Singapore design highlights at Milan Design Week

Colourful furniture and quirky holders are some of the offerings by Singapore designers at this year's Milan Design Week

(Clockwise from top) Creativeans' Singular bowl-and- book holder; Studio Juju's Unfamiliar seat series; and Hans Tan's Leo Cycloid Tessella installation. Lanzavecchia + Wai's PLAYplay living room furniture series (left) in Palazzo Litta.
Lanzavecchia + Wai's PLAYplay living room furniture series (above) in Palazzo Litta. PHOTO: DAVIDE FARABEGOLI
(Clockwise from top) Singular, a  bowl-and-book holder, by Andrew Loh for Creativeans; Studio Juju’s Unfamiliar seat series; and Hans Tan’s Leo Cycloid Tessella installation.
Singular, a bowl-and-book holder, by Andrew Loh for Creativeans. PHOTO: CREATIVEANS
Studio Juju’s Unfamiliar seat series (right) and Hans Tan’s Leo Cycloid Tessella installation (left).

Every year for six days in April, the Italian city of Milan turns into the biggest world stage for all things design-related.

Milan Design Week sees designers, architects, retail furniture and fashion brands and students take over different spaces - from a monastery to an old cinema space - to showcase new products or upcoming trends.

It is a lighter, often-experimental complement to Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano, the world's most prestigious furniture fair, which is holding its 55th edition at the same time this year.

Milan Design Week was started in the early 1980s by a group of companies from the furnishing and industrial design sectors and has grown massively through the years.

This year's edition, which started on Tuesday and ends tomorrow, offers more than 1,100 satellite events. Among the big names who are showing this year are British designer Tom Dixonand Shanghai- based studio Neri&Hu.

And right up on the marquee with them are Singapore designers who are showing off their brand of design - Studio Juju, Lanzavecchia + Wai, Creativeans and Hans Tan Studio.

The designers say it is a good time to be in Milan as the global design community is increasingly more welcoming of the Asian design voice.

Mr Hunn Wai, 35, a Singaporean designer and one-half of design studio Lanzavecchia + Wai, says: "It's usually the European narrative that dominates, but over the years, they have embraced the different look and style that we bring. There are a lot of stories to be written with what we have in Asia that have not been fully articulated and developed yet."

His design partner is Italian Francesca Lanzavecchia, 32, who is based in Pavia, a city 30km south of Milan. The former Design Academy Eindhoven schoolmates - it is an inter-disciplinary educational institute for art, architecture and design in the Netherlands - started their company at the end of 2009.

The award-winning studio has been participating in Milan Design Week since it started showing work and concepts there yearly from 2010. Last year, it took part in four events, which included launching mobile side-tables Plug & Taco for Italian design stalwart Cappellini.

This year, it takes its Asian- inspired living room furniture series PLAYplay - launched last year in collaboration with Singapore furniture store Journey East - to Palazzo Litta, a 17th-century complex.

The palatial space houses A Matter Of Perception: Tradition & Technology, an exhibition of works and concepts by designers, producers and brands that include celebrated British industrial designer Jasper Morrison, who is displaying MP 01, a minimalist mobile phone he designed for Swiss consumer electronics company Punkt.

The show is organised by contemporary culture magazine Damn°, which has editorial offices in Belgium and Germany, and event organiser Mosca Partners.

At Palazzo Litta, PLAYplay is housed on the second level in one of 27 installation spaces spread across two floors. Amid centuries-old patterned wallpaper and gilded furnishings, the PLAYplay team decorated the space with helium balloons to match its colourful furniture.

Aside from interest from the likes of luxury Italian e-commerce retailer Luisa Via Roma, respected American design magazine Dwell nominated PLAYplay's five-piece collection as one of "27 things not to miss at Milan Design Week 2016".

As testament to their calibre, the Singaporeans at Milan this year were invited by the organisers or made the cut to join their exhibitions. And they are veterans to the scene, having shown at previous Milan Design Week editions.

Designer Hans Tan, 36, who founded his eponymous studio, was invited by material company Alcantara for the Local Icons. East/West Alcantara-Maxxi project.

