Designed in Singapore labels take off

Looking for furniture, stationery or accessories with a local flavour has never been easier with the rise of home-grown designs and product labels

From picking up local souvenirs for friends overseas to dressing up your home, there is no shortage of Designed-in-Singapore products to choose from today

At department stores such as Robinsons and Tangs, home-grown brands such as The Little Drom Store - it has a store at School of the Arts Singapore in Zubir Said Drive - are sold alongside internationally sourced merchandise.

End a tour of the National Gallery Singapore by picking up stationery from kuru, a new brand from designer Melvin Ong, carried at Gallery & Co's retail space, which also sells other Singapore designers such as Olivia Lee and lifestyle label Supermama.

Likewise, you can find designs by home-grown brands in furniture and homeware stores - some of which are collaborations between retailers and Singapore design houses.

Recent collections include last year's colourful five-piece furniture range by Lanzavecchia + Wai for Journey East, a furniture store that also carries foreign brands such as Denmark's House Doctor and Ho Chi Minh City-based District Eight Design.


 Jonathan Hee of the label, Meykrs, which has sold more than 2,000 pieces of the Ang Ku Kueh cushion since it was launched in September. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Home-grown furniture brand Scanteak has worked twice with award-winning design collective Outofstock to produce 19 items such as nest tables and sofas.

Singapore design, it seems, is having a moment.

Foreign Policy Design Group creative director Yu Yah-Leng, 43, says there were not many options to choose from five years ago. One of the founders of Gallery & Co, she co-curates products and merchandise for the store.

She says: "As more designers successfully launch their products or gain attention, it inspires others. It's like a wave effect, which is culminating now."

Last year's SG50 Jubilee celebrations saw many designers put out Singapore-themed products - and some were big hits.

More than 2,000 pieces of the now-famous deep-red Ang Ku Kueh cushion - it is a supersized version of the local treat - have been sold since it was launched in September by design label Meykrs.

Online design retailers such as Naiise and HipVan, which stock a large range of Designed-inSingapore products, have sprung up in the last few years.

Likewise, many pop-up fairs and craft markets throughout the year, such as Public Garden and Naiise's roving pop-up spots, bring local designers within reach.


"We get to build and drive something that we believe in and see longevity in.
'' - MS PAMELA TING, co-founder of homeware and furniture label Scene Shang, with the company's customisable Shang SystemDesigner ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

The evolution of the scene has seen prominent, breakout stars from the design community.

One of the most recognisable names is designer and furniture retailer Nathan Yong, 44, who has been described as being "among the most successful and influential designers of his generation" by the President's Design Award jury.

The award, which is the highest design accolade here, honours Singapore's top designs and designers. Mr Yong won Designer of the Year in 2008.

The Temasek Polytechnic industrial design graduate co-founded his multi-label store Grafunkt in 2009 and designs his own furniture under the label Folks, which exports furniture to countries such as the United States, Australia and Japan. He also has a consultancy, Nathan Yong Design.

Many designers would covet his collaborations - he has worked with American label Design Within Reach, celebrated French brand Ligne Roset and Italian furniture behemoth Living Divani.

There is also Mr Edwin Low, 36, who runs five-year-old Supermama, which recently opened a 1,000 sq ft flagship store in Beach Road.

Mr Low made his name selling Japanese porcelain crockery - the collection was titled Singapore Icons - adorned with familiar images such as the Tembusu tree in the Botanic Gardens and the ubiquitous Housing Board flat.


"It's definitely getting more competitive... Sometimes I do feel stressed, that I need to keep creating new products fast enough to keep up with the market. " - MS TAN LI LING, owner and designer of seven-year-old label Wheniwasfour, which creates quirky accessories such as cushion covers with Singapore themes ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

More than 10,000 pieces of his delicate porcelain designs have been sold since they went on sale in 2013.

That year, the porcelain collection won the President's Design Award for Design of the Year.

Others such as Studio Juju, run by design duo Timo Wong, 33, and Priscilla Lui, 32; and kuru's Mr Ong, 31, have garnered international attention.

Their works have been featured in major design publications such as Wallpaper* and Monocle, and they have been feted on the international stage, having taken part in Salone del Mobile Milano, or Milan Furniture Fair - the most prestigious international furniture fair that product designers can exhibit at.

DESIGNERS CRAFT THEIR PATH

The demand for Singapore design has seen brands thrive.

