words Kieran Long
Singapore is the low-octane Tokyo, a sanitised but pleasant ex-pat haven that is now attempting to rebrand itself as the creative hub of South-east Asia.
The most high-profile part of this effort to date was the two-week Singapore Design Festival in November last year, which brought designers from across the world to speak at a series of events including the DesignEdge conference, workshops, exhibitions and events throughout the city.
The former British protectorate is an unlikely design capital, given its totalitarian attitude to hedonism. Drug use carries the death penalty, pornography is illegal and even chewing gum is banned.
But the authoritarian regime takes the promotion of the country very seriously, and when it decides to act, it does so with conviction. In 2002, the Singapore government published the bureaucratic-sounding Creative Industries Development Strategy. The aim of the strategy was to increase the proportion of GDP earned by Singapore’s design industries, and capitalise on the country’s historic role as a colonial trading outpost to become a hub for the South-east Asian design world. It is Singapore’s mature consumer economy that makes it a strong contender to be that hub.
Like so many other cities, Singapore decided it needed its own design festival. Design Singapore, the organisation charged with promoting design in the country, organised a series of events over two weeks in November, based around two major conferences – DesignEdge, aimed at a younger, design-savvy audience, and Beyond 2005, a more corporate affair with big-name speakers such as Rem Koolhaas.
In both conferences, the dearth of indigenous Singaporean work was striking. At DesignEdge, most of those who appeared on the stage were from overseas – mostly from Europe – and almost all of the speakers were men. There was also a preponderance of graffiti artists, animators and video artists, including Delta, D-fuse and United Visual Artists. All were crowd pleasers but gave little clue of how the future identity of the region’s design culture might evolve in competition with the big hitters of Japan, Europe and America.
The atmosphere at DesignEdge was somewhere between a Radio 1 roadshow and a meeting of the Alpha Course. More than 5,000 people sat in front of the main stage to see a succession of “acts”, introduced by two young, hip MTV types in terms more usually reserved for boybands. It was an impressive show.
Ban YJ, founder of toy company Stikfas and one of Singapore’s most successful designers, thinks Singapore needs to be exposed to more of the global design scene: “Design in Singapore is still at the ‘sponge’ stage, absorbing as much as we can from other cultures. The question is how that forms a new DNA. What is a Singapore style?
I think it will come from us being very adaptable, very multinational and cross-cultural – we have the ability to be very fluid. That could become the point of being a designer in Singapore.”
Singapore only has 4.5 million residents on an island smaller than greater London, and indigenous design talent is a limited pool. But certain design groups have been able to carve out niches for themselves, almost against the odds. The most interesting work to be found in the country is in graphic design and toys.
But Singapore’s designers are also beginning to build a cultural context for design as well as viable businesses. Chris Lee of graphics studio Asylum recently opened a boutique, selling a variety of merchandise, design-related and otherwise. But the shop also hosts exhibitions (of fashion brands Ffurious and Hooked during the festival in November) and has become the unofficial centre of the design scene here. Lee hates the comparison, but the shop is a mini-version of Paris boutique Colette, with a curated selection of products and a cultural mission that goes beyond the commercial. Asylum’s self-effacing branding characterises its work, and in a sense comes as close as any to a Singaporean style. It is witty and has a sense of the absurd, with an abiding corporate sensibility that saves it from self-indulgence.
Phunk Design Studio fits into a similar category. The four-strong team have worked together for ten years, despite still being in their twenties. Their output is a comic take on work that will be familiar to any observer of the Western graphic design scene – Jamie Hewlett, Airside and Kraftwerk are all influences – blending it with an eclectic and irreverent approach. “We wanted to be a design group that was like a rock band,” says Phunk partner Jackson Tan. The group is taciturn about its cult status, but it has become one of the most successful agencies in the country.
Young design entrepreneurs Design Taxi run an online service showing designers’ portfolios, but also organised the Street Tease live graffiti event during the festival. Creative director Alex Goh says that being from Singapore is not vital to Design Taxi’s identity: “The main audience for the website is in the US and Europe – there are a lot of people who didn’t know that Taxi is from Singapore.”
The identity of Singapore’s architecture is similarly international. The corporate buildings of the high-rise CBD could be from any city in the world. Only a few practices – such as Zong Architects and WOHA – are working towards an identity specific to the tropical context.
Singapore’s historic role as a centre of trade has made it a choice location for international organisations that are trying to break into the emerging markets of South-east Asia, such as the German awards company Red Dot. Ken Koo, the director of the Red Dot Design Centre in central Singapore, is aiming to use the investment of the developer and Red Dot to create an incubator location for local talent as well as a home for the globalised design world.
Red Dot’s new building is in the Tanjong Pagar area of downtown Singapore, right on the edge of the CBD – some of the priciest real estate in the city. But as well as creating the Red Dot Museum, Koo has managed to turn part of the building into recording studios, video and graphics suites and 5,000sq ft design incubator spaces. The ground floor courtyards will have cafés and bars – the atmosphere in the building is very different from the mall developments that typify Singapore’s built environment.
Koo says the government-appointed organisers of the main design festival events don’t look enough at indigenous talent. “The talent might not be at the standard [of Europe, Japan or the US] yet,” he says, “but they need to embrace the talent no matter what the standard is. Why is it that our conference [DesignEdge] is organised by someone from Hong Kong [publishing group IBM]? We may not be as professional, but it should truly be ours.”
Koo took seven Singaporean designers to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York last year and says the feedback was excellent. “We have the talent, from the point of view of creative ideas, but there is the lack of intermediaries for designers [in Singapore]. We lack the prototyping facilities, for example – it’s really tough when someone has ideas to try them out.”
Koo adds that the Singaporean government’s approach in the past has always been to court multinational corporations. “The government has to realise that the creative industries are completely different,” he says. “They still just want to look at the numbers. But you can’t always justify [creativity], and if you stifle it you will never be a leader. There is a creative and close-knit [design] community here, but there is lots of frustration.”
But Ban YJ believes that the Singaporean design scene will inevitably find an identity: “We have been offered many times to relocate, but creativity, I think, has to do with the space that formed you. We wouldn’t fit in anywhere else.”