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It’s our 6th Issue! We hope you’ve started 2014 in good form, and we’d like to follow suit with this jam-packed issue. If you’re in South-East Asia, its only been a month but ‘two new years’ have past since our last update - and things are only just getting started! This year promises to be a game-changer for us, so do follow us to stay updated.
In this issue, we have our widest regional coverage yet. We journey with leather goods brand Voyej on their factory production run in Yogyakarta and learn the ropes behind running a quality business. Next, we take a dive with Timo trunks founder-designer Pow Foongfaungchaveng, who shares with us his thoughts on the Asian creative industry from a Thai perspective. Across the Laotian border, Sali Sasaki of Crafted takes us on an expedition in the rural upstates, to witness the advancements made in creative education through her selfless intervention. Over in Taiwan, we learn many lessons from Y Studio’s school of philosophical thought, one of them being why life has to be bigger than design. Finally, back in Singapore, we talk to newly founded fashion label biro, part of the rising trend of designed in Singapore, made in Japan.
We’ve also devoted the visual focus of this issue to the observation of materials: leather, microfibre water-resistant fabric, brass, loopwheeled fibre, and the weave of a community. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Meanwhile, if you happen to be passing through Chinatown in Singapore, come visit us at our Not-A-Retail-Shop at People’s Park Complex. In a bid to spice up, or rather, ‘gentrify’ the area, property developers Goldhill have invited the good folks of Edible Gardens to cultivate Asia’s largest urban farm on the rooftop of this historical complex - and we’re proud to be a part of it. The space is a little hard to find (you have to walk to the carpark rooftop), but it’s well worth the trek. We’ll be here till the end of March, so do come down and visit us, we’d love to meet you!
The Makers’ Journal journeys with Voyej on it’s quarterly factory production run in Yogyakarta, armed a mission to find out what it takes to run a fine leather goods brand in this part of the world.
Tell us about yourselves.
Voyej started as a final project back when we were in business school. We are a team of 5 people, 4 of whom majored in Marketing Management. We were given a challenge to build our own business project, and we built this brand from scratch, to the extent of driving over a thousand kilometers from Jakarta to Yogyakarta in our mission to find the perfect production partner. Our web store launched on 11th February 2011 and surprisingly we made our first sale in less than an hour. For some people that’s okay but for college students like us back then, it was amazingly satisfying.
What is the concept behind the brand Voyej?
The significance of “journey” throughout Voyej’s branding is based on the journey that every Voyej customer will experience from using vegetable tanned leather goods. They’ll experience many things such as color evolution, shape forming, break-in period, how far they take their wallets, and how different leather treatments affect the leather characteristic as the leather aficionados say, “the leather gets better with age”.
We took the concept of “journey” and blended it into Voyej’s logo which was inspired by the Great Republic ship, the largest wooden clipper ship ever constructed. There is no instant way to create a brand that has strong character and is easily remembered by everyone, so we took our time to design the logo - 6 months later, with some help from our best friends, we had our signature logo. People loved it and we got compliments from many of our overseas customers. We hope every Voyej customer’s journey is enjoyable and full of fun, just like we live our life every day.
Tell us more about the color evolution process.
The Voyej brand was inspired by the color evolution of vegetable tanned leather. We spent our first year trying to explain to everybody why vegetable tanned leather is different from other types of leathers. Vegetable tanned leather is a raw leather that will develop its patina over time. Patina in this case means that the grain will develop into a more mature color, from Natural (cream-white color) into a dark brown, with some marks of usage. The leather is also affected by sunlight, dirt, fluid, or coloring dye. It will age from time to time and the result of its color evolution will differ depending on usage. With some usage, the leather will evolve into darker tone and the texture will soften. Many dry denim enthusiasts suffer from denim bleed and it makes their wallet covered in dark spots full of indigo residue.
Our “natural” colored leather goods are actually our best selling products, and we believe it’s because the user gets to enjoy the color evolution process to the fullest. This success is probably attributed to our education efforts. Over time, vegetable tanned leather gets shinier and the smell is amazing.
Tell us about your own journey into leather products. Did you come across any difficulties?
One of Voyej’s founders is a dry denim enthusiast and he introduced us to the denim scene in Indonesia back in 2009. He bought an American made leather wallet made from natural vegetable tanned leather and it looked cool, vintage, but was quite pricey. Despite all the good points of that wallet, we disliked its thickness and difficulty of use. Really frustrating for a wallet that cost a couple hundred bucks.
We saw a relation between the evolution of dry denim to the evolution of leather goods and saw that there was an opportunity to build a leather goods brand with good design, material, and functionality in mind. Since we started the project in mid 2010, we’ve travelled to many cities to find local sourcing and production partners, suffered bad experiences with customs agents while importing leather materials, strove to educate people on the color evolution of our leather, and now we’re here, hoping to reach leather aficionados from around the world and all other people who want to learn about vegetable tanned leathers.
Leather crafting is very visceral, it’s all about feel and execution. Are the results as immediate?
Leather crafting is all about skills and art. A good skill doesn’t come cheap and a good art doesn’t come fast. It requires several skills as well as sensitivity, and that takes a lot of time to master. It is not easy to perfect the simple things that make something look ordinary.
Tell us about running a leather goods business. What are your daily routines and challenges?
We sketch new designs and we do research about new products every day. Besides that, we need to keep the business going. There are daily tasks such as preparing orders, stock managing, business administration stuff, and other managerial activities. Since our production partner is located 600 kilometers from our hometown, we visit them every 3 months. It’s refreshing to get away from the crowded Jakarta traffic.
Our challenges mostly come from the production sector. It is hard to keep up with the stock availability and customer and market demands, while facing the reality that handmade and hand stitched leather goods aren’t fast to craft. Other than that, we have to source our cowhide from USA. That has its own set of problems such as foreign exchange fluctuation, supply forecasting, and shipping durations.
Do you guys produce in batches? Roughly how many at each time? How do you determine the quantities, or is there a reason to limit production?
We produce roughly around 300 items per month, from wallets to small accessories such as bracelets. Basically we do demand forecasting based on trends and the previous month’s performance. For some special collections such as Anniversary Collections or the Horween Shell Cordovan short wallet, we do limit our production units to keep the collections exclusive and prestigious.
Any tips for aspiring leather craftsmen?
Leather crafting is an art. And art is appreciable. There are brands out there who just employ design or marketing gimmicks. So, be the good ones and choose your material wisely.
What’s next for Voyej?
Improving design and functionality has been our aim from the beginning. Simple yet stylish leather goods would be next on our list. Everyday objects are interesting. So just wait because soon your everyday things could be made by Voyej. Let your journey start soon. Bon voyage!
Follow Voyej on Haystakt.
"What is your favourite place in Asia?"
"What is the best thing about Laos?"
"To watch the sun rise over temples…"
This conversation took place one rainy September evening. It was only several years later that I made my way to Laos for the first time. The time in between was used to form many fictitious images of the place in my head, including how watching the sunrise would actually feel like. Laos, back then, was a country I could barely locate in Asia and it seemed very unreal… Like a dream.
The genesis of the project CRAFTED (“because local culture is the global future”) was strongly inspired by my first visit to Laos in 2012. Like many others, I was struck by the natural beauty of the place, the gentleness of its people, but also became infatuated with the effortless sense of local style. The level of sophistication in textile making, basketry, the tasteful combination of colours and textures, were far beyond my expectations. I quickly came to learn that Laos is a rare gem for crafts in Southeast Asia and, in fact, is known to have a level of craftsmanship that is unique in the world. This encouraged me to introduce the work of brilliant “non design” makers within the context of contemporary design and human development. And so CRAFTED was born.
