How Supermama's papa nurtured home-grown design

Getting a Japanese company to make crockery with Singapore images changed Edwin Low's fortunes

Having been at difficult crossroads many times, Edwin Low, founder of lifestyle store Supermama, will tell you that timing is everything.

There was that time when he opened his door as Japanese craftsmen walked by his Queen Street store, leading to a collaboration that threw a lifeline to his two-year-old shop, which had been doing lacklustre business.

Or the time when he switched universities to try a new, untested course because it would put him on a career path to becoming a designer.

The 35-year-old is not one to believe in luck, but there is something to be said about his being in the right place at the right time.

Today, he is best known as the driving force behind the Singapore Icons Studio Project, which brought together five local designers to create a series of iconic Singapore images for crockery made by a Japanese company.

It came from that chance meeting with the Japanese craftsmen.

Stylish, yet edgy, the pieces pay homage to everyday and familiar images such as the HDB flat and the well-loved Tembusu tree in the Botanic Gardens. Each designer's set comprises a chopstick rest, a saucer and a plate, and is made by craftsmen from Japanese ceramic company Kihara. Its popularity won Mr Low and the designers the coveted Design Of The Year award in 2013, under the President's Design Award.

While Supermama is having a golden moment, having just turned four last month, it was not always an easy ride.

"The last four years of my life have been the most jia lat," says Mr Low, using the Hokkien phrase for "energy sapping" when talking about Supermama, which has moved twice since it opened.

He first opened a 60sq m store on the second level of a shophouse unit in Seah Street. "I wanted to close it down in the first two years. We were neither making money nor losing money. But every time I wanted to, I always held on because something came up."

While he started out selling imported products, in particular, goods from Japan including labels such as Siwa by world- famous designer Naoto Fukasawa, his shop has now become a go-to spot for well-designed items with a uniquely Singapore flavour.

Two years ago, Mr Low launched Democratic Society, under which he produced the collection of porcelain. He no longer makes products under this label.

The initial batch of 3,000 pieces, which he produced three months after moving to a smaller store at 8Q Sam, sold out.

He had to take out $30,000 from his life insurance policy to fund the project, with some funding from the DesignSingapore Council.

Since then, he has sold 10,000 pieces of that collection and branched out to more than 70 designs, including the popular One Singapore plate, featuring icons such as Lee Kuan Yew and the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay; porcelain cups and fridge magnets, all with a Singapore theme.

He was shocked at the positive response to the collection, which was completed within a gruelling month-long schedule. But it was a lifeline for Supermama, which was grappling with middling sales and rental costs.

"When I saw the sales figures from the porcelain items, I knew that we had a winner," he recalls. "I meant to do it as a one-off project and didn't expect to see the money again."

While the series shook up his business, it also revived Kihara's fortunes.

Two representatives from the Japanese company had met Mr Low by chance. He came across their pop-up store in Orchard Cineleisure in 2012. Their products were sold at about half the price that his Japanese porcelain products cost and yet, Kihara did not sell a single piece there.

Just before they left Singapore, the two men walked past Mr Low's shop as he was preparing for Supermama's opening at its new Queen Street premises. He offered to help sell Kihara's goods at this store so that they did not have to pay to ship the merchandise back.

At the store's opening, customers wiped out Kihara's collection and clamoured for more.

Mr Low says: "My small customer base was used to my prices being high. But when they saw the quality of this porcelain at lower prices, they lapped it up. Kihara could not believe it."

It spurred him to ask the 400-year-old company to work with him on the Singapore Icons Studio Project.

He had been trying unsuccessfully to get his designs made by Japanese craftsmen for two years, so he was certain that they would say no. "There were so many barriers. I don't speak the language and the Japanese don't usually share their craft," he says. "Also, Kihara was in the midst of shutting down its international operations because it wasn't doing well. My plan wasn't part of their plan."

However, Kihara said yes and it kickstarted a collaboration that is still on-going. The respect for Mr Low's dedication to helping the Japanese preserve a wellrespected craft is apparent. At Kihara's shop in Arita-cho in Japan, his series is proudly displayed across two shelves.

Mr Koji Matsumoto, 40, Kihara's general manager, who met Mr Low during the label's pop-up store attempt, says in Japanese in an e-mail: "We have much respect for him as he has for us and our craft. I think that his designs are also great, and his direction and business sense are good. We are confident he is a designer who will carry the future of design in Singapore."

Through the years, many things have fallen into place for Mr Low.

As the eldest child of a karung guni man and a housewife, he felt a responsibility to better their family's life. He has a younger brother who works for a biochemical company and a deaf-mute sister who works in a factory.

There were early signs of his creative streak. He doodled in his textbooks during primary school. The love for experimenting with material and creating his own products was cemented in secondary school.

