DIF­FER­ENT STROKES

Kevin Chiam, na­tional win­ner of this year’s Sin­ga­pore James Dyson Award, shares the jour­ney he took to cre­ate his Folks Kitchen­ware for the vis­ually im­paired.

Home & Decor (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS -

Sin­ga­pore James Dyson Award win­ner Kevin Chiam talks about his cut­lery set for the vis­ually hand­i­capped.

Time spent vol­un­teer­ing with Touch Home Care un­der Touch Com­mu­nity Ser­vices opened Kevin Chiam’s eyes to the world of the frail el­derly, a num­ber of whom are vis­ually im­paired. “It’s a cause close to my heart as I grew up with my grand­mother. I’ve al­ways been com­fort­able around se­niors,” says the 26-year-old in­dus­trial de­sign grad­u­ate from Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore. “Through the home vis­its and in­ter­ac­tion, I came to re­alise that many of the el­derly are blind or par­tially blind, and most strug­gle with chores, es­pe­cially in the kitchen.”

That set Kevin think­ing and de­vis­ing ways on how to make day-to-day liv­ing “eas­ier” for the vis­ually im­paired, a the­sis project-turned-labour of love. The re­sult was Folks, a kitchen­ware trio (knife, chop­ping board and tea­spoon) that snagged the top prize at the James Dyson Award (JDA) in Sin­ga­pore, a de­sign com­pe­ti­tion or­gan­ised by the James Dyson Foun­da­tion to in­spire and sup­port the next gen­er­a­tion of engi­neers.

Cho­sen from a pool of 26 Sin­ga­pore en­tries, Kevin’s de­sign ful­filled not just the sim­ple JDA brief (“de­sign some­thing that solves a prob­lem”), but also wowed judge Made Artha who said Folks Kitchen­ware “is a great ex­am­ple of us­ing de­sign to solve a prob­lem that oth­ers seem to ig­nore” and, through its de­sign, Kevin proves that “sim­ple so­lu­tions can be pow­er­ful and in­ven­tive”.

Home&Decor catches up with the de­signer be­fore he flies off to Lon­don on a schol­ar­ship to pur­sue his post­grad­u­ate stud­ies at the Royal Col­lege of Art (RCA).

What did you learn dur­ing your vol­un­teer stint with Touch Home Care?

While de­liv­er­ing meals to the less-priv­i­leged se­niors, I came to learn of the chal­lenges they faced when it came to daily tasks such as meal prepa­ra­tion. Get­ting burnt and cut are the two main chal­lenges that those with failed or fail­ing eye­sight

face. I was spurred to do some­thing, us­ing my pas­sion for in­dus­trial de­sign to solve some ba­sic prob­lems. I was also in­spired by Chris­tine Ha, the first blind con­tes­tant and win­ner of US Masterchef.

You worked on the Folks project for a year. What was the process like?

One of the first things I did was to sign up for Di­a­logue in the Dark to put my­self in the shoes of those with vis­ual dis­abil­i­ties. I gained an in­sight­ful, yet sober­ing, glimpse of the chal­lenges they face. The loss of sight for me was just tem­po­rary, but not for the blind. I also spent time get­ting to know the peo­ple at the Sin­ga­pore As­so­ci­a­tion of the Vis­ually Hand­i­capped – I fol­lowed their daily rou­tine, which al­lowed me to ob­serve the chal­lenges they face while go­ing about their tasks.

My ear­lier stages of de­sign­ing were not with­out its chal­lenges. Just when I thought I’d come up with some­thing that could work, I soon found out it did not quite help my par­tic­i­pants. While it may be func­tional, it wasn’t quite “in­tu­itive”. It took a while to get the de­tails right. I’ve learnt that the sim­pler the idea, the harder it is to per­fect it.

Could you elab­o­rate on the con­cept be­hind Folks?

Cook­ing and prep­ping food is ther­a­peu­tic for many of us, and not just for those with sight. Folks was con­ceived to help the blind pre­pare food safely, with con­ve­nience, con­fi­dence and dig­nity. I could have come up with a gad­get that does the task with the press of a but­ton, but tech­nol­ogy is not some­thing that the lower-in­come el­derly can em­brace or af­ford eas­ily. When you want to cre­ate some­thing to help solve is­sues for the marginalis­ed, you have to start with em­pa­thy, not just sym­pa­thy. Tech­nol­ogy has come a long way and our so­ci­ety is highly de­pen­dent on it, but it is not the only way to solve prob­lems and is­sues.

What are your plans for Folks?

I plan to pitch it to com­pa­nies, and ide­ally work out a li­cens­ing ar­range­ment with them. The abil­ity to man­u­fac­ture with scale would re­ally help get Folks kitchen­ware to more homes and ben­e­fi­cia­ries across Sin­ga­pore. At the same time, I’m set­ting aside funds earned from de­sign com­pe­ti­tions like the JDA. These funds will go to­wards plans to di­rectly man­u­fac­ture them my­self, with the sup­port of a fac­tory abroad. When that hap­pens, I’ll be ap­proach­ing dis­trib­u­tors to get the prod­uct onto as many lo­cal shelves as pos­si­ble.

What are you look­ing for­ward to at the RCA?

I am look­ing for­ward to ex­plor­ing, in greater de­tail, food de­sign and the whole sen­so­rial ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind it. And be­ing based in the UK al­lows me to delve more deeply into Euro­pean de­sign, which I am in­spired by, as it mar­ries form with sub­stance and sub­tlety.

Any ad­vice for bud­ding young de­sign­ers?

It’s im­por­tant to keep an open mind. Don’t view things through your own lens as you may in­ad­ver­tently bring in stereo­types when work­ing on your de­sign. Be sen­si­tive, cul­tur­ally.

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