Besides the sheer beauty of the place and the products, Laos also revealed itself to me as vulnerable in this age of globalization. Its local cultural assets are endangered, and some have already disappeared because of a changing society. Of course, all societies have to change, as ways of life are shaped to be improved, but how can people keep their local cultural practices alive and retain their amazing cultural wealth for the future? I believe that Laos’ biggest asset is its culture but the country may be lacking access to creative thinking, an element that could strongly benefit local communities.
Traditions are strongly embedded in Lao everyday life, and it is common sight to see schoolgirls and women wear the Lao skirt on a daily basis. I was once told by a local that there’s a sense of pride in dressing up traditionally. Like a reverence to the past and ancestral roots, each ethnic group often displays its identity through clothing and social rituals.
Beyond the notion of display and cultural belonging, traditional culture could serve another purpose for the next generation of Laotians, as an opportunity for employment and growth. Traditional crafts are experiencing a revival in wealthy countries such as Japan, a place that is increasingly capitalizing on its cultural heritage. Can it experience the same in a country like Laos? How can traditions be revealed as a trigger for development?
The life cycle of a traditionally-made product is far more sustainable than any factory product. From the natural material used to produce it, to the degree of “slow consumption” that privileges quality over quantity. Traditional products also sustain local livelihoods, eco-systems and cultures, leading to a more diverse marketplace as opposed to the daunting ubiquity induced by globalisation.
"Behind each product is a little creative mind and soul…”
Handmade Stories is a project that is inspired by many of the core values mentioned above: local culture, sustainability, education, youth… It is also about how much heart people can invest in order to generate a new experience beyond conventional thinking.
My explorations across Southeast Asia in 2012, led me to Phoundindaeng Youth Center, a not-for-profit education centre for local communities, which was set up by a network of volunteers in 2007. I first became involved as a designer and started developing a low-tech branding system comprising of a set of rubber stamps, while simultaneously reflecting on the notion of branding and design in the context of NPOs. What is the role of a brand in this context?
While collaborating on the design work with the PYC team, I realised that the creation of a logo generated a sense of belonging and ownership among the local team members and youth. A sense of pride developed and subsequently the visual identity worked as a binder between the individuals. They asked me to draw some fish and a river to represent their beloved Nam Song river. I combined those elements with a custom font with irregularities that, to me, seemed to capture youth and playfulness.
Handmade Stories follows the initial identity and the brand. I had the desire to take it a step further, by involving a creative education project from Japan called Atelier Loghouse and initiate a collaboration between local youth and this professional team. Local material was sourced from Khua Din market in Vientiane and a handmade paper facility in Houey Pa Mom in the district of VangVieng.
We intervened at a very small local scale to trigger something, like a spark. And this made me rethink the term innovation as a process that is generated by human encounters. Different people from different places meet, and then, it is an experiment leading to a surprise. None of us could predict what was going to happen.
We had 180 students, ranging approximately from age 7 to 18. All coming from the nearby villages in VangVieng district situated about 180km from the capital city Vientiane. Most of them were familiar with drawing and girls particularly skilled with traditional needle work. The core objective was to generate new experiments so we wanted to challenge their creative mind by giving them complete freedom to explore with different material while also using their existing skills and aesthetic sense that seem naturally so inherent to Lao people.
Behind each product is a little creative mind and soul… The beauty stems from the freedom expressed and the wonderful imperfections that can not be imitated. The outcome feels genuine and real. The youthful dedication was felt as they sat, making and sewing in the dark, long after the sun had disappeared behind the Lao mountain range.
This seed of creativity needs to be nurtured for the long-term sustainability of local life and culture. As it grows, new possibilities can rise and people will increase their ability to shape their future in a meaningful way.
This kind of experience is not something that can be easily acquired in Laos. In a country where basic education still remains a challenge, creative education can only seem like a luxury. And yet, the biggest misunderstanding about creativity is that it is optional or secondary. This project is a modest attempt to introduce creativity as an equal right to all individuals. Because we are all born creative and with plenty of imagination. I want the next generation of Lao people to be able to live in a world of their own making.
The boutique-exhibition Handmade Stories is now open at Kizuki+lim (Raffles Hotel Arcade #03-03/04) for a month-long display of products made in collaboration with Phoudindaeng Youth Center (Laos) and Atelier Loghouse (Japan). Come experience a project about how much heart people can invest to generate positive change and new experiences, and join us on 20 February for a special event. All are welcome, RSVP here.
Follow CRAFTED on Haystakt, and SHOP the Collection below:
There has been a recent effort to bridge the economic ties between the Japanese and Singaporean design industries, aimed to encourage cross-border collaboration at various points along the supply chain. For some, the pursuit for quality has come without intervention. The Makers’ Journal speaks to Kage and Kenghow, brothers and founders of new fashion label biro, about making clothes the good old traditional way.
Have you always been interested in clothes and fashion?
K: Yes, since secondary school!
KH: I remember drawing stuff during my army days. And then back in 2007 we were very into street wear, so we started an online store where we imported street wear from America. We bought and sold brands and as we slowly grew out of the street wear thing, it evolved into biro.
So you were never properly trained in fashion?
K: No, but our mum is a seamstress, so if there’s anything we just ask her!
KH: There are a lot of techniques, a lot of hidden stuff that we can’t learn from books alone.
K: So actually we buy a lot of stuff, a lot of clothes, and from there we take reference. Most of the clothes we buy are not trendy clothes. For myself I have been into denim for a long time, so I have collected like 30 to 40 pairs of denim pieces, and from there you learn and pick up.
KH: Previously I was actually running my own printing company, something I started way back before everything, but I’m not a very businessman kind of person. I just did it because I didn’t want to work for others, so I had to find something to do. But I couldn’t go into fashion straightaway because I had zero experience.
Has realizing your own fashion label from scratch been a tenuous journey so far?
K: Before biro we tried designing street wear. It was more graphic, but after that we realized it didn’t really suit our taste. For biro we tried many different products around the same design, and for the quality and workmanship, we tried a lot of different countries, different makers, different fabrics before we finally went to Japan. We tried everything that was possible. Actually we already knew Japan was the best fit at the start, but to go to Japan directly is a little tough, because everything is so expensive and you need to speak Japanese.
KH: It’s lucky that we came across these particular two factories and they are quite good in English…
K: But still it’s in Japanese English! (Laughs) You can communicate but once the email comes, you go.. what are they talking about? So to make sure things are clear, we usually go down to Japan. It’s the best way, if not sending stuff to and from Japan is just too expensive. We really searched through every single factory, and they were all spread out everywhere - we had to see what they are good at, what they are famous for.
Do you feel all that hard work paid off? How has the response to biro been so far?
KH: In terms of appreciation it has been quite fantastic, but in terms of sales, it’s not exactly what we expected, but I guess this is how it goes, being a new brand and having a higher price point that our local market might find harder to accept.
K: Before we made the price point, we looked at our product to see if it’s worth this price for a consumer. If we feel that it’s possible to sell at this price, we’re comfortable with it. But to me, whatever we do is not pricey. We are not like those huge labels - their production is in such huge units, so their cost is so much lesser than ours. For people who usually buy such quality stuff or who like such traditional methods, I don’t think they will mind, but the thing is I don’t think many people in Singapore know about such things. They go for fast fashion.
Can you explain “quality” in fashion?
K: For me, I think it’s different perspectives. Everyone can say their product is of a high quality, even if you mass produce it in Indonesia, but it’s the depth of it. For us, we go through every detail, from the sewing, the workmanship, to where the fabric comes from, the dyeing method. We also use old machinery. It’s more in-depth. When you tell people they don’t really know what you’re talking about. So you can say anything is premium, but premium on what level?
Biro uses traditional production methods. How does this separate you from the pack?