In Secondary 3, the St Andrew's Secondary School student took design and technology and art as O-level subjects. "They aren't core subjects. Some will say these aren't subjects to be proud of. But those two subjects formed me," he says. "In my year, even good students took them and did well."

He liked the hands-on nature of the classes and wanted to continue his studies at Temasek Polytechnic. But it meant a harder chance to get into university later.

He says: "My parents would have been all right with my decision to go to a polytechnic. But to them, a university education is a certificate to a good life. Not that they wanted a better life for themselves, but rather, for me. I felt my responsibility as the elder brother and to look after my sister eventually."

So he took the regular route, went to St Andrew's Junior College, which he called "miserable years", studying economics, physics and mathematics.

During national service, he thought about returning to the workshop, but had already secured a place in an engineering course at Nanyang Technological University. As luck would have it, the National University of Singapore started an industrial design course. He applied and got in, but his mother was worried.

"To my parents, being an engineer was on the same level as being a doctor or lawyer," he says. "The job was stable. She didn't understand why I wanted to switch, but it was the best compromise I saw. I could get a degree and still do design."

After graduating, he had plans to work for his church and get married to his girlfriend, and now wife, Ms Lee Meiling, 35. They had met in church. But the university offered him a scholarship to do his master's in industrial design and he accepted.

It was a busy year for him in 2005. Aside from doing his master's, he went to bible school and got married. While many would have crumbled under the sheer pressure of juggling everything, he did well, even snagging the President's Graduate Fellowship in his first year.

Singapore Polytechnic came calling, offering him a position to teach experience and product design. There, he ran his classes like a design studio, where he was the art director and the students, his designers.

He encouraged them to practise design as a career, rather than become design teachers who did not practise.

"I wanted the students to realise that being a designer is doable. They can be up there with the big brands too, no matter where they start," he says.

But he found them unwilling to invest their time and own money to start their own shop or studio after they graduated.

Reflecting on it, he says: "I dared my students to give up everything, but I hadn't done it myself. I had nothing to show."

It put the wheels in motion for Supermama. He left the polytechnic, while his wife took a year's sabbatical from the civil service.

The couple, who have two children - Donna was then two and Toby just four months old - gave themselves a year to enjoy their family time and start a shop, hoping for a slower pace of life. They downgraded from their four-room HDB flat in Tiong Bahru to a smaller apartment in Redhill and pumped in $150,000 from their savings for the interiors of the shop.

The shop was a hipster's dream, all-white recycled brick wall and cool cement flooring, topped off with a small garden out the window. But as stylish as it was, it barely drew a crowd in its first month, just as his friends had predicted.

"But we went ahead anyway."

He made only $600 that first month. But the 60 sq ft store drew some curious shoppers from the neighbourhood, like Mr Aloysius Lim, former creative director of furniture store P5, which was then in Purvis Street.

Mr Lim, 51, who bought $500 worth of items on his first visit, says: "I liked the way Edwin thoughtfully curated his products. He didn't sell items because they were popular, but because each told a story. And he was so low-key. I didn't even know he was the owner till much later."

Business started picking up, but it was not enough to make the shop sustainable.

However, when the year was up, he felt ambivalent about giving up and decided to give it another shot for a year. His wife went back to the civil service to supplement the couple's income.

Ms Lee, who will re-join Supermama full-time in June, says: "We didn't set out to make money from the shop, but to spend time with each other and slow down. But I went back to work to help pay the bills.

"Even if our first year at Supermama had been dreamy, that was the reality. We were losing money. Not everything was a bed of roses."

Towards the end of Supermama's second year, the National Heritage Board approached him to take up its 8Q Sam unit on the ground floor, facing the road in Queen Street. It was half the size of their Seah Street unit, but Mr Low says: "Now that we could be seen more clearly, more people would come. Handling a smaller space was also an alternative to closing down completely."

The move led to that chance meeting with the Japanese porcelain makers. The media and shoppers came streaming in and the shop's profile grew. Supermama was selected as one of 15 international shops that exhibited "innovativeness in retail concepts and approaches" at that year's L'Espace Retail at trade and lifestyle fair Maison et Objet in Paris.

While Mr Low easily recalls the days when things were difficult for Supermama - he named it as a homage to his wife - he breathes easier now that the store has found its groove. Last September, it moved to a 70sqm space at the Singapore Art Museum.

He makes it a point to carry locally designed products in his store, starting with products he and his team designed themselves. Mr Low is a fierce champion of the Singaporean designer.

"I feel this responsibility to the design community to change the perception that 'made in Singapore' is bad. Anyone who is looking for what Singapore design culture is, and wants to see it, feel it and buy it, come to Supermama."

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