Scene Shang, a homeware and furniture label, is one example.

Helmed by two friends who were schoolmates, Scene Shang has contemporary pieces influenced by Asian decor styles.

Popular items include the Shang System, which is a customisable modular system, and cushion covers featuring prints of Art Deco buildings in Singapore. Prices range from $15 for a hook to $3,700 for a whisky cabinet.

Its founders left their day jobs in 2012 - Ms Pamela Ting was a vice-president with an American bank, while Ms Jessica Wong left Oats, a graphic and interior design firm she co-founded.

  • Five home-grown products

  • 1. The Pelican candleholder (from $69), inspired by old-school HDB playgrounds, by Hinika (hinika.com).

  • 2. Singlish Notebook by John Chan ($32, from various stores such as naiise.com and www.thefarmstore.sg) which pokes fun at Singlish.

  • 3. Mats with slogan such as Keep Calm And Eat Bak Kwa ($19), from HipVan (www.hipvan.com).

  • 4. HDB Eraser Blocks ($4.90) by Souvenirs From Singapore (souvenirs.sg).

  • 5. Ubune incense-holder by kuru ($36, www.kuru-design.com).

The women, both 32, moved to Shanghai for 11/2 years to find Chinese craftsmen to build their products and perfect the brand's language.

They launched Scene Shang online in 2014 and were subsequently stocked with other retailers.

Early on, they had to depend "largely on word of mouth" and returned from Shanghai to take part in pop-up events and fairs to make the brand known.

They are doing well enough to open a 1,000 sq ft store in Beach Road at the end of this month.

In a way, the current landscape is kinder to start-ups and designers who are brave enough to have a go.

Just a decade ago, collectives such as Outofstock had to look overseas for recognition before making it here.

The quartet is made up of Singaporeans Gabriel Tan, 33, and Wendy Chua, 31, as well as Mr Gustavo Maggio, 35, from Argentina, and Mr Sebastian Alberdi, 37, from Spain.

Now, the studio is decorated with accolades on home ground. It won the President's Design Award in 2010 for its Black Forest table, which is produced by French furniture label Ligne Roset.

Last year, it was chosen as Singapore's representative at the Maison&Objet Rising Asian Talents Award, the regional edition of the Parisian design trade show.

Its first recognition came three years after it got together, when Ligne Roset commissioned the Black Forest piece, a table with interlocking branch-like legs, and launched it during the 2010 Milan Design Week.

Ms Chua, who has a degree in industrial design from the National University of Singapore, says: "Looking back, it was clear in the early days that we had to carve our niche abroad and make our name at the Milan fair or other European trade shows.

"The unspoken rule then was that if you find recognition in Europe, it will be much easier to draw clients back home. The design scene in Singapore also did not present as many opportunities as today."

NOSTALGIA AND LOCAL FLAVOUR DOMINATE SCENE

Unlike Japanese cool minimalism or Scandinavian simplicity, Singapore's design DNA is not quite as easy to pin down, say designers, as everyone has his own style.

But products that have done well often have tinges of the Uniquely Singapore essence.

National icons from the Merlion to the Dragon Playground built in the 1970s have been remade into everything from notebooks to children's rockers.

Traditional or old-school food and snacks such as the humble Potong ice cream and kueh have been turned into jewellery or prints.

Favourites include a Kueh Tutu Eraser, modelled after the delicious rice-flour cake filled with coconut or peanut and designed by Mr Winston Chai and Mr Yong Jieyu.

There is the Singlish Notebook, a quirky journal with printed definitions of Singlish phrases, which was designed by Mr John Chan.

These products were part of a 2009 exhibition, titled Singapore Souvenirs, that Mr Chai started and featured eight home-grown designers.

Multi-disciplinary, award-winning design studio Farm came up with the Great Singapore Souvenirs collections in 2012 and a Made For Sam project with the Singapore Art Museum in 2010.

Some designers have made nostalgia their niche.

Ms Tan Li Ling, 30, owner and designer of seven-year-old label and accessories store Wheniwasfour, has aced the genre with her quirky snack-shaped pins, cushion covers with old hawker signs and a notebook with an illustrated cover of sheep "bleating" the various ways to use the Singlish phrase "Meh".

Prices range from $2 for a postcard to $39.90 for a cushion.

Ms Tan, who started Wheniwasfour with two university friends who have since left the brand, opened a shop in Waterloo Street in January.