K: Fast fashion factories use modernized machines so the speed is very fast. I’m not saying there is no quality but there is definitely something missing. We go to Japan because only they have the vintage machinery. Like for this t-shirt (Artisan Patchwork T-shirt from biro’s first collection), only two factories in the world have the machinery to make and produce it. Whatever we are doing, a lot of high end designers are doing it as well, just that they are really up there, so they don’t really need to spread the word. For example, NIKE just did a collaboration with the factory we work with.
How did you begin to design your first collection?
KH: Actually we spent quite a lot of time planning and developing this first collection. We were going through a lot, wanting to work with the right places, the right people, and developing what we could be satisfied with, so it took a good two and a half to three years.
K: We are quite demanding, because even for the Japanese factories, if we are not happy with their work we will just question them, “Why is it like this! Is this a Japanese product?” Because we buy a lot of Japanese products ourselves, so if we see that the ones we bought are of a certain quality, then why is the factory producing otherwise… It’s not like everything made in Japan is automatically good.
What about the theme of your first collection? Is there a story you are trying to tell or a message you’re trying to push through?
KH: It’s about how we want to bring this whole new idea about precision manufacturing to our market here. We had been sourcing for good materials and good workmanship for the past couple of years before we decided to launch, and we had the designs since two to three years ago, but we were doing our samples, wasting a lot of money, going back and forth with a lot of people… Even until now we’re still tweaking. Then finally we decided to release the collection. The main thing about “intervention” is we want to emphasize the exquisiteness of our workmanship, the tailoring, the manufacturing process, where the fabrics come from, the weave, the dye, all these stuff.
Is there a distinct biro look?
KH: We are still doing very straightforward tees and pants, so for now as we focus more on the detailing, the precision, I’d think it’s still very difficult to tell something is a “biro”.
Are there any brands that inspired you along the way?
K: For me it’s Levi’s vintage clothing. I started from collecting most of their jeans. They are not like LV or anything, but when you wear it, over time you will feel very attached to the product. If you wear another pair of jeans you will feel like something is missing. Probably it’s personal, but I like something with a vintage touch to it, and something that focuses more on old cuts and patterns and something that’s comfortable. Sometimes a design is very nice, but when you wear it it’s just for you to look good, but it’s not very comfortable. The fabric used [for Levi’s] is also very good. Until five years ago the products were all made in USA, now it’s maybe Europe.
KH: I come from a more visual background. What inspires me is more of architectural stuff. The things we see everyday on the streets. As compared to clothes, I’m more intrigued by architecture, like buildings, spacing on the road, pavements… somehow they give me inspiration and ideas. It’s like the whole entirety. When you change a little bit of design here, how does the entire thing look like? So it’s like on the streets - if you place a lamp post here, the whole scene changes.
What’s next for biro?
KH: We already have a theme for our second collection and we’ve sent it for production. It’s going to be more monochromatic, although it’s for Spring/Summer!
K: We still want to have the cool factor, because for Spring/Summer people usually dress down or in louder colors. For us we are not really trendy people - I think different personalities choose different clothes - so we won’t choose to wear a loud shirt and walk around. So for us, even for Spring/Summer you still have to look cool or look smart!
KH: Our first season was considered quite grunge-raw, so for the second season we wanted something more clean-cut. We also wanted to expand the collection into a wider range, and we chose black and white because we are new and for a start, black and white stuff is more acceptable to people than louder, more floral stuff. Everyone needs a black top! But of course it won’t be all black and white, there will be dark blue, indigo, but there won’t be any bright colors.
Finally, which part of running your own fashion label do you enjoy most?
K: The process is the most important. Going down to the factory is important for me to know what the factory is doing, what other brands they are manufacturing for, how hardworking they are. Sourcing for buttons or fabrics is also very fun for us. We get to learn a lot of things we didn’t even know about. So we appreciate the whole process. If there’s no process, even if we see the final product, we don’t know what it is. It’s just a design. Once we go through this whole phase of choosing this and that, the whole thing comes out and fits together.
KH: We cannot foresee what’s happening next. It just keeps coming and coming, be it obstacles or some form of feedback from people, so that part of the process is quite interesting.
Follow Biro on Haystakt.
With a penchant for old objects, Y Studio is an industrial design duo armed with transcending thoughts and a golden touch that breathes new life into all things commonplace. In this little studio situated in an unassuming neighbourhood on Minquan West Road in Taipei, we are surrounded by the zeitgeist of an old soul. We sat for tea, and through the philosophical pair, learn why life is bigger than design.
Hi Yanko and Yi-Hsien, thank you for accommodating our visit in the midst of your studio’s relocation. We were expecting your new studio to be rather quaint but this space and this neighborhood is really slow living at its best!
We love being in an old residential neighborhood like this one, with the gentle bustle of the open market across the street and the daily routines of the old folks. There is something about simple neighborhoods that tend to bring out a heightened sensitivity to the everyday. Be it the weather, the environment, or the vibrant foliage of this tree outside our window, we feel that a keen observation to everyday things and situations is particularly important for the design-thinking process.
It has been less than two years since Y Studio was incorporated, but it seems that you have achieved a fair amount, including a series of collaborations with the VVG group in Taipei. Can you tell us a little more about the partnership?
VVG is an existing stockist of ours and they have been extremely supportive so far. We started off with a small interactive exhibition called “Pen a Letter That Never Reached the Post” in the VVG Thinking store earlier in July this year. This exhibition involved a simple set up with supplies for writing and a bare wall. The intention was to provide an intimate space that encouraged people to revisit their memories with courage, to write down what they had not been able to relate verbally and be liberated through the process of sharing their thoughts on a common wall. We also created black envelopes for the exhibition, which in essence symbolizes an anonymous or cryptic recipient.
What gave you the idea to this ‘experiment’?
This initiative was inspired by a story of a friend, whose free-spirited college years were abruptly interrupted by the obligation to take care of his ailing father — something that fueled resentment and detachment in him. While he was out with friends one night, he received a call from home with news of his father’s passing. Inevitably, he blamed himself for not being there in the final moments. With the departure, he also realized he had left too many things unsaid. Sometimes, only upon the departure of a loved one do you regret not building more fond memories together. As a way to re-connect, he found an old watch amongst his father’s belongings, got it fixed and wore it on a daily basis. He also wrote a late letter addressed to his father for everything he had failed to express.
The first workshop was exactly inspired by the idea of a symbolic object and the weight of our words. Here, the pen itself is such a simple tool, yet such a powerful gesture in itself, one that manages to penetrate and fill the deepest crevices of one’s heart.
What perspective has an experiment as poignant as this given you in your design process?
We are always thinking about the purpose of design. Beyond the aesthetic sensibilities, what can design do for people? For example, the significance of a pen goes beyond that of a singular object. And to us, it did not matter as much if people liked our designs. It mattered more that a pen could go through the warm touch of so many hands, and be used as both a functional, as well as a symbolic tool to revisit a memory.
How about the other workshops that you have conducted? I believe there was a Y Studio x VVG workshop series that involved making your own stationery too?
In line with the theme of “Pen a Letter that Never Reached the Post”, we conducted a craft workshop to teach the public how to make their own glass dip pens. Craft workshops are always engaging. Previously, we conducted a session where we taught a class to make lamps out of a batch of old enamel bowls and plates that the two of us combed up in an old shop. We followed up with a second theme in August, “The Distance to Our Ambitions”, another writing experiment that was held in a mock classroom setting at Good Design Institute.
How closely do these community-based workshops tie in with the design philosophy of Y Studio?
I guess we have always loved sourcing for old, unexpected daily objects and taking them apart to study them. We particularly enjoy taking these everyday necessities of old Taiwan, like ceramic plugs and enamel crockery, and re-modeling them into something functional for the everyday modern life. And we use these ideas as a means to educate and connect with the community.
