Art & Design

Published on 16 August 2016

Singapore is now a designated UNESCO Creative City of Design, but exactly how far has our design scene come?


From the bed you reluctantly got up from this morning to the shirt you’re wearing, and the phone in your pocket to the magazine in your hand, design is everywhere. It’s an intrinsic part of the way we experience the world, and it has been influencing how we interact with our surroundings since the beginning of civilisation. And yet, in a relatively young country like Singapore, it’s only recently that design started becoming a buzzword and getting the appreciation — and support — it rightly deserves.


“When we first started, there was no National Design Centre to promote design and no annual President’s Design Award to celebrate the best designs of the year,” recall the folks at FARM,
a local cross-disciplinary design agency that also dabbles in community-centric arts projects. They’re not speaking of a very distant past — the collective began their journey in 2005.


It’s a sign of how far the scene has come in the past decade. In fact, the change has been noticeable even on a much shorter timescale. Dennis Tay, who founded Naiise (a multi-label design-focused retail concept known for selling fun, quirky products) in his living room in 2013, reckons he has seen a definite growth in both the number and quality of local brands in just three years.


“When I started Naiise, there was really only a handful of local designers we wanted to showcase,” he says. “Today, we carry close to 1,000 brands, of which 70 per cent are local. We have seen some of our designers who started out as one-man shows grow to have their own teams, and even their own retail spaces. Some of them have also been able to take part in trade shows in overseas markets.”

HOME BOY Dennis Tay, who started multi-label design concept Naiise from his living room, now carries close to 1,000 brands. PHOTO Dennis Tay


The fact that Naiise now carries the work of so many designers is mostly due to the brand’s passion for discovering emerging home-grown designers and providing them a platform to showcase and sell their works. Indeed, a huge factor contributing to the growth of the industry is how willing designers are to help one another, and do what they can to give back to the community.


One example is FARM’s quarterly ROJAK programme, which ran for six years from 2005, where creatives were invited to meet and share their processes and work with anyone who was interested. “When we first started ROJAK, it was something new and refreshing in Singapore,” says the company. “By the time we did our fifteenth or so edition, the design discourse landscape in Singapore was much more developed. Hence, we decided to stop, as its relevance has grown to a lesser degree.”


Another person who has made it her mission to give back to the design scene is Carolyn Kan, founder and designer of boutique jewellery brand Carrie K. In 2008, she had been the managing director of global advertising company M&C Saatchi for five years. She decided to take a year-long sabbatical to do all the things she had wanted to do. Her travels took her to Italy, where she met a silversmith who taught her how to make her first ring. She fell in love with the craft, which lead to a dramatic career switch — one year later Carrie K was born. But she couldn’t have done it alone, though.


“It was through the generosity of fellow designers and friends who contributed their time and expertise to teach me about the internal workings of this completely new industry that Carrie K came about,” she shares. “Although I appreciated the helping hand, I felt bad about imposing on others. I made a promise to contribute back to the design community when I was in a position to do so.”


She delivered her promise in 2011 by setting up KEEPERS, where she hosted a one-day pop-up store once every quarter to feature a few up-and-coming designers. This turned into the KEEPERS: Singapore Designer Collective pop-up, a collaboration between Carrie K, the Textile and Fashion Federation Singapore, and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). Located at Orchard Road for 16 months from September 2014, the pop-up store featured over 100 local brands that spanned the spectrum of design: from fashion to food, skincare products to home décor. When the pop-up ended, KEEPERS’ presence was sorely missed, but there’s a happy ending: it has now moved into a permanent home at Carrie K’s new Atelier at the National Design Centre.


But giving back doesn’t just mean working with those who already own a brand. Some, like Hans Tan — whose eponymous design studio is well known for cleverly presenting everyday objects in a new light — has been nurturing young minds by sharing his knowledge with students in his capacity as an assistant professor at the Division of Industrial Design at the National University of Singapore. “I believe I have a purpose to fulfil in teaching design, and since teaching is one of the best ways to learn, it develops my aptitude which also benefits my practice,” he says.

