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Artisans at Work

In a world of mass-produced items, it takes a dose of gumption – and a dash of flair –to pursue the art of creating things with one’s own hands. The Peak celebrates these craftsmen and their fledgling cottage industries we can proudly call Singapore’s own.

A SUPPLE PURSUIT
“I love leather as a medium. It is versatile, yet difficult to work with, which is its beauty. A well-made leather product can last a lifetime,” says Colin Chen, 30, founder of Miller Goods, a studio that designs leather products and makes them by hand.

A passion for well-made, handcrafted items drives this artisan. He launched his first label, Fabrix, offering personalised textile accessories, when he was just an undergraduate in business school.

Chen left the corporate world for a career in crafts. He founded Miller Goods after studying leather-making in Hong Kong.
Chen left the corporate world for a career in crafts. He founded Miller Goods after studying leather-making in Hong Kong.

Later, a brief stint in the corporate world convinced him to pursue a career in craftsmanship. Armed with little more than a keen sense of enthusiasm, Chen travelled to Japan and Hong Kong in 2009 in a bid to understand a specialised trade he had long been fascinated with.

He spent weeks understudying leather craftsmen, and established Miller Goods upon his return.

“I want to revamp classic leather products so they are fashionable, smart, and help their owners organise their lives better,” Chen says. “It’s about simple designs and minimal stitching. Instead, I use origami and architectural principles to construct an item, using folds.”

His products, sold at Tyrwhitt General Company, are often the result of keen observation. For instance, a denim-and-leather apron crafted for baristas comes with a little clip for towels to dry the hands. Chen explains: “This is how a personalised product should be – it takes into account the little needs of users.”

Living by this trade is no walk in the park. Resources and tools are scarce in Singapore – Chen’s array of tools, from awl to punch, had been painstakingly acquired over the years. The crafting process is laborious, and it may be many months before a product is launched. Many a time, sketches and prototypes are eventually deemed unrealistic and abandoned. The craft is unforgiving – one mistake, however small, and the piece has to be discarded.

But to Chen, it is deeply rewarding. He works on his pieces by day, taking advantage of natural light, and designs by night. “Sketching and design is the most exciting part,” he says. “Construction is a therapeutic process, and it is deeply engrossing. The most satisfying moment is when the product is finished.”

For the young man, this is just the start to a lifelong love affair with craftsmanship. “I’m currently working with leather, but I am always on a quest to learn more. When I travel and meet other craftsmen, it is inspiring to exchange ideas and pointers. If I can learn more techniques, even from other trades, and apply them to mine, that is evolution. There is still a long way to go.”

THE SWEET SPOT
Code Deco’s Eaux de Rose took eight years to concoct. For its creator, Gauri Garodia, the scent of “the perfect rose” in her mind was too strong to settle for anything that’s off by a nuance. That’s what 16 years of working with scents will do to you.

India-born Garodia decided to go solo in 2011 after working at consumer goods company Unilever as a perfume developer. This freed her to create scents that she herself had envisioned. The result: Code Deco, and its first three collections comprising four fragrances each.

Garodia designed the perfumes here but, due to economies of scale, had them mixed in a chemists’ lab in California. She would receive dozens of vials every Monday, which she would sniff for even the slightest deviation from her “mental blueprint”, then take notes on which oils to tone down and which notes to play up. The feedback would be sent to the lab the same week, and the process would begin again until she hit the “eureka moment”.

It isn’t easy to define the parameters. Take a citrus base: “I’d want the sparkle and shine of a lemon – the artistic impression, and not the exact smell of the fruit,” she says, adding that even getting it right may not be a good thing. A perfect replica of, say, guava’s essence may be too sweet to be worn.

Garodia developed perfume for clients at consumer goods company Unilever before branching out on her own.
Garodia developed perfume for clients at consumer goods company Unilever before branching out on her own.

The average Code Deco perfume goes through about 70 cycles before hitting the right note. While this entails thousands of variations to sieve through, Garodia does not stint on effort or the expense in creating the brand. “No celebrity endorsement deals and marketing campaigns
mean every dollar goes into the ingredients,” she says.

True enough, it’s easy to make out premium components such as Haitian vetiver and Bulgarian rose oil, top of their respective ranges, in Code Deco’s scents. The results are oddly enchanting. Tasman in Grey, for example, evokes a rugged ship cresting the waves of the Pacific. There’s clearly sound chemistry at work here. The fragrance’s staying power is almost at odds with how light and smooth it is on the nose.