At the same time, we are particularly curious about the varying perspectives influenced by varying cultural backgrounds. For example, the pen is a universal tool for creating words of different languages. The typography of the Chinese word is much different from that of English or European languages. So different communities look at a writing tool differently, depending on the language they are writing in. We are intrigued by the way writing tools are perceived through different cultural and literary perspectives, and how they are used.
Take us back to the present. We are curious about your upcoming projects or what you are busy with right now.
Most recently, we have just wrapped up a few exhibitions, such as the Taiwan International Cultural and Creative Expo in November. We have also been busy working on some new products, like the limited edition clipboard we have recently released for the year-end.
Working with craftsmen — does it fulfill or complicate the design process?
More often than not, as designers, we feel that we are working as one with our craftsmen as part of the whole design process. With that said, we have also been lucky to meet masters who are really committed to their crafts. For example, the best craftsman we have ever had the chance to work with spent a few nights laboring quietly over the mechanism of a mechanical brass pencil prototype. The design involved a very precise execution, but he had never once complained about the difficulties, nor rejected our business because it was not worth his time. We took the leap of faith with him because we were not even sure ourselves if it would work, but nevertheless, he made it work. Working with craftsmen like him definitely makes the process fulfilling and encouraging.
Looking back at how far you have come, what were the anxieties that you have faced and how did you overcome them?
Yi-Hsien: We will be lying if we say we were never nervous at any point. But whenever one of us gets anxious or frustrated, we keep the other in check, always reminding each other to keep calm and keep going.
As for myself, I have always had an interest for industrial design, much to my parents’ objection because they wanted me to follow an academic path. I entered engineering school like a responsible son, but secretly enrolled myself into another Industrial Design coursework upon graduating from my engineering degree. I was much older than my classmates by then. As such, I was always anxious about getting things right, and rather hard on myself, I must say, because there was always a persistent fear of falling behind.
Allow me to tell a story. We had the opportunity to meet the great Japanese master, Masayuki Kurokawa, who imparted a wonderful analogy to us. It was a lesson on growth, success and patience, which everyone can take away from. He said getting to success is like climbing a mountain and not being able to see the end in sight, or not knowing when you will reach the peak. Even if you make it to the top after all the hard work, you may find the view disappointing. But perhaps, while you are waiting at the peak, a black bird may approach. If you are willing to take the leap of faith, you will grab onto its claws, letting it take you away in flight.
If you have given up because the end was not in sight, or not what you have idealized, you will miss the opportunity to fly. And even if you have seized the opportunity, you may slip and let go of the bird’s claws, falling. So we should not see success as a final point for all our hard work, but as a combination of factors and a constant process of reaching, aiming, seizing, failing and getting back up again.
On the topic of success, do you have something envisioned for your studio or Taiwan’s design scene in Taiwan in the next five years?
We have been very blessed with opportunities since we started our studio. Grace from VVG has been most helpful; we had the chance to take our products overseas; and at the end of the day, we are just grateful that people love and appreciate our products. Looking back, I think we are lucky to have started our brand at this time, because the local market is just beginning to understand the kind of product design we do. We had a senior who tried to start a similar studio concept ten years ago, but the studio folded because it was not the right time.
I guess our main hope for Y Studio will be to see the sales of our products take off overseas. As for our aspirations for the local industry, we hope the local support for independent product designers grow from strength to strength. Ultimately, we want to be able to continue doing what what we love, continue to challenge the purpose of design, yet still take things in stride as they come.
Do you have any non-design-related hobbies that have carried you through your design process?
Yanko: (pointing to a desirable collection of vintage film cameras) Photography and cameras! While designing our Re-born lamp series, we had to take apart some cameras, and often find so much to learn about their internal mechanisms. Most surprisingly, we discovered a Japanese name inscribed on the interior shell of a camera. We found out that it’s the name of the very craftsman who had assembled the camera. It says so much about the pride he takes in his work, for it is a heavy responsibility to have a user know exactly who made their camera.
Yi-Hsien: (leading us to his Gundam models collection) Building Gundam models is a hobby that really helps me feel like a child again and takes me away from the practicalities of life. I’m not thinking about how well the business will do, whether we will survive, or how people will see our designs. And I believe this is an important break in the process — to take a step back sometimes and through distance, be re-inspired to design. When you are too focused about success, there is a tendency to clam up.
By the way, on an unrelated note, we saw a lovely pack stray cats on the ground floor of this building. Do you play with them much?
Yi-Hsien: I make a point to play with my own cats only, or domesticated cats. I don’t advocate being friendly with stray cats because you are domesticating them in some way, which in turn encourages them to let down their guards with people. And you never know when these cats may meet someone with ill intentions.
An adventure is about exploring with new eyes and free spirits. Begin your journey with just a pair of TIMO trunks and a curious mind. TIMO first burst onto the scene in 2009; since then it has received nothing short of enthusiastic approval from the likes of Wallpaper*, Monocle, and Asia’s own Bryan Boy. We brave the Bangkok traffic to visit founder and creative director Pow Foongfaungchaveng, who embodies much of TIMO’s adorned and preppy sensibilities.
Tell us about a day in the life of Timo.
Bon vivant and adventure-loving, TIMO rises rather late and he goes surfing and he normally has huge late lunch before embarking on his vintage wooden kayak to explore new islands, I think.
Having said that, TIMO doesn’t really exist. TIMO was invented as a character to introduce the TIMO swim trunks. As you see, in this season 2014, TIMO goes “Under Water” to introduce the “Panicked Fish” collection.
Was it always beachwear for you?
It just came naturally. Thailand, where there are great beaches, deserves good swim trunks. It all makes sense.
You were educated abroad. Why did you return to Thailand?
There are more opportunities in Asia, especially if you were to start a business in the creative-commodity industry. It is much easier to design and produce at more competitive cost. Asia runs no shortage of talents and to start producing a new product is much easier here.
"To turn passion into business wasn’t taught in design school"
Thailand is known for it’s mass production. What’s changed, and how do you see the consumer economy moving in the region?
I think Thailand, or Bangkok to be precise, is fast becoming known as a city of “new, good experimental design at affordable price”. A lot of people come to Bangkok, to shop and explore on new local designers, which are often amazing. As I said, we have no shortage of talents. Combining that with our manufacturing facilities here makes Thailand a good creative hub.
What inspires Timo?
Fun. TIMO takes fun seriously.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process?
When designing new TIMO prints, we always try to capture the spirit of something fun, an adventure or a journey into our prints. A TIMO design should also at once have a timeless quality, or carry some vibe that is classic enough about it. Our designs should not date quickly like fast fashion.
In what ways was it important that you do everything yourself, from designing right down to overseeing the manufacturing?
To start off a brand, it’s easier to do everything yourself, from design to production to communication, in order to get it right. Between you and me, don’t tell anyone, it is cheaper to do it yourself.
But it will come the time when the brand gets to the scale that you cant oversee everything. And I think for designers like us, it is the real challenge, I mean, to turn ‘passion’ into ‘business’ wasn’t taught in design school.
What made you work with Haystakt?
HAYSTAKT speaks for modern voice and I think so does TIMO.
Tell us about the upcoming TIMO x HAYSTAKT trunks.
We are exploring on design at this stage. It will be explosive. Wait and see.
What’s next for TIMO?
We are exploring into a total TIMO beach experience. I don’t know, ideas pop in and out all the time. I might want do a TIMO cabana bar at TJB next summer.
What is your favorite weekend beach?
Yaonoi Island, Phuket. It feels very Robinson Crusoe-meets-Wes-Anderson.
And your favourite joints in Bangkok?