Curated by Mr Giulio Cappellini, art director of Italian design firm Cappellini, and Ms Domitilla Dardi, design curator for Rome's museum of contemporary art and architecture Maxxi, the exhibition sees Mr Tan showing alongside eight other designers, including heavyweight London studio Poetic Lab.

For the project's fifth edition, the designers were tasked to make "souvenirs" that represented a country using the Alcantara material, a high- performance, synthetic textile Mr Tan likens to "faux suede".

The two-time President's Design Award winner, who is also a National University of Singapore assistant professor in the industrial design division, is known for experimenting with materials and textures and reinterpreting the conventional look of products.

His installation, called Leo Cycloid Tessella, on show at Museo Nazionale Della Scienza E Della Tecnologia in Milan, uses the scales of the mythical half-fish, half-lion Merlion as a motif. Coloured in muted tones, the Alcantara-made scales overlap and seemingly float inside a black box.

On picking the Merlion as his inspiration, Mr Tan says: "This half-fish, half-lion creature is part-folklore and part-tourism construct... Yet its reputation as a tourist icon is indisputable."

Another Singapore-tinged event is the alamak! Design In Asia exhibition, held at the La Triennale di Milano, a design museum in the city.

Mr Yoichi Nakamuta, 59, founder of prominent Tokyo-based design production company E&Y, is the main curator of the alamak! project, which is part of the XXI Triennale International Exhibition 2016. Launched earlier this month, the show runs till Sept 12.

He picked Singapore design house Studio Juju to come up with a product that would fit the theme of the exhibition - 21st Century. Design After Design. The studio shares the spotlight with 11 design talents from Asia, including Malaysia-born designer P.C. Ee, who made a futuristic-looking chair out of perforated metal sheets.

Studio Juju - made up of Singaporeans Timo Wong, 34, and Priscilla Lui, 33 - brought its take of a deconstructed chair to the show. Its trio of seats, titled Unfamiliar, have steel pipes bent at angles to create the backrest. Mr Wong says: "Our design shows how we are rethinking the perception of a chair and how we can deconstruct it and define it in a new language."

For design studio Creativeans, showing at Milan this year is bittersweet. It is the only Singapore studio with works on show at SaloneSatellite, an event known for launching the careers of young stars such as nendo's Oki Sato.

Designers have to be under the age of 35 to apply and are allowed to qualify only three times. This is Creativeans' third time taking part.

The show is held in the same area as the Salone. Designers get booths to showcase their works to talent scouts and manufacturers. Creativeans' booth is partially sponsored by the DesignSingapore Council.

This year, the studio looked at how eating at the dining table has evolved. Creativeans, founded by four designers, also brought home-grown designer Andrew Loh, 39, on board. Mr Loh is at Milan for the first time.

The studio came up with eight products such as Wago, a trolley- like table; and Singular, a bowl- and-book holder fashioned out of a single stainless-steel rod.

Mr Kimming Yap, 30, Creativeans' managing director, says it designed its products to reflect the changing trend of how people eat. That its proposal was approved to be shown on such a big stage "validates that what we're doing is right".

Italian design student Debora Ballabio, 29, who is doing her master's in product design, loved Creativeans' quirky prototypes. The Milan native says: "Its work is very simple yet elegant and it's interesting how it paired different materials together. I can see myself using its products in my house in Milan."

While the studio's work is in the prototype stage, Mr Yap says it hopes to take the project further, like the products from its 2011 showing, Treasures Of The Little Red Dot: Stories Of Design. In that show, it made eight Singapore-inspired items, of which three were then produced and sold. One of them is Jiak, a condiment dish that is also a chopstick rest. It costs $19.90 and is sold at design retailer Naiise's online store.

Even if it is their last time at SaloneSatellite, the designers hope to return to Milan.

For Mr Loh, the deluge of design and creativity is inspiring.

"You meet diverse groups of people. In Singapore, the opportunities are limited because of the small market, but in Milan, the whole world is here. It's really the place to be."

Correction Note: In a previous version of the article, the Singular bowl-and-book holder was attributed to Creativeans instead of Andrew Loh for Creativeans. This has been corrected.

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 April 16, 2016, with the headline Singapore design highlights at Milan Design Week. Subscribe