More scents are already coming together in Garodia’s mind – they just need to make the leap from the vellum into the vial.

FEAT OF CLAY
Ceramic platters resembling large river stones cradle the culinary offerings at the Michelin-starred Viajante in London. Similarly, large dishes with distinctive textures turn dining into a multi-sensory experience at Restaurant Andre here.

Only fine-dining establishments – including Pollen, Esquina and Majestic Restaurant – feature the work of renowned ceramics artist Loh Lik Kian, who is famous for his fine craftsmanship and experimental designs. But to get one’s hands on his work, one must be willing to wait.

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The exacting 41-year-old spares no effort to realise his creations. From design to production, a project may take anything from two months to a year. The result: Eclectic, beautiful tableware that is characterised by a fine balance of simple forms, textures and colours.

Words like “natural” and “organic” come to mind. But Loh says: “I don’t believe in keeping to a style. What is more important is the journey to creation, and of pushing the boundaries of learning. There is no wrong or right in the process, only causes and consequences.”

Ironically, Loh did not set out to become a ceramicist. By chance, the graphic designer encountered a finely made Japanese teapot. Impressed,
he resolved to learn the craft and enrolled at LaSalle College of the Arts, studying ceramics under the likes of artist Ahmad Abu Bakar and graduating with distinction in 2002.

Loh first sketches his ideas, and builds prototypes to perfect his design. The clay, chosen for its colour and character, is prepared, then shaped on the potter’s wheel or in a mould created for the piece. Decorative elements are added and touch- ups are done at different stages of drying, after which the piece is glazed and fired in a kiln.
Loh first sketches his ideas, and builds prototypes to perfect his design. The clay, chosen for its colour and character, is prepared, then shaped on the potter’s wheel or in a mould created for the piece. Decorative elements are added and touch- ups are done at different stages of drying, after which the piece is glazed and fired in a kiln.

Today, Loh runs a studio undertaking private commissions, from fine diningware to corporate gifts, exhibits and murals, with his wife, Debbie Ng. A sense of play and exploration pervades the duo’s works and studio, which is packed with craft books from Japan, Korea and China; an array of tools, many of them customised and handmade by Loh and Ng; and stacks of clays and glazes.

You’ll find unexpected items such as batik stamps and mooncake moulds, too. “We heard of a batik factory closing down so we went and salvaged their stamps, and now use them to create tiles. The mooncake moulds were collected over the years and used to craft a series of teapots. In a way, we are preserving other diminishing crafts in ceramics.”

Technical challenges only fuel the duo’s passion. As Loh’s dictum is “nothing is impossible given time and resources”, the two often work late into the night, crafting and resolving design and technical problems. For instance, Viajante’s “river stones” posed a weight problem. After repeated trials, Loh finally perfected a technique to create light, hollow ware.

“Ceramics is a dying art, and the skills and knowledge take years to hone and accumulate,” he says. “Veteran artists from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery have made our journey possible. So, we do what we can to help shape the journeys of others and keep the craft alive.”

BITE OF THE TROPICS
While the past several years have seen Singapore bombarded with macaron offerings, there has been a distinct lack of South-east Asian flavours. Patissier Lin Weixian is on a mission to change that. Over at Pasar Bella, Singapore’s first farmers’ market, Lin’s outfit, Bonheur Patisserie, offers a dizzying array of 30 flavours. There are the traditional favourites, and the adventurous – such as lemongrass milk chocolate and gula melaka.

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“A macaron is something very simple, yet it offers endless possibilities,” says the wiry 28-yearold. “I want to inject fun into it, play with the flavours, and introduce Asian and even savoury elements.”

Lin established the first Bonheur Patisserie branch in Duxton Road in 2010, the same year he graduated from At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy. Soon, word spread of a boutique bakery that made delightful cakes in flavours such as strawberry balsamic. His second venture at Pasar Bella turns the spotlight on the popular French delicacy.

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Singapore’s diverse food scene is Lin’s muse, and this has given rise to ganaches of kaffir lime and oolong tea – which was also how lemongrass made it to his pantheon of macaron flavours. Lin noticed an abundance of the fragrant stalk in the market one day and feeling inspired, he bought a bundle to experiment. “Dark chocolate was too acidic, and white too sweet, so we decided on milk chocolate to pair it with,” says Lin. “It took quite a few tries to get it right.”

Trial and error is a constant feature of Lin’s work. He says, “There are tons of books out there on pairing flavours the European way. But there are none on pairing Asian flavours. And introducing new elements to the ganache adds uncertainty, so we can’t depend on generic recipes. We’ve got to keep playing and trying.”

