The Bureau popped up in the Singapore design scene some years ago with their MOE Chair Series, an original line of self-manufactured chairs that pay tribute to the wooden chairs once used in local schools before they were phased out to plastic-moulded ones. But The Bureau, made up now of partners Edmund Seet and Kai Yeo, are of course more than just chair-makers. Housed (or caged, literally) in a wonderfully raw space in Tiong Bahru, the studio produces multi-disciplinary solutions for their clients, daring to veer off into multiple trajectory lines: branding, book design, interior design, retailing - you name it, they’ve done it. We talk to them about growing up, and the landscape of the Singapore design industry.
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning.
E: We started [the studio] about 4 years ago. I was coming back from Bangkok and Kai was just finishing up with another friend of ours - they had decided to close their company and part ways. And Yasser was just coming back from Yale, where he was on a scholarship from DesignSingapore. Prior to that the three of us did some work together under the name of GraphicTaskForce. That was 10 years ago. It was for fun, more for exploring and just doing creative work.
Most designers start from working for other design studios, did you guys do that?
E: Yes! I was with FutureBrand, Kai was with Asylum for a long time, Yasser was with MTV and Discovery. We all worked for different studios. GraphicTaskForce existed just for fun, so at first we didn’t think much about it. We were just like, let’s do something and see what happens! It was quite fun doing different types of work. That went on for quite awhile - we were just hanging out and having coffee! It wasn’t like, oh we’re gonna do something great! We were just exploring outside of our regular jobs.
In 2009, I was coming back from Bangkok and Yasser was back from his studies, so we thought we might as well give it a shot. I mean there’s no right time right? So based on our past working relationship, we thought we might give it a try.
What’s the distinction between The Bureau and BALLS? Do you identify yourself more as The Bureau now?
The business has always been registered as The Bureau. We identify ourselves as The Bureau now, as i think we all need to grow up sometime. ha ha. BALLS is the short form for the full name of the studio, which was designed as a tongue in cheek name. Rather irreverent, we thought it would be more fun for you to discover the short form on your own after reading the full name.
The Bureau feels like it has a hand in many different pies. You do design work for clients, you have been commissioned to make furniture, you even have a little space where you sell some of your furniture..
K: I think this year we’re actually trying to focus. Last year was pretty exciting because we had a lot of different projects going on. Besides the chairs, we did a couple of interior design projects and that also grew into something. Like the furniture that you see here. Both of them were for restaurant jobs. This table was produced for a gastrobar in Bukit Timah called Outpost 903.
E: I think when we started the studio we wanted to try different types of design work, because as you know, designers are a dime a dozen. So when the opportunity came, we gave it a shot. I think the opportunity to help the client translate the brand into not only 2D but 3D form, to take it into a spatial thing, I think that’s important. So we didn’t only do the identity, we also thought about how to translate some of the ideas into the interior design.
So you mentioned about wanting to focus this year. What do you mean by that?
E: We have been trying to simplify. We started dabbling in furniture, interior design, retailing, but this year we want to use the opportunity to regroup and refocus on the core of the business. Anything else that comes along is a bonus. That’s why I think it’s more about decluttering.
K: After we took part in the fair organized by SFIC (Singapore Furniture Industries Council), we got our client to look at what we saw at the fair. They liked them so we took the furniture in and used them as furnishings for the cafe. We also decided that since we have this [studio] space, why not bring in some extra pieces to sell? That’s how we went into selling some of the furniture in the office here. Some pieces we picked up from here and there, and then we give them a new lease of life. You see this [letterpress] machine here. I had been looking for it for a couple of years, then I found it through some letterpress blog. That’s how we got into letterpress. I have done some work here and there, for our client’s menu, some wedding cards for friends. It came to a certain point when we thought, it’s damn exciting, but we want to refocus on our design work. All these other hobbies will have to wait.
So what would you think is the main working philosophy of The Bureau as a whole?
E: Alot of the work we do for our clients is pretty much about telling their stories. The work can only come about if we form a strong relationship with them, so that they understand where we come from. They know the brand best, but in terms of presentation and approach, it’s up to us to tell them, hey maybe you should try something different.
And we usually tend not to blemish the work. Kai used this analogy before - for example, if you prepare a dish, if it doesn’t need additional salt or seasoning, let’s not add to it. We just want to keep it quite pure. I think there’s a certain rawness to our work.
This rawness also seems to translate into your current studio space.
E: What attracted us to the space was the rawness of it. We did up everything, but if you realize we left the wall unpainted, we didn’t patch up the walls, the peeling paint. There was a certain characteristic - a certain honesty - that we liked, so we kept them as they were, but we built upon them and kept the rawness as the canvas.
Tell us more about the MOE Chair Series.
E: We had in mind that we wanted to create the chairs, but we had no plans for them yet, in terms of marketing. With the [limited] space that we have, we were also not ready to sink a lot of money into them. And there’s a minimum order with manufacturers. But the prototype was in our office for close to 2 years. We did 2 rounds of prototyping. We didn’t have the know-how to get them produced, so we were hunting for suppliers and when the [restaurant] project came along, we went into it.
You have done so many different things, but you don’t seem to draw a line between the different activities.
E: To us there’s no clear line between what we do. If you really want to do something, just do it! What’s stopping you? There’s really no difference between the different facets of design. Because design is actually a form of consultancy. People buy your time because you help them translate certain things into a point of view. That point of view could be a book, a brand, a product.
Of course, arguably, for a lot of people, for logistical purposes, they are different, We agree, because the considerations are different, but you don’t want to be judged as a business based on technicality. You want to be judged based on, oh we want to hire you because you have a point of view that we’re interested in, that we can use to push the thing further. I think that’s important. Rather than, oh you do very nice brochures, I want you to help me make a brochure!
So what‘s it like working in Singapore?
K: Definitely very exciting and more competitive now. The world of design has evolved.
But while it’s more competitive, the design studios in Singapore seem to be very supportive of each other.
K: I don’t know, maybe because most of us were friends first. When I started with Asylum, Chris was my senior. Larry was my colleague there. Maybe that explains why. We knew each other from years ago.
So are there any local designers you really like or admire?
E: I like different studios for different reasons. Larry carved a good niche for himself in a very niche market. And his work has a certain signature. I look for signature in a work. I think he has that. Chris, don’t say lah - that’s a given! He has been able to turn it into a formidable creative force. That’s very admirable. Even Hanson - he only does very art-based or architectural kind of work, but he stuck to his gun and has gotten somewhere.
What plans do you have for the studio in general?
K: Make more money!
E: And for it to be self-running. The studio doesn’t need to be big, but it needs to be more self-sufficient. The team is pretty young, so they still require a bit of hand-holding. We don’t want to grow too big, but we want everyone to be comfortable. I think once you become too big, you become beholden to the project. If we do get more work, I’d rather we pay designers more money. Designers are one of the more misunderstood professions. The value of design has grown, but the value of the designer hasn’t. So if we can make more money, I’d rather we pay everyone more.
Finally, what do you do on your free time? Are you guys workaholics?
K: The furniture-making and letterpress are something very dear to Kai. As for me, I play tennis. For some of the work, you don’t have a choice, because you have to make sure you put in the amount of work before you see the results, but think it’s important to pull yourself away for perspective.
Photos & Interview by Rebecca Toh for The Makers’ Journal. Visit The Bureau, located at the Tiong Bahru Commons.
In the meantime, shop their artist edition apron in collaboration with Goodcraft, and a collection of prints about local craftsmen from Craft & Conversations, printed by The Bureau letterpress: