Fusing fashion and chemistry

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Lauren Bowker was studying for a degree in fashion design when a serious illness meant she had to take a break. Once recovered, she decided she wanted to create things that people could use…so she talked her way into the materials chemistry department instead!

Now Lauren is the founder and ‘materials alchemist’ at The Unseen. This design and exploration house is working with the clients like Bentley and Swarovski, using science to create amazing clothing, cosmetics and hair products that respond to the wearer and the environment around them.

Where did you get the idea for The Unseen?

I believe magic is just science that we don’t understand yet, and this is something that we try and promote with The Unseen. I wanted to create a company that would combine science and design, and create things that people could use and hold in their hands.

After my masters, there were PhD projects I could have done, but I didn’t want to stay and do research for research’s sake – so I went back to art and design and why it matters in the real world. When I was starting, there was clear space for a designer who understood science and could apply it creatively.

 

How can chemistry inspire great design?

I am interested in visualising what I cannot understand, and working to capture and explore things that we cannot comprehend when it comes down to language.

With materials chemistry, we have way to visualise lots of different things and make them more understandable. People are afraid of complex data, but when they are presented with things like colour, they respond in a very organic way.

As well as our own products, we work with clients and use our skills to help them visualise things like pain for medical devices, clothing that allows athletes to visualise the muscle groups they are using during exercise, or changes colour to reflect water pollution in different parts of the world. We can use our chemistry in lots of exciting ways.

Who do you work with at The Unseen?

We have seven employees in our business – including business and commercial experts, designers and chemists.

It takes a lot of work to get an idea to market, and that is not something that I could have done alone. I needed to get experienced people to work with me.

It can be difficult because often design and science are like different languages – designers are often very fast, whereas chemists are much more methodical. But when they work together it can produce a really great product.

How do you use science to create new designs and develop new products?

The idea is the easy part. The hard part is making sure that it works when you get it into other people’s hands. No matter how great the design or the idea, we have to have the data to back it up.

For a colour change fabric, we can have the idea in a day, but it can make months of further research and refinement to finish them. To develop the cosmetics can take 6-12 months or even years because we have to make sure it’s safe and works the way it is supposed to. This means testing it for wear, washing formaldehyde, carcinogens and other harmful substances.

This process means that we work on something, send it for testing, and get the results back, work on it some more, test it and repeat it again.

The purpose behind why we do things in science is so important – I would struggle to work on something if I didn’t see an application for it.