Bring design to the masses

Design Week fringe events could be spread out through the year and held in a smaller area, making it easier for visitors to check them out

Design on steroids: The term was used to describe this year's run of Singapore Design Week.

This declaration was made by Ms Agnes Kwek, executive director of DesignSingapore Council, when she addressed the audience at the launch of the Wallpaper*'s Handmade exhibition, one of the events at the 10-day design festival.

She was not exaggerating.

With 135 events, there was much to see and soak in.

Not only was it larger - there were 116 events last year - but this year's edition from March 3 to 12 pulled in big names and featured exhibitions and fairs with stronger programming.

Shows included Frontliners In Action, a returning show of Singapore work that was exhibited at last year's Venice Architecture Biennale.

But the design week's coup this year was enticing Wallpaper*, the revered design and lifestyle publication, to put on a Singapore edition of its celebrated Handmade exhibition at Gillman Barracks.

Now still on, Singaporeans get to see experimental works, borne out of conversations and ideas between globally renowned designers, craftsmen and manufacturers.

There was also a spirit of collaboration in the air - an element that was not as pronounced in previous editions of the festival.

This was most apparent at SingaPlural, the week's anchor event that was held at the F1 Pit Building.

While the festival's new curator, creative agency Black, brought out the who's who of the local design scene - a star-studded line-up that was not at previous editions - this time, many of the installations were the results of these designers teaming up to make a new product, or even exploring ideas about Singapore's future.

In the Pop-Up segment, Singapore brands and designers came together to make new items that visitors could buy and preorder at the fair.

Collaboration is important. Beyond resulting in more interesting designs for the festival, it pushes designers to think of new ways of making things and paves the way for other team projects and the sharing of ideas after the event.

The success of this year's festival was not always this certain.

A spanner was thrown in the works last November when luxury interior design show Maison& Objet Asia, one of the big events during the week, bid adieu.

The show, which is the Asian offshoot of the French version, brought glamour to town with bigname designers and architects such as Shanghai-based design practice Neri&Hu and Hong Kong designer Andre Fu making pit stops here.

Its absence was thought, by some in the industry, to be a possible dent in the programming of this year's Design Week.

But it was not missed at all. In fact, it seemed as if Maison&Objet Asia's departure was viewed by many in the local design community as a call to action.

As Mr Edwin Low, 37, founder of lifestyle label Supermama, puts it: "This year is the year that local designers stepped up. There's just a different energy about Design Week."

He himself rose to action and was involved in at least seven events, most running concurrently.

One of the events he co-curated was the Design, Make & Craft Fair at the National Library Building in Bugis, which was held for the second time.

But instead of just putting on a regular flea market, its curators hand-picked brands from Singapore and Asia to showcase and set up stylish booths.

The fair deserves props for having young indie Singapore craftsmen and brands show off their wares on the same stage as renowned Japanese brands - many of which have a long history of craftsmanship.

By doing that, the fair's curators made a statement that Singapore makers are doing quality work.

It drew about 5,300 people over a weekend, proving that support - and demand - for local work is there.

But as Singapore Design Week's fourth edition ended, one wondered: Can this be sustained for future editions?

While the March festival is slated as the designated week for all things design here, there is a danger of visitors - and participants - overdosing on the excessive content.

Design fatigue sets in when everything is crammed in that one week. The rest of the year is comparatively quiet, which makes for uneven pacing on the design calendar.

Why not extract certain fringe events such as craft workshops and hold them in the June holidays?

Then there is the issue of location.

Wallpaper*'s exhibition is worth checking out to give people a different perspective from the local scene.

But let's be honest. Even though the exhibition runs till June, unless there is more publicity about it, the event is likely to slip off the radar as getting to Gillman Barracks is a killjoy.

The trek also means the exhibition is unlikely to draw visitors who aren't die-hard design fans.

Similarly, another Design Week event - International Furniture Fair Singapore - was held at the far-flung Singapore Expo in Changi. While it is a trade fair, the public can view it on the last day. It is a good place to go for interior design ideas and to check out furniture styles.

But such events have the odds stacked against them - they are usually given a miss with all the offerings crammed into such a short period, spread so far apart in terms of location, and with visitors most likely to check out the events only over the weekend.

Visitors, after all, cannot be at two places at one time.

To get more people attending Singapore Design Week - the Government has been pushing for businesses and citizens to embrace design thinking lately - exhibitors and curators need to rethink when and where they hold their events.

Organisers need to tighten the radius of where events happen. Group smaller events together or keep them all in the city centre.

Now that Maison&Objet Asia is not at Marina Bay Sands, perhaps the International Furniture Fair Singapore might consider moving there. And if Wallpaper* needs a hipster locale, there are plenty of central options on offer, such as Haji Lane and Little India.

If the aim of Singapore Design Week is to bring design to the masses, then make it easy for them to get to it - and worth their while.

Singapore Design Week is still in its infancy and has some way to go before it matches up to its European design week counterparts, such as in Milan and Paris, which do a great job putting out strong content and getting people to talk about design.

Now that the Singapore Design Week has hit its stride, let's make sure it will be able to take big steps.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2017, with the headline Bring design to the masses. Subscribe