Fabric of a nation

It is not just the big brands that are coming up with Singapore-themed products for the nation's Golden Jubilee. Regular folk such as students and housewives are also producing their own designs

Furnishings inspired by memories

Looking at Mr Mike Tay's beautiful hand-drawn wallpaper and fabric designs, it is hard to believe he has no formal training in art or design.

His chic Singapore-themed creations celebrate everything that is unique about the Little Red Dot - from heritage neighbourhoods such as Little India and Tiong Bahru to the intricate design of Peranakan shophouse windows and tiles.

"Design is something I have been interested in since I was as young as six, back when I noticed the intricate rangoli designs outside the home of an Indian family who were neighbours and close friends of my grandparents'," he recalls.

Rangoli refers to floor patterns created using rice flour, coloured powder, flowers or beans.

Mr Tay, 44, adds: "Though I didn't study art or design formally, it has always remained something I was passionate about."

His full-time job in sales and marketing in the media industry kept him from pursuing his passion until last November, when he decided to start a new chapter and invested $15,000 to set up a shop for his brand, Onlewo.

He also started a contemporary art gallery, Flaneur Gallery. Both the gallery and shop are housed in a two-storey conservation shophouse in Jalan Besar.

"I called my brand Onlewo because it sounds like the characters for home nest in Mandarin," he says. "It's apt given that I like my work to be inspired by personal memories."

And it shows. The bachelor's stylish designs are a nod to his own fond memories spent growing up in Tiong Bahru - from buying kueh at Galicier Pastry for friends visiting from out of town to spending his Sunday mornings shopping at the market.

He now lives in Upper Thomson.

His cushion covers and stools sell for $48 and $200 respectively while the wallpaper starts at $350 for a 2m by 3m wall area. Fans of his work range from trendy home owners to businesses such as chic home furnishings store Space in Bencoolen Street.

But for Mr Tay, creating his uniquely Singaporean brand was more than finding a profitable niche in the market.

"I didn't want to create Singaporean-themed work just for the sake of it," he says.

"As a small independent brand, my focus is on producing functional products that are conversation starters and tell a unique story about Singapore."

He has another mission too. Flaneur Gallery helps promote the work of local artists in their 20s and 30s, provides art residency and serves as an exhibition space for their work. He also helped a young artist who recently exhibited at the gallery get his biggest commissioned work to date.

He says of his new start in the art and design industry: "I might not have pursued this line from young, but now that I'm in it, I want to help young local designers follow their passion as I continue to do the same.

"What could be more SG50- appropriate than that?"

•Mr Mike Tay's wallpaper, cushion covers and stools are available at Onlewo at 129 Jalan Besar and on Onlewo.com.

Tingkat carrier shaped like a shophouse

The architecture of a Peranakan shophouse inspired student Michelle Kartokusumo's (above) design for a multi-layered tiffin carrier. ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Now, her winning entry, a shophouse-inspired tiffin carrier, has been produced for sale.

The design competition was jointly organised by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, where Ms Kartokusumo is an object and jewellery design student, and Husk'sWare Singapore, a company that produces tableware using biodegradable rice husks.

The competition, which is part of the class module for final year students, had only one guideline: that students design a container with an SG50 theme.

The idea for Ms Kartokusumo's design came to her almost instantly.

"I knew from the get-go I wanted to use a Peranakan shophouse as my inspiration for the exterior of the container," says the older of two daughters of a businessman father and a housewife mother. Her family is in Surabaya, Indonesia.

"I've always been attracted to how the distinctive decor and tiles in each home tell such a unique story."

She also adopted the internal layout of a traditional shophouse for her design.

"Most shophouses have three floors, which worked well for my idea of a multi-layered tingkat carrier," she explains.

"And since Peranakan food is often served in old-school tiffin carriers, everything ties together perfectly."

She spent three weeks exploring different shophouses around the island to perfect her design before submitting her final sketch for the competition in May.

Her design was chosen out of 23 entries and the tingkat carrier was officially launched last Wednesday at the Singapore Gifts and Premiums Fair held at Marina Bay Sands.

A spokesman for Husk'sWare Singapore says: "Not only was Ms Kartokusumo's design unique, but it was also a good representation of Singapore in this jubilee year."

The 3,000 tingkat carriers, priced at $50, are sold at FairPrice Finest and FairPrice Xtra outlets and the three Robinsons department stores here.

Ms Kartokusumo is humble about her achievement though.

