In today’s world we permanently live under the seduction of glossy social feeds made of knives slicing soaps, jellies, sponges and other malleable materials, painted nails diving into sticky slimes, and pleasing monologues made by tapping, scratching and whispering close-up to a microphone surface –  technically their name is ASMR and they do wonders to fall asleep – providing our brains with a daily amount of satisfying sensations.  All these phenomena are vehicles of a sensual aesthetic that constantly stimulates us by challenging our perceptions and frustrating our touch; but at the end of it all, are we sure that we are still able to distinguish what is “real” from what is purely digital? Judging from the work of Lucy Hardcastle, we cannot take the answer for granted.

Lucy is a 26 years old interdisciplinary designer and artist –  but she prefers to think of herself more as a digital craftsman –  who runs a studio in London specialized in creating original unique visual experiences by using CGI, digital rendering and glass blowing. The concept at the basis of her experimental pieces is that there is so much room still left to discover for computer graphic that it can go beyond just simply replicating the world as it is to create new, multidimensional, full satisfactory realities. Constantly making viewers question what they are looking at, and also making them eager to touch and feel what will be forever out of their reach, Lucy Hardcastle aims at helping people being more conscious of the tension between the virtual and the physical realm, and to make them fully aware of one switching to the other.

It all began with fashion posters and magazines covering up her teenage bedroom, and especially with the fascination for that kind of hedonistic fantasy that glamour imaginaries convey. Later on, when she was studying textile design at Chelsea College of Art & Design, she began to experiment with self-taught computer-modeling technologies and to produce rendered images showing tactile textures and hyperrealistic 3D shapes. Then, following her craftsman soul, she turned to produce physical objects resembling digital images, testing human possibility to reach perfection through handcraft. One of the impressive outcomes of this research are the Phygital Objects: some commissioned glass-made sculptures which tricks senses with their soft, ethereal appeal.

Always asking herself what can we do to deal with the vanishing difference between the fake and the true, more recently she collaborated with the photographer Ryan Hopkinson to realize some images exploring the movement the glass has. Not long after this project, she was asked by Chanel to represent the fragrance within a globally accessible virtual reality space. The result was Intangible Matter, a digital journey into deconstructed scientific and emotive components of Chanel N°5. In the meantime, Lucy continued to create also physical object: one of her last work is Qualia, a responsive curved surface pushing the boundaries of what an interface could be. In it, glass left behind its status of passive medium to acquire conductive qualities. Its sensuous surface reacts at hands pressure with generative abstract patterns to enhance user’s tactile experience.

Federica Fontana: You began to use VR tech, 3D rendering softwares, CGI, Cinema 4D as an undergraduate: what made you turn from textile design to experimenting with these technologies? Which potential have you seen in them?

Lucy Hardcastle:  I saw a new digital revolution appearing within the craft and design world, the textile industry is steeped in tradition, and I felt like the digital print market in particular was missing out on all the new digital applications. Textiles became just one of my mediums, but through those different applications I saw the potential to change how we see the digital world, and our own perception of the real world.

 Federica Fontana: Since you were a student you have collaborated with several brands, most in fashion and luxury, like Chanel, Levi’s, Uniqlo, Alexander Wang. In Kairos description on your website, you state that “ The ultimate luxury product is not an object but an aura”: is this the kind of approach that guides you dealing with these customers? Are there any differences between the approach you adopt with big brands and in your own artistic creations?

Lucy Hardcastle: I always say that I want to be commissioned based on creating an emotion, atmosphere or feeling as opposed to a specific visual, even though there’s a clear aesthetic running through my work. I don’t necessarily consider the customer as individuals within my creative process, but more of what can a person get out of what I’m creating, hence why I’m drawn to experiential and interactive design. I think the main difference in approach between brands and my personal research projects is considering the intended agenda of the outcome, what is the intention of its existence and what’s the message behind it.

Federica Fontana: Intangible Matter – the work you made for Chanel n5 Fifth Sense project – is a digital interactive experience, kind of a video game. Could you describe this project to us in details?

Lucy Hardcastle: Intangible Matter was my first venture into interaction design and is one of my favorite projects. It was all about showing the potential of digital storytelling and tech collaboration to make the invisible become visible. I was asked to make a personal response to scent within a digital space, I chose to create a piece where people could build upon their own memories and relationships with fragrance through responsive visuals. The site the project exists on is intended to be globally accessible, we were asking the design question of how immersive can we make a website? In order to make it fast and accessible we used WebGL coding, which speaks to a user’s devices graphics card, we wanted to make the desktop and mobile user experience as similar as possible.

