Sunday, 23 February 2014

Regional talent, international stage

Geo Cocktail Table

Geo Cocktail Table

Increasingly, South-East Asian designers are competing on an equal footing with their European counterparts, creating a design scene that is at its vibrant best today.

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 trouble-free 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 countries 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.

Vito Selma (Philippines) 

IN the gifted hands of industrial designer Vito Selma, wood showcases its protean traits and elicits remarks like, “Wow, is that really wood?”

“Wood and its many variations and reiterations ... let me experiment, create and explore,” says Selma via e-mail of his favourite material.

Take his award-winning Geo coffee table, a sculptural yet functional piece. The Cebu-based designer uses excess wooden legs and handles from his factory to fashion dowels. Then he arrange the dowels on wooden frames to create geometric patterns. It’s his take on string art, using wood instead of coloured threads or wires.

“I like to work with shapes, textures and forms that are often in nature,” says the 30-year-old who completed his masters in industrial design at Scuola Politecnica di Design in Milan, Italy. Selma honed his skills with interior designer George de Haast during a stint in Johannesburg, South Africa, which led to the late Nelson Mandela owning some of Selma’s works. He credits mentors like fellow Filipino Debbie Palao, Haast and Italian designer Raffaella Mangiarotti as influences on his design career.

A celebrated designer in the Philippines, Selma grew up with his parents’ furniture factory as his playground. “It was only natural that I follow their footsteps,” he says.

Today, his works are sold in 29 countries and featured in publications like Architectural Digest, Elle Décor and Vogue Living Australia.

“Works like the Geo embodies the incredible versatility of wood and exceptional Filipino craftsmanship. Design- wise, that’s what gives the Philippines an edge,” says Selma. (Website:

VW+BS (Singapore, Malaysia) 

OF the designers featured here, Singaporean Voon Wong and Penang-born Benson Saw, the creative sparks behind VW+BS, qualify as the “old timers” on the global design scene. Their iconic Loop Lamp, manufactured by Italian lighting company FontanaArte, was shortlisted for the prestigious Compasso d’Oro (the Oscars of the design world) in 2004.

Over the years, Wong, Saw and their team at VW+BS have consistently produced thoughtful and striking works, and have also teamed up with design brands like Decode London, Singapore-based Air Division and craft-based companies like Royal Selangor here in Malaysia and Lin’s Ceramics Studio in Taiwan.

With offices in London, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, VW+BS’s impressive portfolio lists over 250 architectural, interior and product design projects in Europe, Asia and Australia. Their recent work on the upper class bar and cabin interior for Virgin Atlantic Airways clinched the FX 2012 Product Design of the Year awarded by FX International Interior Design Awards (FX magazine is a leading, global interior design publication for the contract industry).

Not bound by any sort of set-in-stone “look” or style, the studio constantly explores the possibilities of different materials and processes in innovative and surprising ways.

Loop Lamp by VW+BS for Italian lighting brand Fontana Arte, was nominated for the prestigious Compasso D¿oro in 2004. (Originating from Italy, the Compasso is the first and most recognized industrial design award internationally)
Loop Lamp by VW+BS for Italian lighting brand Fontana Arte, was nominated for the prestigious Compasso D’oro in 2004. (Originating from Italy, the Compasso is the first and most recognised industrial design award internationally).

“Everything we do comes from our background. Where we grew up, what we were exposed to and experienced influence our thought processes and outlooks,” says Kuala Lumpur-based Saw, who studied furniture design at the London’s Royal College of Art.

However, in their designs, VW+BS does not set out with a mission to create a distinct “South-East Asian look”.

“We don’t think that design needs to have a specific identity, national or cultural references,” explains Saw, 40.

Take Setcast, their collection of bone china tableware. Launched in 2007, Setcast was manufactured by Asianera, a bone china manufacturer in Tangshan, China. While researching the project, Saw traced his Teochew ancestor’s history in China and discovered how they excelled at making red clay teapots, still highly coveted by Chinese tea connoisseurs today.

“Through these explorations, we understand and learn about the constraints of these materials and processes, which then spur ideas for different projects,” he explains during an interview in KL.

For the Landscape collection, a collaboration with Royal Selangor, the duo fashioned sculptural, functional pewter pieces that resonate with contemporary lifestyles. Both Saw and Wong share fond memories of growing up with pewter tankards or accessories in their homes.

“Objects are designed and meant to be used in any context not withstanding the identity references. Otherwise, it will end up like souvenirs that tourists pick up on their vacations,” Saw sums up. (Website:


Jaya Ibrahim (Indonesia) 

AN accountant turned “celebrity” interior designer famed for luxury resorts like the Aman at Summer Palace Beijing, The Legian Bali, The Chedi Milan and The Club at The Saujana in Malaysia, Jaya Ibrahim is an accidental furniture designer.

“We needed to design the furniture for our interior work because we couldn’t find the things that could perform the function we needed or purpose-made furniture for specific projects or the quality we were aiming for,” says Jaya via e-mail.

PLACE CLOSE TO PIC 4d, SAME DESIGNER: Nahm Chaise lounge by Jaya Ibrahim
Nahm chaise

He launched his debut collection of premium furniture, Jaya Classics, in 2013.

