SEA de­sign blooms

Cre­ators in this part of the world are get­ting global at­ten­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Sto­ries by LEONG SIOK HUI star2@thes­

BY global stan­dards, the South-East Asian prod­uct de­sign in­dus­try has been fledg­ling at best, if you don’t count the tiny clique of the likes of Sin­ga­porean Nathan Yong or Filipino Kenneth Cobon­pue or the Sin­ga­porean-Malaysian duo Voon Wong and Benson Saw of VW+BS. But things are chang­ing fast. Lately, cool de­sign re­tail con­cepts, de­sign stu­dios and brands have been mush­room­ing up in the re­gion. Not to men­tion the grow­ing pool of tal­ented, up-and-com­ing SEA de­sign­ers.

And global de­sign-led shows like 100% De­sign Sin­ga­pore (a spin-off from the 100% De­sign brand from Lon­don) and Mai­son&Ob­jet Asia are grac­ing this part of the world.

In Sin­ga­pore, small and in­de­pen­dent de­sign stu­dios and brands are pop­ping up.

“Sin­ga­pore shop­pers are so­phis­ti­cated. They now look for a prod­uct or ser­vice that’s in­de­pen­dent and has a good story to tell. The sen­ti­ment for branded good is ‘ been there done that’,” says Yong, a trail­blazer in Sin­ga­pore fur­ni­ture de­sign in­dus­try. (Yong was pro­filed in Star2 on Sept 2, 2013.)

“I know of many com­pa­nies pro­mot­ing Sin­ga­pore de­sign and craft un­der the ‘ hand­made move­ment’, like Mak­ers of Sin­ga­pore, The U Fac­tory by Hjgher and Hand­made Move­ment by Noise Sin­ga­pore,” he adds.

Savvy gov­ern­ments in the Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore and Thai­land have also clued in on the fact that de­sign isn’t just about mak­ing things. De­sign can be and is adopted as part of a strat­egy for eco­nomic growth. Set up in 2003, the govern­ment-run De­signSin­ga­pore Coun­cil is plough­ing S$55mil (RM143mil) into Sin­ga­pore’s de­sign in­dus­tries be­tween 2009 and 2015.

“Govern­ment sup­port pro­vides many av­enues for fund­ing for de­sign­ers and ar­ti­sans,” Yong adds. De­sign­ers or en­ter­prises can ap­ply for grants to de­velop pro­to­types, at­tend train­ing or de­sign schools, and par­tic­i­pate in trade fairs.

In the Philip­pines, de­sign­ers re­ceive help from CITEM (The Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Trade Ex­po­si­tions and Mis­sions – the ex­port mar­ket­ing arm of the Philip­pine Depart­ment of Trade and In­dus­try) to put Philip­pine brands on the world stage through events like the Mai­son&Ob­jet Paris and Salone Del Mo­bile in Mi­lan, ac­cord­ing to de­signer Vito Selma.

“We also get a lot of sup­port from the govern­ment to show our de­signs at in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal fairs like Bangkok In­ter­na­tional Gift & House­ware or Thai­land In­ter­na­tional Fur­ni­ture Fair,” says Bangkok-based Stu­dio248.

But while SEA’s healthy econ­omy does boost the de­sign in­dus­try, it’s not a trou­ble­free utopia.

“Eco­nom­i­cally ad­vanced coun­tries like Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia suf­fer from a syn­drome of draw­ing too many ref­er­ences from the West,” says Kuala Lumpur-based Saw.

“We think ideas con­ceived by SEA de­sign­ers should be rel­e­vant to the brief of the de­sign and not just mimic life­styles of the West.”

Also, the aware­ness to cre­ate sus­tain­able prod­ucts is lack­ing among de­sign­ers in the re­gion.

“Prod­ucts that are not well de­signed to last for gen­er­a­tions may in­un­date the mar­ket,” says Saw.

An­other com­mon plight faced by SEA coun- tries is the high cost of pro­duc­ing goods and the flood­ing of lo­cal mar­kets with low-priced, mass-pro­duced goods from our neigh­bours, Cobon­pue points out.

“There has to be a per­ceived value in the de­sign and man­u­fac­ture of South-East Asian goods that dif­fer­en­ti­ates them from their cheaper coun­ter­parts. Ul­ti­mately, the right com­bi­na­tion of man-made ma­te­ri­als and nat­u­ral fi­bres, of ma­chine-made and hand­made pro­cesses, will win the day,” says the pro­lific de­signer whose works are sold around the world.

But af­ter all’s said and done, SEA’s de­sign vibe is slowly but surely pump­ing up. Stay tuned!

In the mean time, here’s an in­tro­duc­tory roundup of trail blaz­ers, es­tab­lished global play­ers and ris­ing stars of South-East Asia who are mak­ing waves in the in­ter­na­tional de­sign sphere.

— Im­age from Kenneth Co­pon­bue

Flo­ral ef­fect: The Bloom Chair by Filipino de­signer Kenneth Co­pon­bue, who has been called a ‘trail­blazer in South-East Asian de­sign’.

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