WHAT A GEM Jewellery brand Carrie K is the brainchild of former advertising guru Carolyn Kan (above). PHOTO Carrie K

HANS ON This Singapore Blue vase and Spotted Nyonya vessel are the handiwork of designer Hans Tan, who is also an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore.


The efforts of designers to get their brands out there have not gone unnoticed, and these days “supporting local” is all the rage. For starters, there’s more media attention. As FARM observes, “Even our local papers now have a weekly dedicated section to showcase design.” There’s also more support from the government, be it through the funding of major annual events such as National Design Week or setting up of bodies like the DesignSingapore Council.


Perhaps more importantly, there has been a shift in local consumers’ view on made-in-Singapore goods. Thanks to hip brands like Supermama (locally-designed, made-in-Japan ceramics), Ong Shunmugam (heritage reinvented as contemporary fashion wear) and Grafunkt (furniture retailer), there has been an awakening of sorts.


“I realised that most people had no idea about the growing pool of Singapore designers because we were all tucked away in different parts of the island,” says Kan. “The working studios [in KEEPERS] allowed guests to meet the designers and gain better understanding of the design process to grow appreciation for their craft. This initiative was timely because there was an increasing pool of people seeking unique designs, and there was a spurt of interest in local designers given our spotlight on all things local during Singapore’s 50th birthday. When STB conducted a survey, they found that after seeing the impressive host of Singapore designers under one roof, people were more inclined now to seek out Singapore designers.”


Tay agrees. “Local consumers are starting to appreciate uniqueness and as a result, have also become more inclined to support local talent and buy something truly different and unique,” he says. “Customers are now more likely to personalise their own belongings and homes to reflect their tastes and preferences as individuals, whether it is personal accessories, using pins, stickers and other stationery to decorate, or by purchasing unique home accessories and décor.”


Outside our borders, the wider global community has also started to pay attention to Singapore’s creative scene by being more willing to work with our designers. FARM, for instance, is currently working on designing several hotels in Australia, China and Malaysia, as well as a city gallery in Tianjin, China. Carrie K’s products are now available in seven countries; Kan has just launched a new collection with Disney that’s inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Tan has been showcasing his works all over the world — and winning awards globally — while Naiise is looking to expand into the South-East Asia region.

FARMERS’ MARKET Some of the members of FARM, a cross-disciplinary design agency, have helped grow the local design pool with arts projects and programmes. PHOTO Members of FARM


All this activity has generated a positive cycle of further public interest, as well as some street cred on the international circuit: in December last year, it was announced that Singapore is now a designated UNESCO Creative City of Design. This means that our nation-state has joined 16 existing members — such as Berlin, Helsinki, Seoul and Montreal — within a network that promotes collaboration and knowledge exchange. This is, of course, good news for the community.


“We agree Singapore has come a long way! We hope more people appreciate the importance of design,” says FARM. “Design is important because it can reflect our culture and way of life. It can help create solutions that make everyday life better, easier to comprehend and perhaps, even more meaningful as it seeks to beautify, simply and codify our culture.”


At the same time, designers also acknowledge there’s still a long way to go. “I believe there is always more that can be done,” says Tay. “For a start, more of our designers should stop being afraid to think big, and be more ambitious in their outreach. They should embrace the big unknown and start to think more like brands that have the ability to go global. By embracing that mindset, they will set an even greater standard in what they do, and I think that will help our products become world-class in the years to come.”


Tan feels the Singapore design scene is a hotpot that is starting to brew. “Industrial and product design now has local heroes the younger generation can learn from and aspire towards, and it’s important we spread this heat from generation to generation. As a design educator, I hope students learn that one should always try to go against the grain and think about the difference design can make to the status quo, not just in utility, but also in understanding.”


