Grooming top-drawer furniture designers

Mr Koh, the president of the Singapore Furniture Industries Council, whose Designers-In-Residency initiative will place designers in renowned foreign firms to develop furniture designs that are then commercialised.
Mr Koh, the president of the Singapore Furniture Industries Council, whose Designers-In-Residency initiative will place designers in renowned foreign firms to develop furniture designs that are then commercialised. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The Singapore Furniture Industries Council has been working with agencies such as IE Singapore and Spring Singapore under the Local Enterprise and Association Development programme to identify top designers and encourage local firms to create innovative products that incorporate technology. The Straits Times looks at how its work is creating a continuous flow of ideas for the future of Singapore's furniture industry.

Ambitious plans are under way to find a Singaporean who can stand alongside household names such as Frenchman Philippe Starck and his British counterpart, Tom Dixon, in the furniture and interior design scene.

Mr Ernie Koh, the president of the Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC), strongly believes there is a place for local talent among the elite. "They didn't come from conventional places known for design like Milan. They come from all over, and such a name can be from Singapore.

"We realised that and decided to develop something under the Local Enterprise and Association Development (Lead) programme, where we can get these designers into the professional design scene overseas."

The SFIC, which has at least 300 member firms, decided to look into the programme as part of a plan to address challenges in the longer term. Mr Koh said: "Design, branding and technology from 2017 and beyond are very important parts of the industry. We went to the Government and said something could be done under the programme, addressing designers and upgrading them to the next level."

The industry's output grew at a compound annual growth rate of 13 per cent from 2000 to 2009, which outstripped the average 7 per cent by the global furniture industry.

Singapore's share of the global output rose from 0.45 per cent in 2000 to 0.96 per cent in 2009, and slightly over 1 per cent in 2014.

Mr Koh noted that Singapore has world-class designers but lacks the platform to shine and "secondly, they do not know how to shine".

Hence the introduction of the Designers-In-Residency initiative, with funding from the Lead programme. This includes an overseas placement for up to three months.

Designers will initially join the SFIC Institute for training before being sent to a firm overseas, where they will work on developing product designs. The designs will then be introduced at the International Furniture Fair Singapore and commercialised.

"The designers will be placed in a renowned foreign design house for one to three months. After that, they will come up with a design that is commercially viable and will be internationally recognised, that will be pushed out to the market," said Mr Koh.

The SFIC plans to run the Designers-In-Residency initiative over three years for its member firms. It will start with about 20 firms or designers, and 10 have expressed interest in the training initiative.

Mr Koh said: "Hopefully, from these 20 designers or more, one or two are able to shine. In everything, you need a poster boy, and if we find them, it'll show the world that Singapore is able to groom its designers to a level that's world-class. The other designers will be inspired and more will follow."

Eventually, Mr Koh hopes Singapore designers will embrace the "super-studio concept".

"A few of these dreamers come together, we equip them, give them a business model and what they need in order to shine," he said, adding that the Designers-In-Residency programme is just one of the many under the Lead scheme.

Mr Mark Yong, marketing director of Ewins, which provides fittings to furniture manufacturers, said the firm has benefited from various initiatives by SFIC.

"We went on several business and study missions, and learnt best practices as well as garnered important business leads through these trips," he said.

As competition intensifies, Singapore firms will need greater support as the industry transforms.

A new Lead-Plus programme was announced in this year's Budget to help trade associations and chambers (TACs) strengthen their outreach. Up to $30 million will be set aside over the next five years to support TACs in attracting talent, developing capabilities and improving processes and services.

Mr Koh said TACs rely a lot on agencies such as IE Singapore, Singapore Workforce Development Agency and the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), among others.

"We work with six or seven agencies, and every one of those agencies supports us in different avenues. Without their support, TACs would not be able to help their member firms.

"The Lead programme has empowered us to do more and introduce activities for our members, which will help to drive initiatives. I hope the more progressive or mature trade associations will take up the responsibility to continue to do so."

Brought to you by International Enterprise Singapore and Spring Singapore

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'Grooming top-drawer furniture designers'. Print Edition | Subscribe