulously sifted through rocks and sand, inching along the beach and sweating like they were searching for treasure. Passersby gathered into a confused and intrigued audience.

On the beaches a few miles past where sand is cleaned white for tourists, near Aberdeen and Yau Tong, they gathered their materials; shards of colorful plastic and glass, trash shattered and smoothed by the ocean. The beaches they combed through are a disturbing artifact of what offshore dumping has done to the once serene edges of the island and serve as the impetus for their project Future Seacraft.

This project started when they were in London, cleaning plastic from along the Thames and utilizing it to cast elegant tiles that they dubbed “Thames Terrazzo.” When they moved to Hong Kong, they went straight to the shorelines. Each waterfront has an unique collection of debris that is reflected in the ongoing evolution of this project. Christine Lew, a self described Visual Futurist and Material Explorer, works in the space between speculative design, sci-fi and material science. Paired with the pragmatism of Industrial Designer Florian Wegenast, the duo’s work is utilitarian, ethereal, and looks as though it could be ceremonial furnishings for some future world.

While they have a strong visual language and design methodology, Lew emphasized that Future Seacraft, “is really about utilizing local craft techniques and processes and then allowing that to inspire the outcome.” Through collaborating with Hong Kong artists, such as neon artist Wu Chi Ki and metal artist Kong Hing Kau, they experimented with ways to process the ocean debris into useful and attractive materials. Wegenast explained that these collaborations were essential for contextualizing waste material as something familiar yet new. The community that formed out of this project, bridged the heritage of the city with an emerging experimental design culture. Ultimately, this collection of materials is for public use, designed to be an open source library that is shaped by a growing community of practitioners.

To develop their material library, Wegenast and Lew worked with local designer Matthew Hung and Gauu1 Up, a plastic upcycling studio to pulverize, melt, cast and process the plastic they found. Lew talks about the fumes that melting plastic emits and, while removing the plastic from the water is better than letting it breakdown to become microplastics, recycling plastic is often toxic. “There is no perfect solution for processing plastic right now. As designers our role can be to experiment with new ways of using waste and to change the way that the public views these materials.”

After experimenting with low-temperature melting as well as casting the plastic pieces whole into gypsum, they developed luscious marble and terrazzo-style materials. In a collaboration with artist Jasper Dowding, they processed sea glass waste, a much cleaner material. They used one of the hottest kilns in the city,1830 ˚F (999 ˚C), to melt down a blue glass that comes from a soda popular in the 1960’s and made it into dreamy baby blue tiles. Once they processed the waste into usable forms, they approached craftsmen to integrate it into their practice.

From the start, Lew, who communicated mostly in Mandarin, describes being warmly accepted into the expert workspaces and worn studios of some of the oldest and last craftspeople in Hong Kong. This older generation was excited to have young designers show interest in their work and to share their knowledge. Lew was surprised by the interest and notes,“They're very passionate about what they do and they were interested in the challenge of working with materials that they never really saw as something precious.”

Wu Chi Kai, one of the last Neon Artists in Hong Kong worked with them to make lights with these recycled materials. Neons used to be the most popular dazzling signs on the Hong Kong skyline, but since the introduction of LEDs and low-cost, factory-produced alternatives, neon art is dying out. The object Wu Chi Kai made, combined with this new recycled material, glows ominously like a totem of the past and emblem of times to come. The other objects in the collection seem to capture the spirit of the recycled material, at once both futuristic and antique. They worked with Kong Hing Kau, a metal Artist based on the street and known for his craftsmanship, to create screens that act as wall dividers and tables. In another piece they incorporated fabric dyed and sewn in the technique of traditional boat sails to create a room divider.

Lew and Wegenast have shown these pieces in public galleries in both Hong Kong and in mainland China and are committed to making this showcase of these materials accessible to the public. As a global resource and an ongoing portion of this project, they developed an open source upcycling recipe book illustrated by Hong Kong artist Furze Chan.

Lew feels that their role as designers is more to spur an interest in this type of design than to dictate how these materials are used, saying, “It is a critical moment in design where we can help promote this new kind of multidisciplinary thinking and also inject a sense of sustainability into the design conversation.”

Text By Lily Saporta Tagiuri

Images by Florian Wegenast and Christine Lew