Using rare materials like Makassar ebony and sonokeling (a Javanese rosewood), the collection of chairs, beds, cabinets and lighting comes in limited editions of just 36 pieces for each design.

Meticulously crafted, the pieces embody Jaya’s commitment to craftsmanship.

“I chose the rare hard woods for their beauty and quality.

“Unlike other exotic tropical timbers, there is no need to stain them nor impregnate them to enhance the wood,” says the designer whose works reveal touches of his aristocratic background (his mother is a Javanese princess) and Javanese roots.

Sonokeling wood was favoured by Javanese nobility for sheaths and elaborate hilts for the keris.

Jaya scoured local markets across Java, Bali, China, Burma and Thailand, to “dig out” uncut rock rubies, carved horn, carved bone and natural shaped amber and turquoise to fashion handles for his wardrobes and cabinets.

“I always take tradition as inspiration and forge something contemporary that is pleasing to look at, balanced and elegant,” says the designer who cut his design teeth under famed interior designer, hotelier and socialite Anouska Hempel in London.

“I cannot design out of context, there need to be a story behind it, a purpose.”

In his work and his life, references to the past have always been very important when forging the future, Jaya adds: “It is not always about continuing traditions, it is more about using and reinterpreting tradition to craft something contemporary. Jaya Classics reflect this sentiment.” (Website:

Ito Kish (Philippines)

SINCE 2000, interior designer Ito Kish has been running a thriving design consultancy and furniture store called KISH in Makati City in the Philippines. Until one day, an intern asked him, “Sir, which piece of furniture here did you design?”

“I was dumbfounded because there was nothing in the store I could proudly say I had designed,” says Kish through e-mail. Spurred by that incident, Kish, 50, took a stab at furniture design.

It took nine months of hard work before his design concept saw the light of day in 2012. The debut of the Gregoria Lounge, a semi-circular three-seater lounge with a backrest and legs made of wooden balusters, was an instant success. It snagged the Best Product Design for Furniture honours at Manila’s biannual design showcase, FAME. The same year, the Gregoria clinched silver in Italy’s A’Design Award & Competition. At the Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea, the Gregoria was featured in the exhibit Icons Of Asia.

Gregoria Lounge, a semi-circular three-seater lounge with a backrest and legs made of wooden balusters, by Filipino designer Ito Kish.
Mirrah wardrobe

“Gregoria (named after his mother) is inspired by the near omnipresence of balusters in the homes Filipinos grew up in,” explains Kish. “From its humble beginnings as seating and storage, to ventanillas that allow air to flow in and out of homes, to decorative details in staircases – the baluster is now given a new twist to be appreciated by a new generation.” Following Gregoria’s coup de maitre, Kish added five other pieces – a one-seater, candle stand, cabinet, bookshelves and console – to the collection and named the pieces after his mother’s five sisters.

“They were all part of that beautiful era of the Philippines when tradition and culture were given a front line,” he adds.

His Basilisa collection of chairs, bed and cabinet showcases the solihiya, intricate weave patterns fashioned from rattan slats that create a lovely play of light, pattern and shadow. The solihiya weaves can be traced back to pre-Spanish colonial times and some of the patterns originated from Philippines’s indigenous tribes.

“My design will always be about who I am and where I come from,” Kish asserts. “I cannot design anything that is pop culture because I’m sure what is pop in Kuala Lumpur is the same in Paris or Copenhagen.” (Website: – under construction at press time.)

Foundry/Felix Low (Singapore)

ESTABLISHED in 2003, Foundry is a design brand, manufacturer and retailer. Founder Singaporean Felix Low also designs furniture and sniffs out design talents for collaborations.

“Remembering our roots sets the premise behind the evolution of the company, to become a bridge between the world of contemporary design and East Asian craftsmanship,” says Low, 40, a proponent of understated elegance and pared-down aesthetics.

PLACE CLOSE TO PIC 4h, SAME DESIGNER: The curvy and comfortable Glide chair by Outofstock for Foundry.
Glide chair

He brings together Singaporean, Japanese and European designers and Malaysian and Singaporean craftsmen to create simple, balanced and functional pieces.

Notable pieces include the Capa desk by German designer Reinhard Dienes and the Glide chair by Outofstock, a design collective made up of two Singaporeans, a Spaniard and an Argentinian. Capa, which means “layers” in Spanish, is a composition of colours and textures intended to redefine the archetype of the writing desk.

With its curved back and seat, the Glide chair embraces the user with the warm, tactile traits of oak or walnut.

“Foundry is also a story of making, and the emphasis is on craftsmanship. But beyond products, we are also about inventing fresh ideas and forging new creative narratives,” says Low via e-mail, sharing that he has a background in economics and finance.

Foundry’s products have been highlighted in Wallpaper*, Dwell and Elle Decoration. Its retail arm also offers products and lighting from Danish design brand Hay, London-based SCP, Helsinki-based Secto Design and Spanish furniture and lighting brand Ziru.

“We are always on the lookout for the right people with the right products. I think there must be a connection between all parties – makers, artisans and designers. With the right chemistry, magic happens,” says Low. (Website:

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