Singapore has just turned 51, and while we may be young, the only way is up and there’s no doubt our island is beginning to make waves around the design world.


“I think that misperception about Singapore being sterile is slowly but surely changing,” says Kan. “We are at a very exciting point in our growth where we can mould our national identity, and how people perceive us. We need to continue to celebrate and support local designers so that the calibre of our designers continues to grow.”

EXECUTIVE CHIC The Airbnb office in Singapore, designed by FARM, reflects a cosy laid-back style.

ACONNECT WITH ART The Art Connector near City Hall MRT is yet another FARM-made design.


Presenting Singapore’s design milestones.

1964 THE MERLION, now synonymous with our city-state, was designed by Alec Fraser-Brunner as the logo for the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now the Singapore Tourism Board). The logo was phased out in 1997, but this mythical beast’s legacy lives on through the famous statue in Marina Bay.

1965 The Economic Development Board established the PRODUCT AND DESIGN CENTRE at Raffles Place as an institution to promote goods made in Singapore. An in-house team of designers served as consultants to local companies that needed advice on issues such as packaging and marketing. It closed in the late 1980s.

1985 THE DESIGNERS ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE was founded by 13 members to promote and support local designers. Its achievements include opening the first Design Centre along North Bridge Road in 1992, and launching the Singapore Designer magazine — the first independent local publication focusing on design — in 2001. The association was rebranded as the Design Business Chamber Singapore in 2012.

2003 DESIGN SINGAPORE COUNCIL was set up as part of the Ministry of Communications and Information to develop the design sector for economic growth. The organisation offers grants and scholarships on top of running programmes and workshops for enterprises, designers and students.

2004 Singapore became the first Southeast Asian country to present a national pavilion at the VENICE BIENNALE INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURE EXHIBITION. Titled Tropical Genteelity, the exhibit explored the relationship between nature and architecture.

2013 Located at 111 Middle Road, THE NATIONAL DESIGN CENTRE is housed in the building that used to be St Anthony’s Convent, and, later, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the Chinese Opera Institute. Comprising three historic Art Deco blocks and one Modernist block, it is home to a number of office spaces (including that of the DesignSingapore Council) and exhibition areas as well as retail and dining outlets.

2015 Conceived as an SG50 project by the Singapore Tourism Board and curated by architect Randy Chan, SINGAPORE: INSIDE OUT was a multidisciplinary showcase of installations and performances that travelled to Beijing, London and New York before coming home. The arts carnival was well-received and offered a snapshot of Singapore’s vibrant creative scene to the world.


Our Exhibitions, competitions, festivals and more related to Singapore design.


commissioned by the DesignSingapore Council, this permanent exhibition at the National Design Centre features over 200 iconic designs that span the fields of visual communications, product and industrial design, fashion, and environmental design. From the humble plastic kopitiam stool to chic dresses by Jo Soh (founder and designer of now-defunct brand hansel), the artefacts on display are divided by the decade they were created in, starting from 1965.Ongoing, National Design Centre, daily 9am-9pm, free admission.


Founded in 2010 by local design studio Anonymous, this festival showcases a curated selection of films that explore the various realms of design. The line-up this year includes Andrew Rossi’s The First Monday in May, which documents the making of the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Film, where the graphic designer completes a series of self-experiments to better understand human happiness. 3-11 September.


The highest honour to be bestowed upon local designers is divided into two categories, Designer of the Year and Design of the Year, recognising people and projects that make a difference to the lives of Singaporeans as well as the wider global community. The award ceremony is held at the end of the year with the winning works exhibited at several venues, which usually include the National Design Centre, the URA Centre and several libraries.


The annual extravaganza comprises an array of programmes such as exhibitions, workshops, talks, and trade shows targeted at both the general public as well as professional designers. Highlights include SingaPlural — an anchor event featuring installations across the design spectrum — as well as a series of Design Trails, which introduce participants to the creative process behind various establishments. March 2017.

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