The vibrant marketplace means that shoppers are spoilt for choice.

Marketing executive Gwendoline Lee, 29, has bought many food-shaped cushions, covers and even a Kan Cheong Spider Watch. The term is used to describe someone who is easily flustered.

Ms Lee, who often buys such items as gifts, says: "I find these products practical and useful, and they are very relatable, especially if they are gifts for friends."

Expatriate Naomi Giaretta, 40, has bought many such items too, such as Supermama's porcelain plates, a mooncake paperweight designed by Farm and T-shirts put out for SG50.

The mother of two, who often buys these items as gifts for friends who are leaving Singapore or as decorations for her home, says: "Many of the products have a contemporary, modern take on Singapore. Compared with the big brands which can be homogenous, these locally designed wares are refreshing."

THE GOLDEN YEARS OF SINGAPORE DESIGN?

It appears to be the perfect time to be a designer in Singapore.

Already, many get a leg-up from the Government.

For example, the DesignSingapore Council offers grants to designers who want to take part in international trade fairs.

There is also a scholarship programme for designers who want to further their studies. Launched in 2005, there have been 48 recipients who studied either in Singapore or go overseas.

Some scholars, such as Lanzavecchia + Wai's Hunn Wai - he started the design studio with Ms Francesca Lanzavecchia in 2009 after they met at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands - have gone on to gain recognition for their work. In 2012, Newsweek named Lanzavecchia + Wai as one of the five Designers of the Future.

Universities, educational institutions and polytechnics are churning out designers as well, with their product and industrial design courses.

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) takes in eight to 15 students each year for its Diploma in Design (Furniture & Spatial), while there are more than 25 students every year for the school's Diploma in Design (Object & Jewellery) course.

The Diploma in Design (Object & Jewellery) course has seen increasing demand over the years, while the intake for the furniture course is deliberately kept small so that each student gets focused attention.

Temasek Polytechnic, which has a track record of producing President's Design Award winners such as Mr Yong, also has a Diploma in Product & Industrial Design course. There have been 620 graduates from the 1995 to 2012 batches.

Ms Sabrina Long, dean of the School of Art and Design at Nafa, says the calibre of students has improved and that "international industry players are watching the Singapore design scene".

Now, she says, students are more articulate and confident of becoming product designers.

Previously, students would gravitate towards studying interior or graphic design as those were more recognised fields.

She says: "Today, being a designer is more about finding solutions to living. The fad of trying to be a celebrity furniture designer is over. Few people make it as big as French designer Philippe Starck.

"Design is increasingly important in an everyday context. And becoming a designer involves developing a sense of empathy, instead of chasing the perfect design. That's what we're trying to teach our students."

The good news is that it appears to be easier to break into the design industry these days.

Mr Patrick Chia, 47, one of Singapore's earliest and most lauded product designers, puts the recent proliferation of Singapore designers and products down to how "fluid" the product and industrial design industry has become.

Anyone really, he says, can design products if he wants to.

Mr Chia is the founder of the Design Incubation Centre at the National University of Singapore and got his big break when respected designer Starck bought his Squeeze bench in 1997 for the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles.

He cites the example of The J. Myers Company, a home-grown handcrafted leather goods company started by a photographer. In essence, those from other fields such as graphic design, branding and advertising are also trying their hand at making products.

Mr Chia, who won the President's Design Award in 2013 and counts Australian-born industrial designer Marc Newson as his contemporary, says: "The product and industrial design discipline is no longer traditionally defined. You don't have to be trained in it to become a designer.

"It's easier to create any product these days. Technology such as 3D printing helps a lot. You can leapfrog the process of learning the fundamentals of designing, which can take years."

While Singapore's design scene is still in its infancy, Grafunkt's Mr Yong hopes that young designers look overseas to grow their craft as the international stage is "complex" and will truly test designers on their know-how.

But he is buoyed that Singapore business and consumers are embracing local design, even though he feels the Designed-in- Singapore label is not a priority for consumers. What matters at the end of the day is good value.

He has customised furniture for businesses such as Gallery & Co and Kith cafe, while his $3,959 Line television console under his Folks label has sold about 3,500 units since it was produced in 2009.

"I've worked at establishing myself with good designs and controlling quality. If a product checks all the boxes - that it's good value and within a shopper's budget - it's always going to sell."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Designed-in-Singapore makes giant leap'. Print Edition | Subscribe