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Where do these 3 Singapore Designers find Inspiration from?

Srilalitha Gopalakrishnan, Hans Tan and Nathan Yong speak to us about unexpected sources of design inspiration, right here in the island city.

Bio-diversity

Srilalitha Gopalakrishnan

Landscape architect rediscovers the beauty of native plants for the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

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The facade of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum functions as an educational space containing native plants found in cliff landscapes.

When Srilalitha (Sri) Gopalakrishnan, a former associate at Tierra Design, found herself as the lead landscape architect for the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, she had no idea she was in for an unusual ride. The project, commissioned through a competition in collaboration with W Architects, had an unconventional mandate: Use only native plants, and showcase as many varieties as possible.

The client had a clear ambition. “Every aspect of it had to be something they could teach. Every inch of space had to have relevance – something beyond beauty and aesthetics,” says Sri, 38, who has worked on major landscaping projects for Parkroyal on Pickering, Ocean Financial Centre and Marina Bay Promenade. “We’ve never done a project that focused so heavily on ‘native’. So it was an education.”

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Lush sky gardens at Parkroyal on Pickering bring greenery to hotel rooms.

One of the biggest challenges was identifying the plants. “I was vaguely aware of only 40 per cent of the plant palette,” says Sri, who conducted extensive research, alongside consultations with botanists, to help her identify and select the right specimens.

Sourcing the plants also proved challenging. Many local nurseries did not cultivate the local plant species she wanted to use, so alternative methods had to be sought, including donations from the local authorities and procuring from nurseries in Malaysia.

Since opening last year, the museum’s landscaping has been an eye-opener for visitors. “Many were quite impressed that you could do something like this by keeping to native varieties,” says Sri. Visitors get to discover all sorts of exotic flora, including a rare indigenous orchid (Bromheadia finlaysoniana) that grows in mangroves.

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The green wall at Ocean Financial Centre once held the record for the world’s largest vertical garden.

Perhaps the most rewarding experience has been discovering the potential of the biodiversity that surrounds us. “Native plants are equally beautiful. They may not be conventionally pretty or very colourful, but it’s a matter of how you use them,” she adds. She cites a cliff climber variety, or fox grape, which she uses prominently on the museum’s facade. “It looks nice, it grows very well and is not expensive.”

There has been greater interest within the industry in native plants, even among commercial clients. Says Sri: “A few years ago, I would have said – why native? But today, I would say, why not? These plants have a range of forms that we can use.”

Objects

Hans Tan

Industrial designer transforms heritage objects into contemporary pieces that straddle art and design.

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When industrial designer Hans Tan first showed people the Spotted Nyonya in 2012 – a traditional Peranakan vase with a polka-dot pattern – it immediately provoked strong reactions.

“I was trying to make contemporary something that is not very popular today,” says Tan, 36, who was named one of Perspective’s 40 under 40 in 2013. That award recognises design talent in the Asia-Pacific. He adds: “There were people who told me, ‘You’re defacing very nice porcelain ware.’”


“There were people who told me, ‘You’re defacing very nice porcelain ware.’”

– Hans Tan


But Tan welcomes such responses. “It shows that my work is provocative. Not everyone will like it, especially if they are traditionalist. But, at least, there are people who appreciate it from the other perspective,” he says.

Controversy aside, Tan says he saw an opportunity to inject these old objects, which are unlikely to be found in homes today, with contemporary relevance. Tan, who graduated with a master’s, cum laude, from the acclaimed Design Academy Eindhoven, has always been fascinated by culture in design. He says: “I see design as a medium for me to express ideas about heritage and tradition.”

He started experimenting with porcelain pieces using a sand-blasting technique. This allows him to create patterns by removing the porcelain’s outer glaze. “I was trying to find the best way to express this technique and how it could be used to express certain meanings,” says Tan. “I asked myself: Can I find the most relevant porcelain ware to Singapore?”

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Portions of these vases’ outer glaze were removed, creating a fascinating play on patterns.

Serendipitously, colourful Peranakan vases, with ornate motifs of phoenixes and flowers, were the perfect fit. “Somehow, the stars aligned. The play on patterns created was very interesting,” he adds. Tan is not Peranakan, but this hasn’t derailed the success of the Spotted Nyonya, which bagged the most inventive product award at the fall edition of Maison&Objet 2011 in Paris and Singapore’s President’s Design Award in 2012.

This inspired him to create the Striped Mings, a series of ceramic pieces featuring line patterns. “While I was sourcing Peranakan vessels, I chanced upon many old Chinese shops in Singapore selling knick-knacks. I started buying one-off ceramic pieces from them. Their wares are usually left as dead stock, or thrown away, when the store closes down.”

Tan’s re-interpretation of traditional objects has created international interest in Singapore’s heritage. “When I exhibit overseas, the first thing that catches the international audience’s eye is the play on patterns. After probing, they become interested, because Peranakan is the idea of mixing two elements together. People abroad start to learn about our culture through our design work.”

Selected pieces from both collections are on exhibit in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

“When I started out, most Singaporeans didn’t identify with Singaporean design as an asset. It’s surprising that in these few years, Singaporeans are starting to buy Singapore design. We’re in a place that we never imagined we would be.”

Craft

Nathan Yong

Behind his poetic designs, this furniture designer has been quietly changing mindsets, and creating a market for the skills of Asian craftsmen.

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Nathan Yong hopes the next generation of designers will explore production that preserves traditional craftsmanship.

Furniture designer Nathan Yong may be considered one of the most influential designers of his generation, but one of his lesser-known successes has been engaging local craftsmen since the beginning of his career.

“It started in Singapore 10 years ago, when I asked a carpenter here to produce my wooden furniture,” says Yong, now 45, whose multi-disciplinary work includes running Grafunkt, a forward-looking furniture retail space, and design commissions by international brands such as Design Within Reach and Ligne Roset.

“At that time, being able to find a solid wood carpenter in Singapore was rare. It’s like a long-lost craft that no one knew existed.”

Observing the processes of these elderly craftsmen – they test the moisture of wood simply by using their hands as a weighing scale – he started to feel the preciousness of these time-honed skills. “When they are gone, no one is taking over. We should try to provide a business for them. The only way is to update their skills with design,” he says.

So, when Yong had the opportunity to start Folks Furniture in 2009, a line of solid wood furnishings, he designed contemporary pieces he knew could tap the wood-working skills of the craftsmen. He started working with a Singaporean company, with a factory based in Malaysia employing local and Malaysian craftsmen, which had thus far been producing traditional American designs.

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The Pringles Lounge Chair from Folks Furniture celebrates the purity of wood.

“When you have been doing American furniture for the last 30 years, it’s set in a worker’s mind. It should be this proportion or colour; it should be thick and chunky.” It took Yong two years to change mindsets, exposing the craftsmen to modern designs and different materials, from American walnut to oak.

“These craftsmen are not design trained, yet they can appreciate the design,” says Yong. “For them, it’s the same wood, it’s the same section, but how can the result be so different? When they see the change, they become passionate.”

Today, the Folks collection has grown to more than 30 pieces and the label exports to countries globally, including the US, Australia and Japan. So close is the issue to his heart that Yong’s recent book, Being: The Thoughts and Work of Nathan Yong, 2006-2014, finds him sharing extensively about the potential of Asian’s craft, which he hopes will spur the next generation of designers to explore production methods closer to home.

For him, working with local craftsmen is, simply, the right thing to do. “Traditional crafts disappear because no one re-creates demand. As designers, we need to create businesses that engage design and craft.”

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