Milan Design Week: Home-grown designers make a splash

5 Plexus Lamps by Kiera Lin. -- PHOTO: KIERA LIM
5 Plexus Lamps by Kiera Lin. -- PHOTO: KIERA LIMPHOTOS: KARYN LIM, LES RACONTEURS, OLIVIA LEE, TIFFANY LOY, KIERA LIM
4 Textile Transmutations by Tiffany Loy. -- PHOTO: TIFFANY LOY
4 Textile Transmutations by Tiffany Loy. -- PHOTO: TIFFANY LOYPHOTOS: KARYN LIM, LES RACONTEURS, OLIVIA LEE, TIFFANY LOY, KIERA LIM
3 Instruments Of Beauty (Divine Tools) by Olivia Lee. -- PHOTO: OLIVIA LEE
3 Instruments Of Beauty (Divine Tools) by Olivia Lee. -- PHOTO: OLIVIA LEEPHOTOS: KARYN LIM, LES RACONTEURS, OLIVIA LEE, TIFFANY LOY, KIERA LIM
2 Les Raconteurs (The Storytellers) by Afzal Imram. -- PHOTO: LES RACONTEURS
2 Les Raconteurs (The Storytellers) by Afzal Imram. -- PHOTO: LES RACONTEURSPHOTOS: KARYN LIM, LES RACONTEURS, OLIVIA LEE, TIFFANY LOY, KIERA LIM
1 Transformation Bags by Karyn Lim. -- PHOTO: KARYN LIM
1 Transformation Bags by Karyn Lim. -- PHOTO: KARYN LIMPHOTOS: KARYN LIM, LES RACONTEURS, OLIVIA LEE, TIFFANY LOY, KIERA LIM

Being one of the premier furniture showcases in the world, Milan Design Week may be a tough place to crack for newcomers.

This year's event, which ran from April 14 to 19 in the Italian city, saw hundreds of satellite exhibitions while A-list brands such as Poliform and Kartell showed off new designs.

But among the big names, a collective from Singapore called The Alchemists managed to make a splash with its works. Its exhibition was part of the Triennale di Milano, a prestigious design museum in the city that is also one of the major satellite venues of the main furniture fair.

The Alchemists organisers say 24,000 people visited their show in that time. The showcase was initiated and presented by Industry+ and supported by grants from the DesignSingapore Council.

The exhibition also drew coverage from international and local media, with industrial design magazine Core77 picking five designers from the collection as names to watch.

Both the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and culture magazine Modalita: Demode picked the exhibition as highlights of the Milan Design Week.

The Alchemists comprises 15 local designers, ranging from recent National University of Singapore industrial design graduate Afzal Imram to established names such as Mr Melvin Ong of design studio Desinere.

The works in the show were curated by Stefano Casciani, an Italian editor, industrial consultant and designer, and award-winning Singapore designer Patrick Chia, after the designers attended a three-day lecture and workshop series last year.

The collective's name, The Alchemists, is a nod to the avant-garde Italian movement Studio Alchimia, founded in 1976 by architect Alessandro Guerriero, who was looking to kickstart a tired, cliched design scene. Pivotal figures of the group were Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass Jr, both Italian designers and architects.

Rebelling against what was considered good taste at that time, they used cheaper materials and bright colours and the designs were often irregularly shaped.

Taking cues from the original game-changers, The Alchemists, too, pushed boundaries with interesting techniques and materials. It worked on the theme of transmutation.

For example, designer Hans Tan's Pour side table was made by pouring various coloured resin individually so that they do not mix, while creating a seamless look for the table top.

Aura Tropicale by design studio Outofstock is a pouf-like diffuser made from a repurposed ceramic filter used in filtering exhaust fumes in cars, motorcycles and trucks. Using osmosis, the filter is coloured with green and purple hues, while the scent of lemongrass oil is slowly released when it trickles down the filter.

Mr Chia says the exhibits showed an international audience that Singaporean designers could push boundaries.

"Each designer had his own unique identity, but when it all came together, it was a coherent design language," he says. "The challenge is to go back to Milan and put out something of the same quality for the next few years."

It was also an eye-opener for the younger designers in the team who got a chance to exhibit their works to an international audience.

Ms Olivia Lee, 30, who put on a collection of design tools based on the Golden Ratio, a mathematical principle, says her work resonated with design aficionados who visited the show. She says the visitors complimented the show as "a breath of fresh air and one of the things in Milan that was new and experimental".

She adds: "People noted that it was distinctly Singapore - smart yet humble."

While many of the designers had visited the fair as students, getting to show their own work was a different ballgame.

Mr Afzal, 25, who visited Milan Design Week two years ago, says the highlight was seeing people play with his board game installation.

He adds: "It's given me some confidence to go out and push for projects and to try new things."


Five interesting designs

1 Transformation Bags by Karyn Lim

These flat-packed bags are perfect for anyone worried about not having enough space.

Ms Lim, who is studying industrial design at the National University of Singapore, created them from a semi-flexible membrane made of plywood pieces and fabric. When the bags are filled, they take up various geometric shapes such as a diamond.

2 Les Raconteurs (The Storytellers) by Afzal Imram

Mr Afzal, a recent industrial design graduate from National University of Singapore, based his design on some old drawings unearthed from a dig in Burkina Faso to create a Scrabble-like interactive installation.

Users can line up the blocks, on which the squiggles are printed, to form their own "words".

3 Instruments Of Beauty (Divine Tools) by Olivia Lee

If you need help finding the golden ratio, this industrial designer, a Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design graduate, created nine tools to help you do that. The mathematical principle is said to be the formula for beauty originating from ancient Greece.

Not only are the tools, which include a protractor and ruler, built with the golden ratio, but they also allow the user to apply the golden ratio in their drawings and measurements. They are made with etched and polished brass.

4 Textile Transmutations by Tiffany Loy

Unsexy acrylic is transformed into chic clothing in this design by Ms Loy, who is trained in industrial design and prototyping. Using a heat-setting technique, she used acrylic moulds to create textures on the polyester fabric. She made a dress and a jacket in blue and red.

5 Plexus Lamps by Kiera Lin

These contemporary honeycomb-like lamps, made with materials such as copper and resin, play with the notion of layers. As the light passes through the perforation on the screens, various forms are created. Ms Lin, a recent industrial design graduate from the National University of Singapore, was inspired by traditional Chinese screens.