Smith Restaurant, Sukhumvit 49.
We have to ask (if it isn’t already obvious enough).. Is Timo actually Pow’s alterego?
I guess it is my better alter-ego.
Photos by Bom Surachead & TIMO for The Makers’ Journal
5 quick tips on how to turn your house into a home that’s fit for the holiday parties - and a sure-fire way to enjoy it!
As we wrap up the year (and your gift orders, thank you all you fantastic people!), it’s only right that the spirit of gifting doesn’t stop at gifts, or occasions, for that matter. In fact, it might just be the signal of things more meaningful.
We’ve planned this issue to take you through your Christmas cheer and New Years’ tidings, a little gift from us to you. As you wind-down the year’s accounts and take that well-deserved breather, check out our 5 Tips to Being A Good Host this holiday season. We’re also delighted to bring you a christmas exclusive in collaboration with our friends The MeatMen, who do no less than to teach you how to make the perfect locally infused Christmas dish - in all it’s high-definition video glory.
Admist the cheer, it’s also a time for reflection. And as we look back on the past year, we’ve got much to be thankful for. We’ve made many friends from all over the world, dwelved deep into the industry, and most importantly to us - collected many stories. In this issue we share the reflective tale of how MessyMsxi turned failures into success, and celebrate the local successes with our friends from Supermama & Democratic Society.
Lastly, a splendid new year’s tale from our friends in Jakarta, about one brand’s search for the perfect blue, their new collection designed for gardening, and reflections on sowing seeds for a new landscape.
We hope you enjoy the issue, and we can’t wait for the surprises we have in store for you for the upcoming year. It’s going to be a year of many firsts, and as always, we’re so glad to have you with us. On behalf of all of us at Haystakt, have a Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Happy New Year.
Messymsxi first burst onto the local art scene in 2010 with her inaugural solo show “Ten Years Of Work For Every Minute On Stage”, featuring a series of quirky, poignant paintings about the secret pains behind a team of nymph-like gymnasts. Since then she has grown to become one of Singapore’s best-known artists, earning numerous awards for her sensitive, playful and sometimes heart-rending illustration work.
When did you realise that you like to draw?
My dad was a Chinese painter, so when I was young he would let us play around with his paint brushes. He used to have a very big table in the dining room where he’d paint and as kids we were always very curious. Whatever that he chucked aside we would pick up and start painting, so that was like my hobby. Most of the time when I went out with my dad - like to the Emporium or something - I’d quickly go to the books corner and anyhow pick out coloring books. I remember spending all my time just coloring. I never watched television so now when my friends ask me about cartoons I watched while I was young, I can’t really strike a conversation with them!
But I’m sure you never imagined you’d one day become a full-time illustrator.
I never knew! When I wrote compositions I’d just write that my ambition is to be an artist, but it was bullshit because I really didn’t have an ambition. Even if my ambition was to be an artist I didn’t know how to be one. I just wrote it because it was something I knew was possible because my dad was an artist.
When I was in secondary school I didn’t do very well. When I got back my results, I could only go to a neighbourhood JC. I did my first 3 months at Serangoon Junior College, but it was so boring. My friend then asked me, since I like to draw, why not go to the design school at Temasek Polytechnic? She recommended me to go into the Visual Communications course, where I did graphic design. In my second and third year I majored in illustration, but after I graduated I didn’t know the tools to be an illustrator. I was very new, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know anyone who was an illustrator, so I just joined the company I previously did an internship with. I did quite well when I graduated so they didn’t mind taking me back.
I hated it. I think if I went to another company and my job scope was different I wouldn’t have disliked it as much. There also wasn’t any potential to grow so I quit my job. I decided to pursue illustration and further my studies. I talked to my parents about going to local university; my dad said I should continue working, and if I was really talented I wouldn’t need a degree. That was very heartbreaking. Then I talked to my mum. She said they didn’t really save up for my education. My brother studied medicine, so most of their savings went to his education. So I just told my mum, don’t worry, my God will provide!
Eventually you still went on to earn a degree in illustration. How did you manage to do that?
I did the most rebellious thing ever - I just went to apply to Central Saint Martins in London, without their consensus, without any money, without knowing what was going to happen.
Why did you decide to go back to school? Why not just start doing freelance work, like most of the other illustrators out there?
I think there was a lot I needed to learn. At that time I was very young and not ready. After I quit my job it was like the only option - I knew I didn’t want to do graphic design, so if I wanted to do something else, I should just go all the way. I think you have that kind of spirit when you’re very young - you’re very daring and very brave.
So I got accepted! I then got awarded a DesignSingapore scholarship. When I went to the UK, the exchange rate was really high, so I had to be very frugal. I really learnt how to save. The first month was quite fun because I was still exploring the place, but after that I got homesick and everything started to kick in. But that was the only way I could learn how to be really strong. A lot of my energy or my work now feeds from my experiences in London.
When did you come back to Singapore to pursue your art?
In 2009 I came back for awhile to prepare for my exhibition, then I went back to London. I was trying to look for work there but during that year it was the economic downturn, so it was very hard for anybody to hire or represent me.
So you didn’t actually want to come back?
I was half-hearted. I was very homesick after 3 years and I knew (coming back) would be better for me mentally. There (in London) I was so drained living alone and handling everything by myself. On the other hand, I really loved the culture and the whole energy about London, so I knew that was the place that really inspires me. I went back to London last year for 2 months, I loved it! I brought my work there - the good thing about being an illustrator is that a lot of the time you can communicate with your clients through email, they don’t really need to meet you. So working and living in London - that is the ideal situation.
Now that you have been through the traditional route, do you think it’s important for illustrators to get a formal education?
I don’t think it’s very important, because I know a lot of illustrators who don’t have degrees but their works are very good. There are many types of illustrators - some can draw really well; some illustrators are very artistic so clients look for them for their style. I don’t think I fall into that category of having a very strong style or of being super good at drawing, but when I was in school, I had to write a lot of essays to explain my work. We went to lots of context classes, so writing and learning how to talk about my work helped me create narratives in my work. So I think what sets me apart is that through my skills in illustrating I tell stories and explore issues worth sharing.
To put things in perspective and to ask a lot of questions - that was not something I understood before I studied (in university). Before that I just liked to tell quirky stories, things that I’m interested in, but I didn’t know what was the main reason for all these, I didn’t understand the bigger picture. Maybe I’m not that intelligent, so I needed the education. It opened my eyes.
I think this sense of “context” - of having a strong story at the core - really comes through when I look at your first solo exhibition “Ten Years Of Work For Every Minute On Stage”.
At first it was very shallow, I just wanted to draw gymnasts and contortionists. I had been on this subject for a long time, so I thought, okay this time I should finish and make a series out of them. I started working and after spending like one month trying to think about what this exhibition is going to be about, I got very fearful because I realised there’s nothing I’m communicating, there’s no real meaning, just pictures. I thought, what’s so good about this series of work? I felt very disappointed. I decided to chuck everything away.
One day I woke up and I was very sad, I felt like a failure, then I suddenly thought, oh why don’t I do a series on failure? I thought I should illustrate the gymnasts in the gym, practising day in day out; I felt it was exactly what I was doing. I was in my room, day in day out, drawing, so I found the connection and it was a lot easier after that. Because there was context! And meaning. Instead of making them look glamorous on stage, I added girls falling down. I wanted to show the harshness.
Do you see yourself working in the same medium all your life?
No. I don’t like to stick to something, I like to be open and experimental. I don’t really want to do just 2D drawings. For example, I can apply my skill of illustration to clothes and people can wear or carry them, and it can tell a story or express their personality. I wouldn’t want to be just an illustrator.
