Thread Talk With Shan Shan Lim On Being A Multidisciplinary Artist

"Things grow, things flower and things decay, only to end up where it all began."
Photo courtesy of Shan Shan Lim

Thread Talk is a series venturing into a designer’s inner workings and thoughts. Today, we have Shan Shan Lim, a multidisciplinary artist and designer who excels in textile design, art installations, murals, and interior design, just to name a few.

An illustration that captures the transience of nature precisely or a tranquil photograph of lush trees and green foliage, Shan Shan Lim‘s impressive oeuvres connect the audiences to nature, through her eye and brush strokes. “Things grow, things flower and things decay, only to end up where it all began,” shares the Central Saint Martins alumnus on nature being her biggest inspiration.

Born and raised in Malaysia, Lim has a pretty diverse background. She enrolled in a boarding school in India at a young age, and later to the Big Smoke, London for her tertiary education and majored in Textile Art. Her personal experience and relationship with all the cities she’s lived in is, we reckon, why she kept herself open for every opportunity and is constantly exploring herself, her art, and her eponymous studio.

Amidst the highly-anticipated collaboration with Uniqlo Malaysia in tandem with the grand opening at The Exchange TRX, we spoke to Lim on how she weaves her love for nature into her artworks.

You have a very interesting background; tell us how this has inspired you and how that has translated into your work across the years?

I have an unusually vivid memory. I remember the places, people, colours, scents, and images from throughout my life as though it all happened yesterday. These memories weave together to form the tapestry of my work, from the mountains of India to my ancestry home in Malacca, the flower gardens of London, and the colourful plates of a KL hawker centre. My signature style is ever-evolving–subtly absorbing visual cues from the world around me.

The transience of nature, flora especially, is a mainstay in your work. What about them appeals to you?  

I’m inspired by the simplicity of nature. Every impeccable little detail is infused with a simple purpose. Things grow, things flower, and things decay, only to end up where it all began. Life as a human being can be unnecessarily complicated. I keep returning to these motifs because they remind me of our essential nature. We’re all simple at heart.

And just as no two leaves in nature are the same, no two brush strokes will ever be the same.

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What else inspires your work?

Everything in my life finds an outlet in art. Whether it’s the writings of Carl Jung or a painful personal experience, I unconsciously bring it to the canvas. Recently, I’ve been revisiting Enya’s catalogue while working and painting. Her music was a huge part of my formative years so it’s very nostalgic to me. Her sound is otherworldly. 

I’m continually inspired by photos of my grandparents in their old textile shop in Kampung Pantai, Malacca. I also love poring over my late mother’s sketchbooks from her time at Chelsea School of Arts and gaining an insight into her thought processes. She is one of my biggest inspirations in this lifetime. 

Is there a piece of yours, or anyone else’s work, that you hold very dearly?

I recently discovered an old sketch by my late mother–a glasshouse brimming with life in the Kew Gardens in London. It happens to be one of my most favourite places in the world, so seeing my mother’s rendition of it felt like a full-circle moment. We both studied at UAL colleges in London and we both pursued creative careers. She was an incredibly talented artist and graphic designer. I have since framed and hung the sketch in my studio space at home to serve as a reminder of who I am and where I came from.

Photo Courtesy of Shan Shan Lim

I read that your journey in art started way back, but what drew you into textile design and weaving?

I’ve always been drawn to threads. As a child, I’d bring the seams of my dress right up to my eyes and wonder how it was all put together. My interest came to fruition while studying at a boarding school in India. I learnt how Mahatma Gandhi challenged British rule by boycotting their textiles and encouraging people to weave their own khadi cloth. I was living in a nation united by a thread, represented by the spinning wheel on the Indian flag. By the time I had to choose a course at university, textiles resonated with me the most. I kept a picture of Gandhi on my Harris loom to keep me company while I wove for hours on end.

Returning home to Malaysia, I discovered that both my grandparents were textile merchants in Kampung Pantai, Malacca. By the time I was born, they had already retired from the business. Both my grandmothers were also tailors for a living. A part of me likes to believe that the thread runs through my genes. 

To many, turning something you enjoy doing into your profession could be more bane than boon. It’s impressive how you’ve been doing it for years, how do you walk the line between that?

Treading that razor’s edge between art and business has always been extremely challenging. But I’ve gotten much better at it. The most important thing is to keep the artist in me happy, and to keep creating for myself. 

At any given time, I try to have a creatively fulfilling outlet that’s completely unmotivated by business–painting, dancing, free diving, volunteering at my local botanical gardens.

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It’s admirable that your work has an ideal balance of artistic merits and commercial achievement. How did you achieve that?  

Thank you for the kind words. My approach to any project, personal or commercial, is to ensure that it aligns with my vision and fulfils me as a creative. I try not to lead with a commercial mindset. I lead instead with intuition. Above all, seeing my designs come to life in all forms and mediums brings me joy. So I don’t limit myself to a particular medium or industry. If we’re aligned, I say yes.

I love reaching out to other artists and companies to explore how we can elevate each other. Collaboration leads to discovery. The commercial success of any given project simply enables me to keep doing what I love!

How did your recent collaboration with Uniqlo happen? 

I’ve had the idea for a collaboration with Uniqlo brewing at the back of my mind for a while. Last year, they reached out to me via my website and I almost didn’t believe it was real. I got in touch and the rest is history. As my aesthetic aligns with Uniqlo, I was given the creative freedom to truly express myself through the in-store mural and the UTme! collection. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see my signature style come to life on their wall at their new TRX outlet and in their products.

Practising zero waste and consuming sustainable fashion seems like a big part of your personal life. How do you infuse that into your professional work? 

When working with clients, I will always do my best to offer plenty of sustainable options, from the raw materials to the production methods. However, it depends on their budget and priorities at the end of the day. Ultimately, my clients have the final say. If I am working on a personal project, I do my best to ensure the entire process is as sustainable as possible. My mission is to create timeless heirlooms, not trends.

Do you have any new projects planned for the year ahead? What are you working on next?

The Year of the Dragon is supposed to be a year for creativity, purpose and facing challenges head-on. For Shan Shan Lim Studios, that means expanding in every sense of the word. Along with my textile consultation services, I will be creating a library of original SSLS textile swatches.

Whether it’s for interior or fashion, my doors will be open to businesses in any industry. I will also be expanding my line of merchandise to include products for home, apparel and beyond.

Every year, I dedicate some time to giving back to my community. For International Women’s Day ’24 in March, I have partnered with EMAX Beauté, Women’s Aid Organisation and APW Bangsar to organise “Inheritance”, an exhibition featuring Malaysian female artists.

I will also be working on a fundraiser for Rimba Ilmu, University Malaya’s Botanical Gardens, to commemorate their 50th anniversary. Stay tuned!