"I just feel very proud to have been given this opportunity," she says with a smile. "I love how so many cultures live harmoniously in Singapore. Hopefully, my design has helped celebrate that diversity in a small way."

•The Shophouse Tingkat carrier ($50) is available at FairPrice Finest and FairPrice Xtra outlets and at Robinsons at Raffles City, Orchard and Jem.

Keychain coin for supermarket carts

Madam Dawn Choo's keychain trolley coins (above) can be used to unlock shopping trolleys in Singapore. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

But she also wanted something functional that would come in handy long after the National Day celebrations are over.

Her brainchild? A practical keychain trolley coin with the SG50 logo stamped on it.

The coin, which has the same dimensions as Singapore's second series 50-cent coins, can be used to unlock shopping carts at most supermarkets, saving people the trouble of having to fumble around for an appropriate coin.

Madam Choo, 36, a former civil servant, says: "I had been considering starting a small business since the beginning of the year and thought, why not start off with something special to commemorate the nation's birthday?"

She wanted to create something useful, unlike the many merely decorative products that have already flooded the market.

She struck creative gold while brainstorming ideas with her banker husband, 37, two months ago.

"While we were chatting before bed one night, I realised not many people were aware of the concept of a trolley coin, despite it being so useful for Singaporeans," she says.


"Having gotten one as a corporate gift a few years back, I knew how convenient they were and decided they would make a perfect memento for our jubilee year."

It did not hurt that the round SG50 logo lent itself perfectly to the coin. All Madam Choo had to do was find someone willing to manufacture it.

Within 24 hours, she sought out a manufacturer on Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba.com and sent him the design, branding guidelines and dimensions.

She spent a few hundred dollars to place her first order for 500 coins.

She sold the coins - for $3.50 a piece and $9.90 for a set of three - on local online marketplace Qoo10.com. Within a week, she was receiving orders of up to 100 coins a day and getting requests for customised versions.

In the past month, she has sold more than 4,000 pieces and counts organisations such as insurance firm AIA and the Housing and Development Board as some of her corporate customers.

The overwhelming response has meant that she and her husband have spent hours organising, packing and delivering packages when new shipments of stock come in. They can prepare up to 1,000 packages a day.

But the work is worth it, Madam Choo says. "I've gotten feedback about how useful the coin is and it makes me happy to know it's a lasting memento that people will use and treasure.

"For me, that's been the best part of the whole experience."

•The trolley coins ($3.50 each or $9.90 for three) are available at www.qoo10.sg/shop/thesgway.

Reserve a seat with tissue pack holder

The waterproof Chop Liao tissue pack holder is the brainchild of design student Ang Xin Ying (above). ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Not one to back down from a challenge, the final year object and jewellery design student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts did her research and explored different types of lifestyle products to find something that would be useful and uniquely Singaporean.

"At first, I designed bags inspired by Peranakan treats such as kueh lapis. But at a coffee shop one day, I noticed the aunties and uncles shouting 'chop liao!' to one another. They were referring to how they had reserved a table with their tissue paper packets."

It is common for Singaporeans to use tissue packs to reserve seats at coffee shops and food courts.

Realising how uniquely Singaporean this practice is, Ms Ang decided to design a tissue packet cover with the words "chop liao".

Chope is a Singlish word for reserve. For her design, Ms Ang decided to use the word "chop" as that was how the coffee shop customers pronounced it.

The idea turned out to be a hit with her supervisors, who gave her free rein to design the cover for production.

Ms Ang, whose father is an IT engineer and mother, a shop assistant, tweaked her design from a red-and-white background to an all-red base with the words in white.

"I wanted it to stand out when left on a table in a coffee shop. Plus, given that it's SG50-themed, red seemed like the natural choice," she says with a laugh.

She also experimented with different fabrics, finally choosing a nylon exterior and PU leather interior to keep the cover waterproof, durable and easy to clean.

Apex Marketing produced 300 pieces. Each is sold for $7.50 at Just Us!, a clothing and gift store in Haji Lane.

Ms Ang, who has an older brother and a younger brother, says:

"Besides the fact I saw this piece evolve from a sketch to an actual product, I love that it's a real conversation starter.

"Singaporeans might get what it means, but it's also a fun way to introduce Singlish and Singapore's cultural quirks to someone who's new to the country."

•The tissue packet cover ($7.50) is available at Just Us! at 44 Haji Lane.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline Fabric of a nation. Subscribe