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How Singapore design firms have risen internationally in recent years

A small but increasing number of Singapore firms, led by WOHA, has been making firm inroads into the international design market in recent years.

In the eight large halls of the Parc des Expositions Paris Nord Villepinte building in the French capital, a collection of the world’s most beautiful design pieces was carefully put in place.

Every January and September, Maison&Objet (M&O) attracts the top luxury brands around the world in this showcase of items for the home that range from furniture to cookware, home and fashion accessories for buyers to bring back to their home countries.

Parc des Expositions, located a 10-minute drive away from the Charles de Gaulle Airport, and 45 minutes by bus from the city centre, is the Parisian equivalent of the Singapore Expo.

Industry+ at Maison&Objet Paris

PHOTO Industry+

At the recently concluded September show, while visitors ogled the likes of famous brands such as Vitra and Missoni Home, they might have noticed a red lounge chair with flipper-like legs in a hotel-like pavilion, at Hall 7, dedicated to the latest ideas from the world of design.

Just next to this pavilion was a brightly lit booth, made out of corrugated cardboard, with a display of three curvy metal seats.

Over in Hall 8, which was meant for projects, there was a booth with colourful rugs hung all around.-

It may not sound like much, considering there were over 2,800 exhibitors, of which 144 companies were from Asia.

But these three booths marked a small but growing presence of Singapore firms which, for the past couple of years, have been making firm inroads in the international market.

While Singapore designers have also penetrated the prestigious Milan Furniture Fair, the Paris show was important because it was a major event in the furnishing industry.

The Rug Maker - Maison&Objet Paris 2017

PHOTO The Rug Maker

Or, as how a foreign designer who has participated in both shows put it anonymously: “Milan is like a big party where the industry gather, but in Paris the real business is done.”

Leading the pack was WOHA Architects, long entrenched in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific with its sustainable buildings and spaces designed for the tropical climate.

The other two Singaporean exhibitors were Industry+ and The Rug Maker.

WOHA, founded by Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell in 1994, gave interior designers and buyers their first look at WOHAbeing at M&O.

“As first-time participants in a furnishing trade show, we learned about the breadth and depth of the homeware industry and how enormous it is. That’s good in that it is a huge market but also daunting when you see the range of existing products,” said Hassell.

WOHA is no stranger to designing furniture, having done so for resorts, such as Alila Villas Uluwatu.

WOHAbeing marks the first time that the products are produced for the retail market, even though the firm had been tossing up this idea for the past decade.

The push came when in 2016, the firm was named Designer of the Year for the Asian edition of M&O in Singapore. Unfortunately, after three editions, organiser Salons Francais Et Internationaux decided to put the 2017 and 2018 editions on hold.

M&O matchmade them with the right producers.

The WOHAbeing bathware range was made by apaiser, outdoor furniture by Industry+, rugs by The Rug Maker, tableware by Luzerne and lighting by WonderGlass. The manufacturers are all based in Singapore, except WonderGlass from London.

WOHA founders and architects, Mun Summ Wong & Richard Hassell

WOHA founders and architects, Mun Summ Wong & Richard Hassell. PHOTO Maison&Objet

The designs were inspired by projects that the firm had and are currently working on.

The sale of the products will be made through the individual producers. “We are not ready to sell on our own, because it is a huge expense and there are rental and staff issues to consider,” explained Hassell.

The response was encouraging.

“We had many enquiries, and even some orders placed,” said Hassell, citing that the Ulu Centric Dining Table, with its spinning table top, appealed to many visitors.

They also found several potential collaborators to work with. “We are working out the details and it looks promising,” he added.

The Rug Maker returned to M&O for the second time, after its inaugural participation in 2016. Its sales manager Melvyn Khong said that returning strengthens the awareness and brand name to professionals that visit M&O. “We take part in M&O because we want to reach out to an international audience.”

This year, it showcased SUPERTEXTURES, a collection of 12 rugs, made of a variety of yarns such as polyester, cotton, paper and wool, designed by Singaporean Tiffany Loy. The different combination of yarns gave the rugs varied textures.

Most of The Rug Maker’s visitors were architects and interior designers, a majority from France, Italy and Germany. “Many had projects on hand, and were sourcing for new products,” added Khong. “They liked the uniqueness of the current range.”

Khong has plans to return. “It is necessary to appear consecutively for such a show. This will instill confidence from the buyers for the overseas market,” he said.

WohaBeing Pavilion

WohaBeing Pavilion. PHOTO WohaBeing

For this show, Industry+ is showcasing four collections, including Lulu by Singapore design firm, Studio Juju.

Lulu will officially be launched at the Milan Furniture Fair in April 2018, but even at the preview at M&O, the collection garnered plenty of attention from potential buyers, such as architects and interior designers from France, Netherlands and the United Kingdom, according to PC Ee, co-founder of Industry+.

This was the third participation by Industry+ at M&O.

“It is one of the biggest trade shows for the furniture industry, and we’ve always garnered strong interest from buyers,” explained Ee.

As first-time exhibitors, Hassell said showing to an international audience allowed them to find out if their designs appealed more to a certain region of the world. “We were pleasantly surprised to get an evenly positive response from Europeans, Asians and Americans,” he added.

They don’t rule out returning to future M&O shows.

“We design pieces for many of our projects, so it will not be a problem creating new pieces for WOHAbeing,” pointed out Wong.

SINGAPORE DESIGN ON SHOW

  • SUPERTEXTURES by The Rug Maker

    SUPERTEXTURES by The Rug Maker

    Mention paper and book or other printed matter come to mind. But paper can also be turned into yarn, by twisting a single flat strip of paper tightly into a round yarn. Paper yarn first became widely used in Finland after World War II, when resources for yarn-makers were scarce. It became a substitute for materials such as wool and cotton.

    Paper yarn is one of the four types of yarn used in the new SUPERTEXTURES collection of rugs, created by Singaporean company The Rug Maker. The firm collaborated with Finnish producer VM-Carpet and Singaporean designer Tiffany Loy on the collection.

    The Rug Maker's sales manager Melvyn Khong says that using paper yarn gives the rugs a"tatami-like look and feel." Khong, together with his mum, Foong Yoke, now run the 20-year-old family business.

    Wool and polyester are usually used for pieces by The Rug Maker. For the SUPERTEXTURES collection, cotton and paper were added to the material palette.

    Loy says that the collection is a result of a series of investigations in combining different materials and weave structures to achieve unexpected textures.

    For example, when woven, the dense wool adds body to the rug; while paper has a little springiness to it. Cotton gives elasticity, while polyester adds flexibility.

    Each strand of yarn is made from numerous fibres which have a texture of their own. When spun into yarn, a whole new texture is created. "And when all the yarn is woven into a rug, yet another texture is created. It is like a compound of textures," says Ms Loy, who created four designs of carpets, such as grid and lattice.

    By varying the types of yarn used, the rugs have different textures and also varying degrees of tension, allowing them to twist or stretch naturally.

    PHOTOThe Rug Maker

Story first appeared on The Business Times.

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