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  • Portrait by Dan Williams

Lauren Bowker

Emma Love meets Make:Shift speaker Lauren Bowker

There’s perhaps no better example of how science and craft can merge than the work of ‘materials alchemist’ Lauren Bowker, founder of TheUnseen, which integrates chemical technologies into fabrics. It launched earlier this year with Unseen Air, a series of three sculptures showcasing a reactive ink which changes colour with pressure. Bowker had created the compound at Formula One to track the aerodynamics of a car – but decided to use it to demonstrate the unseen turbulence surrounding our bodies: ‘It has such a beautiful colour spectrum – from black to red, green to blue – and I wanted to be able to show that,’ she says.

One sculpture is a winged leather garment that changes when exposed to turbulent air; another, which looks like a beetle, monitors the air throughout the day; the third is an environment chamber (in the Barbican’s travelling Digital Revolution exhibition), which visually interprets live data on solar eclipses and magnetic winds from space. Unseen Air’s success led to a collaboration on a headpiece with Swarovski, where Bowker invented a colour-changing compound this time reacting to heat. After visiting the factory in Austria and testing a series of gemstones, she found one that absorbed and magnified heat from the body.

Swarovski gemstones, T H E U N S E E N, 2014

Far more focused on the practical than the ornamental, Bowker has a particular interest in healthcare. Studying Textile Design for Fashion at Manchester School of Art, she undertook a Royal Society of Arts project finding ways to discourage 16-year-olds from smoking by making a cigarette change colour. ‘I thought it would be great to create something that would bleach or dye your mouth – so if you were at school and had a sneaky fag, you’d be caught.’ Taking a year out when she injured her spine, she decided on her return to study chemistry alongside textile design. ‘That was when I started to use colour and design as a language to interpret what was happening,’ she recalls. ‘If a cigarette can change colour, why can’t textiles?’

She graduated from an MA in Printed Textiles at the RCA three years ago, since then working as a materials consultant for healthcare clients, on colour as a prevention tool. ‘When you have an asthma attack, your body goes through several stages. If the early indicators aren’t picked up, people go straight to thinking they need to go to hospital, but if a compound could detect the early stages – in a scarf or a watch face that changes colour – you’d know you have to use your inhaler.’

So far she has patented compounds responding to seven environmental parameters (heat, friction, UV, pollution, moisture, chemicals and sound) – and just launched a sculpture with an eighth: human magnetism via digital data. She also just opened a shop at Somerset House selling products treated with her technology. ‘A lot of what we’re doing is thought-provoking and conceptual,’ she concludes, ‘but it’s not just about creating a showpiece; we want to change the way materials and products are made.’

Lauren Bowker will speak in Panel Discussion 2 in the Long Space, 4.40-6.10pm, Thursday 20 November


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