Whenever I’m not doing anything creative I will take a step back and I will look at what’s on my plate and compare the number of creative things and non-creative things I’m doing. I’d go back to square one, and ask myself, what do I want to communicate? I’d start asking questions that I was being asked when I was a student. When I was a student, that was the point when I was most inspired.
What are you currently busy with?
Now I’m trying to prepare for my second show. It’s very hard for me to put together something because I’m afraid that it won’t speak to people. I’ve been thinking about drugs, and that’s something that’s quite hard for people to relate to. I was watching about Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, these are celebrities who passed away because of drugs. It’s a waste of life.
I don’t think I’m a very dark person but I’m very attracted to stories like pollution, third world children, Africa, eating disorders. These are subjects I read about a lot on the newspapers when I was in the UK, because they always have this green section where they talk about pollution, and this celebrities section where they talk about eating disorders, and they alway show Lindsay Lohan on the front cover. These were the things I started researching on - I just felt very drawn to them. When I was in Temasek Polytechnic I did a project on how a girl started to waste materials because she had this experimental spirit, so she started cutting all the fabrics and wasted everything. That was actually a story that was parallel to Easter Island, which used to be a very lush island with a lot of trees, but people didn’t know how to use the resources properly. This resulted in cannibalism because they had nothing else to eat. Easter Island is empty now and has become merely a touristy area. These are very interesting subjects that I am very drawn to.
Lastly, do you have a personal artistic hero?
Yes, it’s Louise Bourgeois. She built her career in America. Her story is very sad. When she was very young, her father had an affair with her English tuition teacher. All along she thought her teacher liked her very much and therefore gave her a lot of attention. But along the way she found out that maybe she’s not the reason why the teacher was there; she was there to have an affair with her father. Her father was always very mean, so all her work, from when she was a young artist until she was old, revolved around her dad and her experiences with him. She’s also very experimental - she uses all sorts of materials - iron, marbles - and she uses materials in the context of the subject she’s talking about very accurately.
All her life she had insomnia so she’d write down things she was thinking about. A lot of her writings were very dark. She was very traumatized by her father. Everything she did was about her father and her anger and how she couldn’t forgive him. I think it’s really very sad. Somehow she just couldn’t let go, but maybe that’s the beautiful part of her work.
Color is a thing we sometimes take for granted. For our friends Direz, Osi, and Dana, it’s a fully fledged business, a way to sustain old-time craft, and a constant source of inspiration. At the forefront of a fast-growing local menswear scene, Bluesville does no less than to highlight the often overlooked intricacies of an industry. Nestled away from the bustling streets of Jakarta, we understand why their peaceful workshop is a sanctuary where one can reflect upon the history of color, hone the art of dye, and be reminded about the importance of going to great lengths to do something simple.
In the fast world of fashion, shapes and prints are often the highlights, but the ethos that drives Bluesville is one that is slow, observant, and focused on technique. Who’s behind the brand, and tell us, what was the spark?
First of all, thank you. We started with Direz and Osi at first, throwing ideas back and forth with an interest to make indigo related products. That was back in early 2011. Later on, still in 2011, we met with Dana (Direz’s friend from high school), whom at the time of their meeting had already been exploring techniques related to indigo dyeing. The three of us came together and chatted, and it organically evolved to a decision to build a brand with a focus on indigo as the main inspiration.
We started really small, with minimum knowledge and minimum budget. What kept us going was pure passion and our interest in natural indigo. The initial experiments led to our first product, which was a natural indigo dyed t-shirt made through collaboration with the biggest denim community in Indonesia, Darahkubiru. On the first run we produced a mere 20 t-shirts and it was sold out in minutes! That really excited us. I think that was also the turning point for us to give Bluesville a go and make it bigger.
Tell us about color.
We’ve always been into history, and color has a deep history that surrounds it, especially blue. Back in ancient civilizations, colors in clothing were obtained through natural means, predominantly from plants and their parts. The colors were obtained from natural dye extracted directly from leaves, roots and sometimes insects. The process of extracting was all done naturally by hand, the same could be said with the process of dyeing garments.
Talking about natural blue, this particular color holds sacred meaning to several civilizations around the world. Mainly it is because blue was the hardest to extract, and the source of blue is rare and expensive. The first known source for the color blue was Lapis Lazuli, a mineral often found in Central Asia. Legends said that blue colors extracted from lapis lazuli date back to the Mesopotamian civilization and were used for buildings, clothes, jewelry, and the ingredients for Cleopatra’s eye shadow.
"The color blue.. and it’s relation to people remains as one of our main inspirations.."
Later on, blue was extracted from plants and the only plants that can produce blue is Indigofera Tinctoria, mainly produced in India and South East Asia. In fact, Indonesia, and especially Java, was one of the main indigo plantations during the VOC (Dutch East india Company) reign in the area during the 15th century. As a rare and expensive commodity, Indigo from Asia was often transported to Europe.
Blue and indigo are also often associated with mysticism and spiritual matters. This is because the process of natural indigo dyeing is a challenge to manage. Until today, people in Japan still pray each time they plant a new indigo seed. People in Toba, Indonesia, would be accompanied with witch doctors chanting prayers to block the evil spirit that can affect the indigo vats.
The history and spiritual relation about the color blue was what led us to exploring more about indigo, and it’s relation to people remains as one of our main inspirations.
You hold onto traditional techniques while designing for a modern audience.
Since our inception we’ve focused on applying traditional techniques in producing garments, holding to 3 of Indonesia’s traditional garment techniques including natural dyeing, traditional hand weaving, and handwritten batik. These techniques were mastered by our ancestors, and we hope to preserve these techniques for the future and make them sustainable.
Nowadays, most people who practice these techniques still refer to more traditional approaches in terms of design. The world knows batik, but mainly for it’s motifs and patterns, mostly from hundreds of years ago. So we try to expose more about what lies beneath the motifs, going back to the fundamentals of batik, and it’s resist dye waxing technique.
We try to think progressively when designing, and we feel that these traditional techniques shouldn’t just be revived or preserved but be pushed into more modern and relevant uses. By being relevant we can apply batik techniques to a more modern approach in terms of motif designs, for example making polka dots motifs using batik techniques, or an all-over-paisley. We do try to think of what is relevant today in clothing, and combine it with what our traditional techniques are capable of making. That way we still preserve the year old technique but in a way also pushing them to the next level.
Indonesia used to be a center for international manufacturing export due to it’s low costs, though in recent years this has shifted towards a local creative economy. Is there a domestic market?
Indeed. I think it’s because the young and productive population is the majority at the moment in Indonesia, and the Internet has been a factor for them to grasp information quickly and thoroughly.
People are becoming more interested in obtaining local products in recent years and there are many catalysts to this movement. One example is the growing community of young urban people in online forums like darahkubiru which have been promoting local brands since 4 years ago. There are also annual market events that expose local brands to a wider audience, and also the government supported ”Aku Cinta Indonesia” (I love Indonesian local products) movement which encourages people to buy more local products instead of Internationally branded ones.
We think that it’s headed in the right direction with people becoming more appreciative towards higher quality goods produced by their locals. We do believe that Indonesia will start becoming one of the creative centers of Asia in the coming years.
With a creative boom, how do you see brands differentiating in the future?
Brands would have to strengthen their identity because each year, many new brands would rise and would take parts from the pie. If a brand holds strongly to their values and identity, that brand would stand a better chance of surviving and sustaining.
Your products are not cheap, but this is a result of irreplaceable handmade techniques. Is it a challenge convincing consumers of the value in your articles?
Of course it’s a challenge and we do love challenges. The first thing we do in convincing people is to make not just a great product but also an honest product. Through visuals, we show our customers the laborious process required to create high-quality products, and we only say what we’ve really done behind the scenes. It is important to imbue our brand value and process in some way to each product, that’s why we give customers honest and detailed explanations every time we release a new collection.
