Design on the menu for F&B industry

Schemes such as DesignSingapore Council's Design Innovation Assistance grant have helped local businesses use design to enhance both the products and experiences they provide to their customers. Arti Mulchand gets a taste of how members of the F&B industry are using great design to boost business

Fashioned after a Peranakan home, the 3,000 sq ft restaurant has “memory walls” covered with old snapshots, while over 200 original Peranakan tiles cover other walls.
Fashioned after a Peranakan home, the 3,000 sq ft restaurant has “memory walls” covered with old snapshots, while over 200 original Peranakan tiles cover other walls. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NATIONAL KITCHEN BY VIOLET OON

The walls of National Kitchen by Violet Oon Singapore tell stories. Fashioned after a Peranakan home, the restaurant's "memory walls" are covered with old snapshots, and even a 1976 belachan recipe from a young man the cooking doyenne once met.

Over 200 original Peranakan tiles cover some of the other wall panels of Ms Oon's 3,000 sq ft restaurant at the National Gallery.

"The tiles came from old houses that had been torn down, and some are even chipped. But we want people to realise they are over 100 years old. We want to do justice to our heritage… and our mother's work," said Ms Oon's daughter, Ms Tay Su-lyn, 39. She runs the family business with her brother, Yiming, 35.

For decades, Ms Oon, 66, has promoted the tastes of Singapore through her cooking and writing. She also owns Violet Oon Singapore in Bukit Timah Road. Last year, Ms Oon and her children teamed up with TWG Tea founder Manoj Murjani to lift their initial cafe concept into a restaurant.

Explained Ms Tay, a fashion designer and mother of three: "I spent my whole life seeing my mother prepare prawn stock and grind rempah. I wanted to give her work a voice and a place."

To do that, she sought the help of a Design Innovation Assistance grant from the DesignSingapore Council. "Most of the time when you create a restaurant, you only do what you can afford. (The grant) allowed us to bring the best design people on board," she said.

Local design house Black, which also created the SG50 logo used to celebrate Singapore's 50th birthday last year, drove the branding of the cafe and restaurant. It conceptualised everything from the motifs and colours to the logo. Interior design firm Laank took care of the interiors.

"We kept asking how we could create elements of discovery and reinforce our culture in ways that didn't feel contrived. We didn't want the outlets to feel like museums, we wanted them to feel like our home," Ms Tay said.

At the National Kitchen, little touches helped to achieve that. There are spice pots near the entrance and serving bowls in shapes that reflect the designs on the tiles. Both the restaurant's bar and its takeaway boxes are done up in hues of green, bringing to mind Ms Oon's Chinese name, Swee Gek, which means jade.

Other Singapore designers have also lent their flourishes. The hostess uniforms were designed by fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam of Ong Shunmugam, and local bookbinding company Bynd Artisan created the menus.

But can food-focused Singaporeans be distracted from their laksa long enough to soak in the details?

Ms Tay laughed: "Even if they can't, the design will add something to their experience… We gave it the same love, care and thought as we do our food."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Design on the menu for F&B industry'. Subscribe