What was really exciting about this brief was that scent is one of the senses that you can’t see, there are no rules of how to represent it, so it was a really interesting challenge to visualize that. Each space within the interactive website is intended to represent a physical process of fragrance and an emotive concept of self-discovery. The research was divided so that one part of the concept was grounded in factual research, and the other part was more about artistic licence and creating something poetic. We also spent time considering what makes a successful computer game, their reward systems and the importance of sound design, as what we created had a similar structure.I love the sound design we implemented for each space, I wanted to create background music that you could listen to for hours, or use the website as a computer screensaver, I still have the music in my head all the time.

Through its design, I wanted to give the user a sense of ownership by providing choice to the user journey, which is something I think is critical for interaction design. Coming from an artist’s perspective, the aim wasn’t to try and communicate a personal experience I’d had with fragrance, but more to propose future experience patterns. Also, I wanted to provide a digital space where meaning could be applied by the user to make the reality of their relationship, in this case, with scent richer, by using digital textures and materials that created a relatable sensorial journey from what we already know of in the real world.

 Federica Fontana: Apart from recalling synesthesia, your works always make me think about visual satisfactory videos one could find on Instagram or Youtube (i.e slimes, kinetic sand etc.). Has this phenomenon something to do with – or does it have some influence on your researches?

Lucy Hardcastle: I have researched these kinds of phenomena in my work and they definitely have an influence on me, it’s also great to see people within the science world are taking notice and writing papers around these themes. I truly see the way we communicate with these tactile materials online as an outcome of the lack of tactility in our lives, we have to ask, why are we choosing to watch these rather than participating ourselves. I think it’s definitely connected to a digital sense of comfort and a solitary desire to relinquish sensory control, there is a reason why we’d prefer to watch than ‘do’, it almost breaks the simulation of it.

 Federica Fontana: Many of your projects are focusing on glass, both on its digital rendering and its hand-blown physicality. In which way this material is interesting to you and what is the role of craftsmanship in your practice?

Lucy Hardcastle: Craftsmanship very much feels key to my practice whether I’m making work on a computer or with glass-blowing, I see my practice as a way to be a digital craftsman. There is a clear difference between the digital side where everything is calculated and controlled, compared to the physical side with the challenges of glass blowing, it’s this organic, at times uncontrollable liquid to solid, I love the spontaneity of it along with the training required. Both of these processes connect to human curiosity, play and satisfaction, which is perhaps the reasons we’re drawn to screens in the first place.

Federica Fontana: Looking at your body of work It’s clear that your pieces are evolving into more and more interactive and immersive. Which is the role sound is playing in this process?

Lucy Hardcastle: Sound plays a huge role, if you consider what the body’s aware of when it’s in still or rest mode, it would likely consist of spacial awareness, sight, sound, smell and touch. When making work that’s limited to something that needs to be accessible through a screen, sound becomes something very key in providing a layer of immersion. In life we never hear silence, even when our mind believes we’re in silence, therefore having just a base reverberation is going to instantly set a tone to the environment you want to create, it doesn’t have to be a constant “song and dance”. I really enjoy considering the sound design for different projects, from base hums to sound bites for objects and interactions.

Federica Fontana: Last September you’ve given a talk at V&A for the London Design Week in which you spoke about designing for the senses. What do you think the future developments of interfaces will be? Is Qualia tracing a new direction in this sense?

Lucy Hardcastle:  I think the future developments of interfaces will be about incorporating more senses, and using technology, not just in a personal setting, to create multi-layered stories. Touch is obviously a huge part of my work, and I think there’s so much to learn about our skin, our largest organ, acting as a receptive landscape. Skin is so nuanced in its reactions to natural elements, environmental circumstances and psychic fields, it serves as a barometer for physical psychological well-being. It goes far beyond what our fingertips are exposed to. To me Qualia represents the potential of at least working in tandem if not decentralising the predominance of visual sense, we don’t intend for this to be restrained to touch either but multiple senses and stimulus.

Federica Fontana: You have exhibited your work only in collective shows so far: at the Chelsea 10 Alumni Show in 2015, What’s the Matter exhibition for Milan Design Week 2016, Anna Kultys gallery and the RCA grad show in 2017. Do you have any solo exhibition scheduled for the near future? What do you think would be the best way/setting to show your pieces?

Lucy Hardcastle: I don’t have a solo exhibition planned as of yet, but I’d love to create some physical pieces in the next coming year that are explorative on my own terms, to make for the sake of making. Over the next year I can predict I’ll be working on more projects created for specific spaces, that are able to be immersive in some way. I also enjoy examining the fact that we live in a world where the documentation of something is becoming more important than observing a physical object, so that’s something I’d like to explore with a show. I know I want to create work beyond a traditional gallery setting, such as public or consumer spaces.