R. Kelly might have put it best in “I Believe I Can Fly:” “I think about it every night and day/spread my wings and fly away.” Humans have always suffered from wing envy, and kite-making was one of the earliest efforts to get off the ground and into the sky. In the 5th Century BC, Chinese philosopher Mozi created the first known kite, calling it the Wooden Sparrow Hawk. It broke after just one day of use.
But soon after, anthropomorphic heaven-bound kites were used to send prayers to the gods, while others were equipped with shards of glass for fighting competitions. The first airplanes were really just massive manned kites–Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Lawrence Hardgrave and Wild Bill Cody all created wood-framed kites for their experiments. In the Disney musical, Mary Poppins commands hordes of Londoners to “Go Fly a Kite,” promising it will get them high: “When you send it flyin’ up there, all at once you’re lighter than air,” sings the chorus. Nowadays, extreme sports like kitesurfing let riders soar at dangerous speeds and heights.
With the release of the Sailing Ship Kite, Emily Fischer, founder of Brooklyn-based Haptic Lab, builds on this blue-sky tradition. Handmade by Fair Trade artisans in Bali out of bamboo, these ships sail through air, not water. Wind fills the sails of the double-masted boat to send it skyward. Though it looks delicate, bamboo has greater tensile strength than steel, and can shrug off crashes on beaches or grass.
“I spent years researching kite history and traditions,” Fischer tells Co.Design. Kite-making was a hobby of hers while she worked as an architect for four years. After she designed and flew a kite that won second place at the FlyNY Festival, she made a few kites for actor Jason Schwartzman to fly in an Opening Ceremony film, directed by Matt Wolf.
“Then I spent three months traveling in Asia last year, meeting kite artisans and learning from them: how to balance a design, what materials to use, how to tie specific knots,” says Fischer. “When I came home, I assembled my kite-making team.”
Her designs she says, are all “inspired by the golden age of kite-flying that occurred around the turn of the 19th century. There was a sort of ‘space-race’ as inventors, engineers and governments competed to create the first manned flight.” She was compelled to bring her kite-centric view of history into the present. “I wanted to create kites that captured that spirit,” she says. “The only ones I’d ever flown were cheap plastic pieces that fell apart in an afternoon, and I was determined to make something beautiful that would last for years.”
The Sailing Ship is just one of a collection of 17 kite designs that Haptic Lab will debut later this month, made by collaborators all over the country. They use birch kite spars made in Fort Worth, Texas, fabrics cut and sewn by Pennsylvania’s Equinox LTD, custom screenprinting by Gunny+Galloon in Bushwick, and Baltic birch kite spools made by Automata in Long Island City. The line is colorful, whimsical, and fully flyable. Aerodynamic without remote controls or engines and constructed entirely without commercial factory parts or labor, these designs soar.
Fisher also makes more grounded products, like beautiful map blankets. “Haptic refers to the sense of touch, and everything I design is motivated by a deep understanding of that sense,” she says. “What fascinates me is that the haptic sense is the only sense mechanism that can be extended. A cane that safely guides someone down the sidewalk acts like an extension of a limb. The tip of the cane becomes the tip of a finger. Similarly, kites allow us to experience the sense of flying. When you hold the end of a kite line and the kite swoops and dives through the air, your body internalizes that motion.” Mary Poppins knows of what she speaks.