In 2008, Rozana Musa set up a small studio in her mum's kitchen in Melaka. The art and design graduate from UiTM then started collecting clay from a small river nearby to create her own sculptures and accessories.
“When I first started, I joined a few baazars in KL and sold items like hand-painted brooches accessories,” she says. In 2010, she moved across the road to her grandmother's empty sundry shop and officially started Bendang Studio, specialising in tableware like plates, cups and bowls.
Rozana's tableware is hand-crafted from start to finish, with designs that are whimsical with a distinctly modern ethos. You might get a black plate speckled with blue polka dots or a white plate with what looks like rugged, artistic swipes of pink paint. Either way, each piece is unique and all are unquestionably beautiful.
Which is why word of her work soon spread and restaurants began clamouring for her pieces. These days, Rozana's custom pieces can be seen against the backdrop of meals at eateries as far-ranging as Beta KL, De.Wan by Chef Wan, Roost KL, Jibby & Co, Bean Brothers, Puntry by Pun's Ice Cream, Blackbyrd and Atas at the new The RuMa Hotel and Residences.
Tan San Eu, better known as Euwie, is the founder of Puntry by Pun's Ice Cream and is one of the restaurateurs who is an ardent fan of Rozana's work.
“I discovered Bendang on a friend's blog and instantly loved what they did. A lot of our plates are custom-made based on Rozana's designs because we wanted to highlight her sense of creativity,” says Euwie, adding that he plans to order more plates from Bendang when Pun's expands.
Spreading their wings
Having captured the attention of numerous restaurant owners, Rozana realised that she simply couldn't cope by herself anymore, which is why last year, she roped in long-time fan Imaya Wong as her partner.
“A few years back, I attended an event where Rozana was selling her work and I fell in love with it. So I started buying and collecting her stuff and the passion just grew from there. And my background is in design and branding and hers is ceramic-making, so we thought we could just combine our skills,” says Wong.
Rozana concurs and adds, “I knew Bendang needed to expand but I couldn't keep thinking of everything alone so that's why I decided to partner with Imaya.”
The partnership has also ensured that Rozana is able to grow her brand more organically to keep up with the growing demand for her products, especially in KL. Which is why in March this year, under the new partnership, Rozana and Wong established Bendang Artisan in Linc KL, their first ever retail outlet.
“Prior to this, we opened a pop-up shop at Zhongshan building, and got really good response, because to many people, it was our first retail presence. From that response, we knew we needed a more permanent space, so we decided to open here when we were offered a lot,” says Wong.
For Rozana though, this is the culmination of a long-nurtured dream to leave a footprint in KL. “Most of our customers are from KL, so a few years ago, I started planning because I knew that I needed to open a shop in KL,” says Rozana, laughing.
The design process
Rozana typically comes up with five to six different designs every year, hinged around festive seasons like Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Merdeka and Christmas. Each design requires research and experimentation to get the colours and overall effects just right. Rozana estimates that she has already tested thousands of colours to date!
The production is totally done in Rozana's studio in Melaka, where she has hired a team of five to help her. Because she now does mass orders for restaurants as well as pieces for her retail outlet, she no longer uses the clay from the river nearby, as it is not so durable. Instead, she gets clay from a local supplier.
A batch of plates can take Rozana and her team days to produce as they do everything from scratch. To make the plates, Rozana first has to form them, before they are left to dry and then popped in the kiln (oven) to be baked for six-and-a-half hours to attain a temperature of 806°C.
After this, the colouring and glazing are done, and the tableware is once again returned to the kiln until it attains a temperature of 1195°C, which can take 10 hours.
Following this, Rozana and her team switch off the kiln but cannot open it as they have to wait for the temperature to drop to somewhere between 200°C to 300°C, before they can take the plates out. “The whole process is very tedious and technical to make, because clay is so sensitive,” agrees Wong.
Because each piece is handmade, Rozana says the reject percentage (damaged plates) is also much higher.
“Sometimes the percentage can be 50%, sometimes if we're lucky, it can be only 10%. There are always unexpected things that happen, sometimes we get unintentional effects, sometimes the colour changes from what we intended and then we have to repeat it again, so it's a very long process,” she says.
Ultimately though, both Rozana and Wong say they have discovered that there is huge demand for what they do, as more and more people are appreciative of local products. “Yeah, actually, the demand is really high and there is a lot of potential in this business as I think the awareness for local artisanal products is much higher now,” says Rozana.
Moving forward, the partners say their long-term aim is a lofty one, but they are determined to press ahead with the idea of establishing a Malaysian ceramic archive pilot project.
“The goal is to build and sustain the project as part of Bendang's vision in archiving Malaysian ceramic spearheaded by Rozana, as she has spent the past 10 years researching and accumulating data on the ceramic-making process,” says Wong.