To say design is emerging in Singapore is an understatement. The creative community is positively thriving under the hot Southeast Asian sun, bringing with it a new, endemic-but-international vision for fashion and beyond. Fittingly, the Asia Society in New York is featuring Singapore Design Now in its ground floor exhibition space – featuring six rising design stars from the Lion City.
This BlackBook writer (who had the good fortune to live in Singapore for a short, very memorable spell) jumped at the chance to dive into the creative minds of these exotic talents. Here is their take on being part of the show, and part of Singapore’s exciting, breakout design scene.
Santhi and Sari Tunas, Binary Style
Who knew a scarf could communicate so much? Santhi Tunas – twin sister and half of the bespectacled design duo Binary Style – says “our scarves are about telling Singapore stories. We draw inspiration from everything Singaporean, everyday life. The city is about a blend of old and new, nature and built environment; but ultimately Singapore is a great melting pot of cultures. These elements provide an endless source of ideas.”
Both trained architects and Indonesian natives, Santhi and Sari ‘s featured collection ‘Singapore Stories’ is indeed a colorfully graphic, narrative tribute to the region’s diversity. Proving so popular (never mind that we know firsthand that the scarf is a must-have when transitioning from the oppressive regional heat to the chilly indoors), certain alluring designs like “Rainy Day” and “Botanical Garden” keep selling out at The Asia Society.
The designs each represent a people or place in Singapore, like “Little India” and “Chinatown.” One edgier standout, “Samsui Ladies,” tells the story of the Samsui women who Santhi explains “represent an early period of Singapore’s development, when all was new and fresh, and opportunity abounded.” Wrapped up in this particular scarf design is “their hard work during some 50 years from the 1930s to 80s, constructing the new nation with bravery, resilience and determination, coloring the city with progress.”
Yilin Choo, Choo Yilin
With Singapore’s deep multiculturalism as inspiration, Yilin Choo’s award-winning jewelry designs represent “the rich intersection of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian influences together with a deep understanding of Western culture…facilitated by English as the primary language taught in schools, that makes us as Singaporeans see the world in a distinct way.”
Choo puts a thoroughly modern spin on traditional jade stone to create her elegant jewelry line, Choo Yilin. “While Singaporeans cannot lay claim to jade as a material,” she admits, “as it is cherished across the global Chinese diaspora, it is something that does speak to our heritage. We are the first designers in the world that use jade in the way we do, and this celebration of such an iconic heritage gemstone is something we are proud of. In Chinese, there is a saying, ‘gold is valuable, but jade is priceless.’ And this is something we want to share with the world.”
Handpicking Type A jadeite, with vibrantly-colored semi-precious gemstones, Choo weaves them together with intricate metalwork detailing. Peranakan culture, which originated in and is distinct to Southeast Asia, is another of her biggest inspirations. “Intricate motifs and vivid colors characterize the aesthetic,” she explains, “and it features heavily in our work.”
Choo rightfully positions herself as a storyteller, using jewelry as a platform for Southeast Asian heritage and conversation.
“Each piece as a visual idiom of our personal story and communities.”
Ling Wu x Onlewo
Ling Ling Goh’s adorable Ling Wu clutches are the perfect carry alls, not only for lipstick and keys but also for a bit of storytelling. Collaborating with Mike Tay of Onlewo for Singapore Design Now, the designers created a capsule collection, Siu Jie, which means “Miss” in the Cantonese dialect and is commonly used in Singapore to address younger female acquaintances.
“Made for the modern, independent woman, exuding an inner beauty and strength,” Ms. Goh cites the local availability of materials like leather, wood, rattan and stone that factor into her design aesthetic, “made for the modern, independent woman, exuding an inner beauty and strength,” But for this chic little collection, five original Onlewo prints depicting the architecture, culture, people, as well as the flora and fauna of Singapore were used to wrap the compact clutches.
Tay admits his favorite of these designs is Tiong Bahru, where he’s added the image of local character Bob – a scrappy tomcat living on the streets of the namesake neighborhood, who the residents collectively look after. The beloved feline even has his own Facebook page, “The Story of Bob – a very special cat.”
With a passion for telling stories of Singapore through unique patterns, Tay creates cotton linen fabrics inspired by Asian roots with a focus on Singapore heritage, culture, and iconic places. This writer can imagine sipping a signature Singapore Sling at the renowned Raffles Hotel with a Peranakan Rhapsody or Botanical Gardens bag in her manicured hand.