What are some of the interesting things you have done in light of Bluesville’s spirit of experimentation?
We’re always looking to improve our basics and fundamentals. Natural dyeing is not rocket science but it requires science, patience and passion. We’ve sourced the best indigo from all parts of Indonesia and we’re always strengthening our knowledge from the natural dyeing experts on how to improve things. Recently we’re more into shibori and tie-dyeing technique because it brings us back to where we started, and experimenting and seeing the result after is really satisfying. We’re recently trying to achieve a better solution to dye leather. We’ve done this before but to no avail. It’s a challenge but I think we can make a great indigo dyed leather in the future.
What are some of the things you consider when coming up with a new collection?
Usually each new collection will start with a base theme and from that theme we incorporate the blue color and our base value. Just like the brand name, we always start with blue as the main inspiration. Later on we think about what clothing is relevant to the theme, what motifs would accompany the theme, what fabrics should be made and sourced for the collection and so on. We try to look for fabrics or kinds of shirts we haven’t done before, but we always look back in retrospect, and think about what can be improved from our last collection. It’s important to innovate and still keep the basic value of our brand.
"The first thing we do in convincing people is to make not just a great product but also an honest product."
Tell us about the concept behind your upcoming collection.
Our FW13 collection is be based on gardens. We’re aiming to make clothes that fit well in the garden, be it just strolling around in your backyards or in your daily gardening chore.
What’s your ideal weekend in the city?
Visiting our workshop to catch inspiration in the morning, then strolling around the outskirts of busy Jakarta. Also some great food for dinner, be it fancy or hawkers.
Any places we should check out?
If you like fishing, you should check some fishing ponds around BSD, they’ve got monster fish including Arapaima. If you’re into Japanese food and ambience, Sakana in Mid Plaza and the Little Tokyo in Melawai is a go to place.
Improvements and going overseas.
Recently awarded Design of the Year at The President*s Design Awards, the Singapore Icons project is a set of porcelain wares created through a collaboration between five Singaporean designers and the Japanese label KIHARA. At the center of this project is design entrepreneur Edwin Low (also co-founder of boutique retail store Supermama), who has made it his personal mission to build a bridge between Singapore and Japan, through which disparate ideas about design and craft can be exchanged freely between the two nations.
Congratulations on your win of the “President*s Design Award” for the Singapore Icons project! It must have been a fabulous ride for you so far.
There are 15 awards and 6 of them are to Designers of the Year, 9 are Designs of the Year. One other winner of “Design of the Year” is Gardens By the Bay, so we’re competing with all these people! Whereas I’m just doing porcelain pieces! So this is amazing. I feel that one reason it won is because the images tug at the hearts of people. For a long time Singaporeans have been looking for a certain identity and this project kind of brings things together. I feel that we’re obviously more than the Merlion. For us to really find our identity, maybe it’s about knowing the people around us, and seeing how other people respond to us. This collaboration with the Japanese side has told me a lot about who I am.
Did you imagine the project would achieve this amount of success?
We started the Singapore Icons project earlier this year. I think because of Supermama, I understand that sometimes very good design doesn’t sell, very good craft doesn’t sell, even very good craft plus very good design doesn’t sell, so it’s all a balancing game. You know the HDB set? The designer (Chang Shian Wei) did it in less than one hour. Before that it was another design. He spent so much time on it but I looked at it and I knew it couldn’t sell. It was a permutation of the Singapore Flag. When I curate the Singapore Icons project, I need to be very sure of my role. I cannot be a designer - I must be a curator, a businessman. Is the design nice? Yes, but I know it just won’t sell. Why? Actually there’s no reason, I just know that it won’t sell. Just a feeling. When I first saw the HDB, I knew that it’d sell for sure. I think also the HDB set kind of opened up the whole thing.
The Singapore Icons project was made possible only through your collaboration with some very expert Japanese makers. Can you tell us more about that experience?
It’s very difficult to get into the Japanese craft industry. I recently just came back from a trip to Japan where I met up with a metal polisher who is in his 70s. It wasn’t easy for me to get to talk to him. He ignored me at first and didn’t care about me. I had to wait there until he sensed that I showed genuine interest. That was when he finally invited me into the small room behind and made tea for me and talked to me. He has been polishing metal for 50 years. He said, I can polish metal forever, for the rest of my life, what about you? That shook me up. It was a very good conversation. Just amazing.
What else did he teach you?
Metal polishing itself has many different streams, which changed my concept of craft totally. When we think about craft we usually relate craft to handmade, but when the Japanese metal polisher talks about craft, he’s talking about your entire soul. Craft requires you to see and feel what you make. In even just metal polishing there are many ways to do it - his friend only did one style for 20 over years, so the moment the industry shifted, he was wiped out. That dawned upon me that craft is not doing something over and over again senselessly, it is more an accumulation of knowledge in the particular field that you’re in. If I can replace you by a machine, to me that is not craft anymore. That is just human automation. Craft is like life-long learning, where you keep learning and learning. He was telling me that he’s still learning and discovering new ways to polish intricate, hidden parts, and that brings life to him. As society moves, the types of objects that come to him changes, and he moves, so craft is actually alive. This shows me his attitude, which made me realize why it’s so difficult to work with the Japanese in the first place. You need to speak the same language - not Japanese, but to speak with the heart. They need to know that when you’re doing things, it’s not for money, but that you’re really interested. They can sense that. So if you don’t get past that, then bye bye. You’ll never get to work with them.
On the previous trip, I met with a craftsman who used to be a photojournalist, but his wife was the only child and she inherited a metal foundry. So for him he had to consider whether to take up the foundry or continue his passion. He realized that he was responsible for the foundry, and so he put aside his passion and built it up. Next year it will be 100 years old. Before the trip my passion ruled the world, then I realized - it’s not just about passion, but also responsibility, people, life.
"If I can replace you by a machine.. that is just human automation. Craft is like life-long learning.."
How did you eventually convince these Japanese craftsmen to consider working with you?
It never dawned upon me that the Japanese craft facilities would want to work with me, because I’d previously tried for 2 or 3 years and I really couldn’t get in. I know some of my friends who went in, and they produced one glass for $700. That’s not a collaboration.
Then last year I met Kihara twice in Singapore - I still remember it was on a Friday and a Saturday. That was before Supermama was launched at 8Q. I was at Orchard Cineleisure where Kihara had a little show there, I was there with my daughter. Japanese products are very distinct, so when I saw them I went in for a look. The price was half of what I usually sell. I was so jealous. Then I asked one of them (who is now my Japanese partner) - How come so cheap? You must be joking. He said it’s because they’re the direct makers. They don’t go through anyone else. We exchanged name cards and the very next day I was setting up Supermama at 8Q, and it was at that moment when they walked past the store, without any arrangement. We chatted and they told me they never sold one cup in Orchard, so I said, instead of shipping back and incurring more costs, why not put the goods at my store and let me sell them during my launch? So they left them with me and that day we sold a lot. They were shocked because they had been in Singapore for a few days and they hadn’t sold anything, not even one cup.
That was when I knew that they were very open already, so I took the opportunity to tell them that I have always wanted to do Singapore products with a strong local kick to it, and they said yes, so that’s how the Singapore Icons project started. When we look at all of these coincidences, it’s really very divine, it’s crazy. It was just so random.
Will your future projects under Democratic Society continue to build on this focus about our Singaporean identity?
Yes, they will be Singapore-focused, but this time round I’m going to build up a design team as well. I’m also a lecturer, so I’m going to see if there’s a way to identify some very good students and then get them to produce a range together. Of course I’m still going to have the usual show with 5 designers, but even though I feel that designers are good, I feel like the life of Singaporeans should be told not just by designers. I have this crazy idea that for one of the collections I can get 5 celebrity chefs to do the design, or 5 housewives, 5 grandparents, 5 kids. It will go in that direction.
