Lola Lely is a multidisciplinary artist whose work spans furniture design, textiles and sculptures, and teaching. Born in Vietnam and raised in London, Lola continues to live and work in the city across a range of solo and collaborative projects. She thrives in a landscape of unknown possibilities and allowing her art to unfold as a fluid expression, constantly evolving.
Lola’s work encourages us to consider how objects transform our relationship to the environments we inhabit. From her studio in East London we speak about the subtleties of her craft and the power of staying open to change.
What are some of your artistic influences?
Ethel Mairet’s 1916 book on vegetable dyes really got me going when I developed an interest in natural dying for my work. I was eager to try her recipes using madder root to make the colour red. Red is a notoriously hard colour to achieve naturally. William Morris on the other hand, inspired me to explore the indigo plant in natural dyeing and pigment making. He was one of the first designers of his time to explore this unique plant dye, which when exposed to oxygen makes the most incredible shades of intense blues.
It’s so important to be able to trust and commit to your craft even when there are risks involved. What challenges have you found in working with the unknown?
It’s the practical things like having a structure. When I’m not in the studio I might be travelling for work. There are periods where I’m working relentlessly on a project and it’s really exciting but there are moments where it can seem like I’m not doing very much. Actually, that’s the time that I’m finding my internal direction.
My work is unconventional in the sense that you never know what you will get at the end and there’s no regular income. But I’ve done this for such a long time that if I didn’t have the conviction things were going to be ok, I suppose I would have given up a long time ago. I’m still doing it and I think it’s the sign that this must be what I should be doing.
Can you share a little bit more about some of your current projects and process?
I’m currently working on the second phase of the William Morris residency. This has been a great opportunity to collaborate with a lovely artist called Laura Anderson, a traditional wood carver. We came together with very different skillsets and outlooks, so it has been a fascinating journey. We’re doing an exhibition at the (William Morris) gallery in February with another artist, whose background is in print-making. I’d describe our process as almost like jamming in a band. I’ll work on one aspect and every week we rotate – each person takes it to the next level and puts their mark on it. I think the final outcome is going to be so different from what we’d be able to do as individuals. Hopefully it’s a true collaboration – we’re learning from each other and also adding things to each other’s work.
I’m also working with an illustrator called Nina Chakrabarti on a book project for Rough Trade. The book is based on the William Morris quote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” It’s about inspiration and how to look at things in a different way.
How do you hope this relationship between beauty and function transforms our way of seeing the everyday?
I often don’t design with function in mind. I love simple, functional things but my take is not to do as I’m expected to do. So if I’m asked to design a table, I’m going to think about how people interact with each other. I want to know who is going to use it and why and where it is going to be in a room. The stuff that happens within relationships inspires me to design something that will bring people together in that space or make that space feel different – and hopefully better.
You weave a lot of natural elements into your work. How would you describe your relationship to nature?
When I think about nature I think of it in a philosophical way – as in people’s nature, and the nature of things. I love that there aren’t direct answers and it makes me wonder. When we worked on the William Morris patterns we talked about how nature can be found in things and places that are not necessarily seen as beautiful, like weeds that grow in cracks on the pavement. The stuff that people ignore but actually makes this concrete jungle look better.
Nature doesn’t always appear in my work directly because I do use man-made materials, or I’ll artificially make something look like nature. For example, in some of my marbling work where there are organic patterns.
What would you say has been your most satisfying or fulfilling piece of work so far?
I’m quite a restless person so when I finish a project I’m always thinking about the next thing. I don’t often look back on my work but I do like series of things. I loved the Potluck series – they were really simple shapes but every single one looks different.
I love each series of work because it shows how you can evolve when you use a different material or a different location, it changes its language and all of a sudden that object has a different meaning.
Nature can be found in things and places not necessarily beautiful but that can make this concrete jungle better
It’s also a beautiful reflection of the changing nature of life. Have you received advice that you like to share with others?
I’ve received lots of advice over the years and also acts of kindness from people who have been very open and generous with their time and expertise. My advice is: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. There is nothing wrong with failing.
Also, my natural dying project was initially just me experimenting. When I posted it online, it got picked up and I was twice invited to Morocco to run workshops. So, be open to things. When you are opportunities can come your way.