The designs of Dutch-Chinese Studio Hongjie Yang explore the divide between the natural and man-made world. Yang’s miniature, lab-made vases are crafted from human cell tissue, drawing attention to the possibilities of technology, and reshape notions of materiality in design.
His project ‘Semi-Human Vase’ presents human cells growing in a vase-shape on a 3D platform. “Treating human cells as material in this way, to propagate into a designed form represents a new, if unsettling, frontier,” explains the designer. ‘Semi-Human Delft Blue’ is a continuation of this first project, comprising three new lab-made vases: 3D-printed biodegradable scaffolds cultured with HeLa cells, and stained with a protein-dye to create their blue appearance. HeLa cells, also known as immortal cells, are the cells commonly used in scientific research; the cell line and name was derived from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who passed away from cervical cancer in the 1950s. Lacks’ cervical cancer cells are immortal, meaning they will divide again and again—and have thus been used extensively for remarkable breakthroughs in medical history. Delft blue comes from Delftware or Delft pottery, the famed blue and white pottery that comes from Delft in the Netherlands, where Yang is from.
By using the cells in his work, Yang approaches design as a kind of conceptual parallel “to the medical production of replacement body parts. The result is intended to evoke an experience of the sublime—both the awe and the antipathy—that arises when we encounter ‘ourselves’, in a wholly different format,” explains the artist in his statement. By combining personal experience with technological possibility, Yang “continues to ascend towards a new notion of craft customization, where we can create objects genetically identical to the owner.” A third work of note is ‘The Post Natural Arctic’, a mixed-media project that fuses art and design to comment upon the issue of climate destabilization as a result of human actions. Like the aforementioned vases, this work is made from living human cells, and also consists of a 3D printed garden planted with micro-algae. “As technological innovation morphs our traditional understanding of nature,” he says, “the distinction between the ‘made’ and the ‘born’ disintegrates.”