Organic form in the work of Nan Nan Liu

Goldsmiths' Company Curator Dr Dora Thornton explores the enchanting and contemplative power of Nan Nan's work, with mastery over an unexpected material

Nan Nan is best known for her innovative, graceful sculptures which translate flowing organic form into silver. Her distinctive style and meticulous technique developed in her second year at the RCA, when she started looking closely at tree rings for inspiration. She turned to paper as the most readily-available natural material which would allow her to render the concentric circles which record a tree’s growth and biography. “At the time, paper was the most approachable material to work with. I always liked minimalist art. Different types of white paper have different tones of whiteness, so I started to build the different whites together to enhance that subtlety."

Her tutor at university, Alistair MacCallum, encouraged her work in paper. The unexpected organic forms that she was able to create, built up in layers bonded with strong glue, appealed to her and led her to experiment in different weights and grades of paper. She loved exploring the very special surface of the bonded ridges and wanted to translate both form and texture into metal. She also experimented with pencilling in colour, preferring this to using paper which had already been coloured, hand colouring the layers with pencils. 

Nan Nan Liu, Bread Basket, 2016

Her work as a silversmith is exquisitely built up in graduated layers of silver, like her oyster box of 2012 in the Company’s Collection, or soldered from flowing forms of silver wire, like our specially-commissioned bread basket from 2016 for the exhibition, Made For the Table. The sense of movement in this piece plays on the unpredictable forms that water can take and the emotional response it can evoke. Nan Nan took a series of photographs of moving water on which to base her design. Initially she worked by layering paper to create three-dimensional forms, then built up single layers of silver in an organic manner, allowing the form to move and breathe. It is a lovely piece to handle, as you discover that it rocks gently when you put it down,  but settles into its own perfect balance. 

Nan Nan Liu, Oyster Box, 2012, Goldsmiths' Company Collection

When I asked Nan Nan if she still had the paper model for our piece, she generously offered it to us as a gift to the Collection and we arranged for her to bring it in at the end of lockdown. I took a happy photograph for the record of her holding it on the steps of Goldsmiths’ Hall. There is no doubt that the exquisitely-made paper form is a work of art in its own right, as well as a document which records her unique way of working. The two pieces together tell us so much more than the silver alone, and the pairing will be particularly valuable both for teaching our apprentices at the Centre and for public display. She tells me she has graduated to wire for her models: “I now use different types of wire to build my models, to get an idea of the form I want to achieve… a lot of design is happening during the making.” That is something which has come with confidence and experience,  but the fascination with paper remains in her jewellery.

Nan Nan presents her paper model of the Bread Basket

Nan Nan has used the same technique of layered paper to design graceful bracelets in silver and gold wire which flow around the wrist—we were delighted to be able to give one as a present to Georgia Powell in 2018, when she left the curatorial team in Goldsmiths’ Hall. Since then, however, Nan Nan has started using paper as the medium rather than the model. And the results are stunning. James Robinson, Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum, describes the effect that one of Nan Nan’s paper brooches had on him when he first saw it at Collect:  

 “I find Nan Nan Liu’s works as mesmerising as she intends them to be.  She speaks of her observation of water, its unpredictability and its emotional pull and of how she translates these qualities, like an alchemist, into tangible shapes built of ripples within ripples. This gives even her small works of jewellery a certain contemplative power that is transfixing. I really knew I had to have it when I held it.  The paper gives it a lightness that is counterpoised by the silver mounts and pins which makes it a positive pleasure to handle as well as to wear or to contemplate.” 

Nan Nan Liu, Paper Brooch

James comes to jewellery with an educated eye, though he explains that “I’m not an avid jewellery wearer.  In fact, apart from a brief New Romantic flirtation with diamanté in the early 1980s and a gold stick-pin of a fox head with emeralds for eyes which I wear now, I’ve had very little experience of wearing jewellery at all.”  He bought Nan Nan’s piece with a particular suit in mind, “my ‘Filthy Lucre’ suit from Richard James.  It’s dark blue with wavering pin-stripes of acidic green and the brooch just demanded to be bought for it.” The brooch looks as if it has grown from the suit on which it is worn. Nan-Nan’s choice of colour range is deliberate: “I felt yellow/green represents life/ living… that's how I started with those two shades, but there are 5-7 different green and yellow in one brooch.” 


Nan Nan Liu, Paper Brooch

Lockdown brought special challenges. She composes music every day; every morning she Facetimes her mother in China and they meditate together. Each day ends with yoga. The silversmithing demands have continued, but Nan Nan tells me that she is currently developing her range of paper jewellery, testing colour ranges beyond the yellow-to-green spectrum which she has so far used. She wants to explore paper necklaces and how to combine paper and precious metals.  All she needs now is the time to get started. It will be wonderful to see how she continues to invent organic, tactile pieces which take us to the heart of her practice as a maker; to the place where all her creative work begins.