Goh enthuses, “For me, it is about adding to Singapore’s design history, and being both a link and a stepping-stone for the designers who come after me. I feel it’s important that the things I create have longevity. I always aim for my designs to be both functional and beautiful; if I capture both of these things then I feel that the design is successful.”
Edwin Low, Supermama
We first excitedly encountered Edwin Low’s Supermama ‘brand’ at their shop-in-a-shop at The National Gallery Singapore. So you can imagine our delight in seeing the designer, educator and entrepreneur’s cool kid porcelain plates featured in Singapore Design Now.
At the hyperlocal Supermama, they collect, create and curate objects that engage customers, using, as Low puts it, “culture as a context for design, exploring the fine line between cultural artifacts and everyday objects, and the concept of basic luxury – that everyone can own a piece of heritage.”
He continues, “we’re not just producing souvenirs but searching for a different way to enhance Singapore identity.”
Low’s design philosophy centers around the embrace of icons that speaks of a particular time and place, people and their culture. He explains, “My work around ‘icons’ of Singapore aims to document our stories and, in the process, define our identity. Our culture is a beautiful amalgamation of borrowed cultures that enables a new visual language to be formed. In a way, there is no better place than Singapore to develop this new form of material culture.”
Our favorite “icon” in the Singapore Design Now show is Jalan Besar Kitties, inspired by Jalan Besar Street in Kallang; we can attest to the street’s intrigue. As The Asia Society puts it, “A random mix of neighborly friendliness and midnight seediness. Mixed in between hardware stores and harmless grocers are Karaoke pubs and nightclubs featuring a cacophony of characters that makes this area the perfect setting for a gangster film.” Indeed, Supermama’s Japan-made artwork features two resident stray cats wearing welding goggles, hugging bottles of whisky and beer cans with the battle scars gained from their tumbles in the street.
Carolyn Kan for Carrie K.
Safety pins, leather, nuts and bolts all get reimagined in Carolyn Kan’s jewelry line, Carrie K.
Skewing more Hermes than ho hum, she enlightens, “The Reborn collection spotlights unsung heroes of mundane yet essential everyday objects. It hopes to remind us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and not to take it for granted, such as our multiculturalism, which is the foundation of our harmonious society.”
With a splashy debut in 2009, Carrie K. won the ELLE “Jewelery Designer of the Year” award. Yet it all started the year before in 2008 for Kan when she took a year off from the corporate rat race to travel. The former Managing Director of an International advertising agency had an epiphany in Florence while learning to silversmith. She’s even gone on to collaborate with Disney, creating a toothier collection for Beauty and the Beast.
Like her fellow designers in Singapore Design Now, Kan loves telling stories through her craft. “We are a little old school,” she admits, “about taking the time and care to handcraft meaningful, covetable, little loves that will be valued for a long time.” The collections “challenge traditional notions of what makes something precious and desired, celebrating the beauty of imperfection, and marveling at the mundane in everyday life.”
IN GOOD COMPANY
We’re crazy for this homegrown fashion label, having spent way too much time in their minimally sleek boutique-cum-cafe in Singapore’s ION Orchard (Mall). From fast friends to company co-founders, Sven, Kane, Julene and Jaclyn of IN GOOD COMPANY eschew the vicious cycles of the fashion seasons in favor of presenting thoughtful capsule collections of womenswear and more. Known for their modern adaptation of wardrobe classics with certain technical finesse, the designers bring this same attitude to their accessories.
Each sublime piece in “Singapore Design Now” has been meticulously assembled with mathematical precision and finished by hand. The necklaces in the show are all “modern, geometric compositions that take a graphic trajectory, interpreted through custom ceramic balls and recycled metal hardware. Strung together by matte satin ribbons, each adds an insouciant charm to everyday ensembles.”
Sven and Kane, founders and co-designers, share how living and working in Singapore informs their design process. “Singapore’s multiculturalism, set in a cosmopolitan society, is both a comfort and inspiration,” they insist. “While IN GOOD COMPANY doesn’t reference ethnic cultures in its aesthetic or design, we are cognizant of the way people dressed, how we want to be presented, how fast we want to be dressed and, of course, dressing for our weather.” Needless to say 90+ degrees and humid is the average day in Singapore.
They continue, “IN GOOD COMPANY is natively Singaporean in this sense: characteristically modern, versatile, quietly confident. And we always pay attention to the details.” IGC’s achingly cool accessories, like their evolved line of womenswear, embrace “the tenets of good design: it has to look better, work better for you, and it has to be easy to use. We are always conscious of how IN GOOD COMPANY fits into our customer’s lives – we aim for the classic silhouette with a design twist.”