Now that you have begun to establish relationships with these Japanese makers, do you, as a design educator, intend to bring some of their knowledge back to Singapore?
I have about 4 or 5 Japanese craft facilities who’re open for me to use their branding or name. I can start a design craft school and use their name; if I collect fees I can produce my students’ prototypes with them, but I don’t know if Singapore is ripe for such things yet. You know Singapore is still all about academics, but I’m contemplating starting a programme where I have backup support of all these craft facilities. I’m a design educator by training already, so for those who really want to produce things they can come to me, and I can connect them. Part of the school fees will go to prototyping their products, and imagine when they graduate, they will already have a completed product! So this is something I’m toying with.
I know you were also leading a Design Entrepreneurship programme at City College. Will your recent experiences change the way you run the programme?
For City College we are actually going to do something different. Previously we positioned it as a two-year programme, but I’m going to rest for awhile, and when it starts again in August (next year) it will take on a different form. It’s not going to be an institution kind of school, but more like an apprenticeship. The students will be attached to someone, and actual lessons and discussions may happen in a cafe. We’re still planning. I believe that if you really want to transform minds or build a culture, schools are the best way. There’s no better option. When students come to school, they come to learn, so their minds are very open.
What’s next for you?
I thought of creating a publication next year, half Japanese half English, it’s going to be free and will focus on children, culture and craft. We are still trying to look for sponsors. It’s going to be a little like The U Press, but not so atas [high-class]. If you look at Japanese magazines, they have a very interesting way of doing it. Sometimes you think it’s very cheesy, but it’s not! I don’t know how to describe it. I want to make this publication very easy for people, so not only designers can appreciate it. I want to focus on the imaginative ability of children, when their mind is still unclouded - What are their thoughts? What can you learn and pick up from their drawings and the way they speak? We might even have writings about children and one page that they can tear out. The magazine will also be about how craft, and the element of our senses, works together with our society. I’m also trying to make this a little more touristy, because I want more Japanese to come to Singapore, and more Singaporeans to go to Japan. I’m also hoping to cover one craft facility every issue, so we can start with Kihara, the landscape in Arita, their porcelain-making, their craftsmen.
I will be going to Ambiente, a trade show in Germany next year. What I’m going to sell is not the products (of Democratic Society) but the approach. I want the traders to come in and design with Kihara or design with me. Why? Because I feel that long gone are the days when we create one product and shove it down the throats of other people. That doesn’t work anymore. Every country has their own culture and beliefs, if their designers can wake up and design something contextually relevant to the people around them, I think that will open up that sort of market. I don’t want them to buy the HDB plates, because HDB doesn’t mean a single thing to them. But I want them to see that HDB means a lot to Singaporeans, so is there anything that means a lot to them? Can that be placed on a plate?
I remember you said that you started Supermama because you wanted to take a step back and relook at life. Is what you’re doing these days still about that?
Two months back, during my previous trip to Tokyo, I suddenly felt cramps on my chest. After awhile it went off, but when I came back to Singapore I went to see a specialist. When I went to receive my report, the doctor actually made a mistake. He thought he saw something. Then I was thinking, “Siao liao” [“crazy already”]. I was there sitting with my wife. It was the longest five minutes in my life. So what happened was that he had flipped the scan wrongly. I was okay! But in that five minutes I actually came to terms with my life. If I’m going to die, what regrets do I have? I came down to only two - I cannot see my children grow up, I cannot hold my wife’s hand forever. That’s all. I’m happy with the rest, I can go already. I can’t see my kids grow up, I cannot be with my wife forever - there’s no solution for that, so I think I’m happy. Imagine if everybody can have that five minutes!
"it’s not just about passion, but also responsibility, people, life.."
I think the beauty of things is that you need to balance. I’m so busy but I can just stop everything and go and play with my kids. It’s when you know your priorities and you give to where it matters most. Life in itself is design, and that’s really nice!
The MeatMen make recipes easy. To be honest, they also make us hungry - it’s not often we see our local fare in such mouthwatering, high-definition goodness. But to call The MeatMen a bunch of video savvy cooks just simply won’t cut it - because they do so much more than that. Think about the number of times they’ve saved last minute parties, late night dinners, and brought some home-cooking excitement to your weekends on this little island. That’s why we’ve teamed up with them to bring you this Christmas exclusive. And before you run out to grab those ingredients, here’s our short chat with the guys behind the lens. Introducing JJ, KYD, and Chris, and the Roasted Lamb with Saffron Rice.
Who’s behind The MeatMen, and how did you guys get started?
Well the few of us always have had an obsession with food of sorts, but it all started with JJ’s obsession to record the whole process of food creation through the lens by using videos. Before we knew it, we came up with the name The MeatMen… because we LOVE meat!
How do you choose which dishes to feature?
For starts, we’re the MEATMEN, so we’re exclusively meat-focused and meat-centric now. We also hope to capture easy-to-make recipes, that can be made by anyone from home. That’s our fundamental criteria.
You guys have quite a distinct style or can we say formula. Was it a concerted effort or vision?
It’s both actually. It’s a vision for us to create high-quality recipe videos, so that laymen can follow and emulate the process. But at the same time, we’re constantly trying to up our game to push our quality to a higher level each day.
What’s the process like?
Well, normally we try to follow where our tummies bring us… but the truth is that we have a list of various awesome recipes that we want to bring to the people on the internet. We’ll choose the dish, simplify, modify, or combine recipes, and after rounds of trials do we actually shoot the process on film.
The trials must be fun, and filling too. What are your tools?
So far we’ve shot all our videos on an entry level DSLR together with a simple 50mm prime lens, nothing too complicated.
What’s the plan for The MeatMen?
2013 has been a year whereby we’ve worked through our birthing growth and balancing The MeatMen with our day jobs and life. We do hope to do more this coming year though, with better quality recipes and consistent posts, so stay tuned!
And we must ask, what are your favourite foods?
We all have different preferences. JJ loves duck rice, KYD is the king of chicken rice, and Chris loves carrot cake (yes it does not contain meat in it).
Here’s the video recipe for your enjoyment, in all it’s glorious 2 minutes - try not to drool!
To print the recipe & shopping list: Visit the second part of this article on The MeatMen’s website here.
To Cook: Mount your ipad on your kitchen counter, and play video on loop.
How do we define utility? In this age of counter-consumerism, we might find ourselves asking the question of whether we really need something before we purchase it. What’s great about this movement is that we often find inspiring and well-thought out products to improve our daily living. An accordion notebook to ensure you don’t run out of writing space, waterproof bags for the South-East Asian monsoon season, or swim trunks engineered for fun in the sun.
But speaking about inspiring, does utility necessarily mean function over form? For the creative professional, does it not include objects that inspire output, a feeling, or emotion? While it’s good practice to shop wisely, we’d like to venture that while some things don’t necessarily re-invent the wheel, they sure add that bit to making our lives better.
In The Utilitarian Issue, we kickoff with coverage from the Goodcraft show, and an exclusive interview with James of Neighbourgoods on crafting an apron of form and function. On the other side of the continent (Tokyo to be exact), we chat with Mike from Postalco about designing for daily life, and check out his very own invention - the wheel printer. And just when we thought inventions were rare in this day and age, we get behind the machine with homegrown 3D printer manufacturers romscraj, and learn how they designed a 3D printer for the local economy. Edmund and Kai, from The Bureau, shed light on the Singapore design scene. And lastly to round up the issue we’ve put together a pop-up shop of perfect holiday gifts, titled 22 things you don’t need, but must have.
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.