Good ingredients are crucial. Lin also makes it a point to age his egg whites for five to seven days so they lose their elasticity and can be whisked without turning grainy. Next, good technique is critical to ensure that the batter of sugar, egg white and almond meal does not become overprocessed. When the mix is ready, Lin shapes the shells and dries them before baking. For the ganache, he adds cocoa butter so it can withstand the local heat. The result – perfect melt-in-your-mouth macarons.
Good ingredients are crucial. Lin also makes it a point to age his egg whites for five to seven days so they lose their elasticity and can be whisked without turning grainy. Next, good technique is critical to ensure that the batter of sugar, egg white and almond meal does not become overprocessed. When the mix is ready, Lin shapes the shells and dries them before baking. For the ganache, he adds cocoa butter so it can withstand the local heat. The result – perfect melt-in-your-mouth macarons.

These unusual creations see fans returning for more. On weekends, the patisserie easily sells 1,000 macarons. Lin’s workday averages 12 to 14 hours, but his mind is constantly abuzz with new ideas, such as working with mango and pomelo. “I can never stop thinking,” he says. “Next to my bed, I have a notebook to jot down ideas in the middle of the night. My wife thinks I’m crazy!”

MAN OF THE WORD
The tools Michael Chiang uses can be found in any dictionary, and he’s been assembling them to convey the quirks and foibles of Singapore society for more than 20 years. His Army Daze is still, after 17 years, the funniest movie to hit local screens.

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Chiang returns after 14 years of stage silence to deliver High Class, a musical about a divorced socialite grooming five women into tai tais on a reality show. The story addresses familiar issues such as the quest for wealth and the arrival of foreign talent.

He attributes his shrewd observations to years spent as a journalist interviewing people. If he’s keeping silent, he’s actually hard at work. “I’m quiet by nature, so I observe a lot. I’d be sitting in a cafe, watching someone playing Candy Crush and I’d slip that detail into my work.”

He insists he’s just a conduit. “The characters talk among themselves, and I just record it.” That, folks, is the secret to his runaway hits.

A SOLID CHARACTER
Standing in her studio, surrounded by letterpress machines older than she is, vintage plates and furniture, Michelle Yu, 24, would have been an anachronism if not for the growing popularity of nostalgia.

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This yearning for the past has revived the art of letterpressing, where every printed letter and illustration would bear the “bite” of a type or
plate carved and cast by artisans. Every print is unique compared to the uniform images that are churned out by digital printers today.

Growing up in Singapore, Yu had never heard of letterpress printing until she travelled to the United States in 2011 after graduating from her study in visual communications. She chanced upon a letterpress workshop in New York, and fell hard for the art. “I began reading up.” Before her trip was done, she had bought her first machine: a 400kg, 70-year-old hand-cranked Vandercook cylinder press.

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Back in Singapore, Yu set about establishing a studio. It wasn’t easy. She had to trawl the Internet and visit scrap collectors for resources. “I went to thrift shops and junkyards and made surprise finds, such as old types and plates sold as scrap metal.”

Today, Yu runs The Gentlemen’s Press at Neil Road, where she experiments with producing multicoloured prints and the use of textiles, leather and wood as different mediums. She also prints original illustrations from plates.

Yu now owns three letterpress machines, including a 130-year-old Chandler and Price. She says: “I’ve always been drawn to old-school stuff, which explains why I’m comfortable with this equipment. They come from a time when there was more thought, deliberation and pride in work.

Michelle develops her designs using various printing mediums, illustrations and types. She then arranges the types, which can go as small as eight points, and places them in galleys before locking them in place in a frame. Low-height pieces of wood or metal furniture are used for the blank areas. Lastly, she mixes the ink by hand to achieve the right colour, and applies it to the type and plates before feeding the paper. The ink is reapplied regularly for a consistent tone.
Michelle develops her designs using various printing mediums, illustrations and types. She then arranges the types, which can go as small as eight points, and places them in galleys before locking them in place in a frame. Low-height pieces of wood or metal furniture are used for the blank areas. Lastly, she mixes the ink by hand to achieve the right colour, and applies it to the type and plates before feeding the paper. The ink is reapplied regularly for a consistent tone.

“This is why the studio is called The Gentlemen’s Press. The quality of a gentleman is like the letterpress. It is genuine, feels more real, has a human touch. No print is exactly the same. That’s what makes it so special.”