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Chicken rice or pasta?

Singaporean design is beginning to rise with a new generation of creative talents including Creativeans.

Text Justin Zhuang
Photos courtesy of Creativeans

They have had stints as designers in Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and Australia, but when they started their design practice, the Creativeans chose to be in Singapore, the country where four of them started out.

Kimming Yap, Yulia Saksen, Khairul Hussin and Sharina Bi, first met in the industrial design programme of Singapore’s Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) a decade ago. In 2011, they created ‘Treasures of the Little Red Dot,’ their debut collection for Milan’s SaloneSatellite, which has won accolades and established the Creativeans as one of Singapore’s up-and-coming design collectives. But it merely started on a whim, when they came together after a class gathering in 2010 to design products for fun. “We didn’t intend to start a company. To be honest, we were quite bored with our work, so we decided to do something on our own,” says Kimming, who has a Masters from Domus Academy and was then working for Studio ITO Design in Milan.

Having seen other designers in Milan exhibit at SaloneSatellite, Kimming suggested the group do the same too. He noticed people in Europe were interested in Asian design, but few knew about works from Singapore. “If you think about Asian design now, what comes to mind? Japan, Taiwan, Korea... but where is Singapore?” asks the 26-year-old. “It’s never the first thing in people’s mind. Singapore is a First World country, but our design scene is losing out. We know the government is putting in a lot of effort, but the international exposure is not there.”

This desire to showcase Singapore an design led to a collection of lamps, tableware and products that were inspired by what they discovered in their country. One example was the dying trades in the city that led to ‘Adapt’, a range of four desk accessories that was part of their collection shown at SaloneSatellite and Tent London. It came about after a walk along the city’s Little India area where the group spotted the street stalls of a florist and seamstress. Sharina observed that the florist’s way of displaying her flowers could be used for magazines, while the seamstress’ method of measuring tape with the table’s edge translated well as a bulletin board too. Extending this idea to two other dying trades she found on the streets of Singapore, Sharina re-adapted the direct lighting a key maker used into a desktop light, and turned the fortune teller’s shelving system into a stationery organiser.

“When put together, these four trades gel very well in our modern context,” explains the designer who graduated from Central Saint Martins in London. “The name given for this collection gives a literal meaning to the function of the product itself that it simply clips to the edges of any table and adapts well to the needs of the users.”

While this manner of engaging Singapore an culture using design is a recent trend among several local studios, such as Triggerhappy’s ‘SINGAPORE Souvenirs’, Kimming says the results are mainly keepsakes such as stationery and clothing. Instead, the Creativeans want to design objects for mass production and have a clear function. For instance, an idea that failed to make their collection was a floor rug based on the topography of Singapore. “We thought it was interesting to play with geography. It is very Singaporean, but is there much value in it? We didn’t want to create just a gift, it must have a purpose and function that adds value to people’s life,” he says.

Moreover, the group wants their designs to express the diversity of Singapore as reflected by their different cultural backgrounds: both Kimming and Yulia are Chinese, while Khairul is Malay and Sharina is Punjabi. Yulia, also an Indonesian who became a Singaporean permanent resident, explains that the group’s multicultural background adds value to their designs and represents an aspect of this country that she finds attractive. “It is like unwrapping a box of assorted chocolates. The excitement, visual treats and variety of taste and texture Singapore has provided tantalises me,” says the Domus-trained designer who previously worked at Japanese company Shimano.

The resulting colourful approach—which Kimming likens to the spirit of the Memphis Group, a Milan-based collective that shocked the design world with their postmodernist style in the 80s—differentiates the Creativeans’ designs from the zen-like restraint that has come to typify design in Asia and in Singapore, as seen in the work of their contemporaries such as Studio Juju and Outofstock.

These two principles guided the group when deciding what to include in ‘Treasures of the Little Red Dot’. While each of them designed their own products, over regular cross-criticism sessions, they crafted a coherent collection that despite their different backgrounds, inspirations and styles, connected with people. “I think one common theme we always play with is interaction. Most of our products have gestures. We want to make things people can interact with,” says Kimming. This can be seen in the ‘Mikka’, ‘Digga’ and ‘Annika’ lamps based on Asian traditional aviaries. While turning birdcages into lamps is not new, Khairul wanted to give it a fresh take. “We noticed the different silhouettes formed when the fabric covers were laid onto the birdcages. These silhouettes were moulded from the various shapes of the cages and we used Neoprene, a material uncom-mon for lighting, to replace the fabric cover. This gave the lamp a fresh look, softness, and also the ability to manipulate its structure to redirect the angle of light,” explains the designer who previously studied at Australia’s University of New South Wales and was the lecturer of the trio who are now his business partners.

The lamps were part of eight new objects the Creativeans brought to Milan last year in their second installment of ‘Treasures of the Little Red Dot.’ This time around, ‘Pod’, a design which turns a household food cover found in Singapore into a multi-functional serving tray and dining mat, even won a Special Mention. The success of their work has justified the collective’s decision to debut in Milan two years ago despite the cost, and even turned this hobby project into their full-time job. To meet the increasing requests from clients, Kimming quit his job in Milan in early 2012 and returned to join Yulia on the Creativeans full-time. Although Sharina and Khairul still teach part-time at NYP, the four continue to work on projects as a collective.

Despite gaining fame from their products, the Creativeans have set their sights on bigger things. They see themselves as a studio providing complete design solutions, and have been working on projects in branding, design management and visual communication as well. While acknowledging this approach’s potential as a revenue stream to support their first love, industrial design, Kimming says they are motivated by their belief in having a holistic approach towards design.

“It is important to not just design the product, but what goes around it too. How it relates to you, the packaging, where it is being sold—all these are essential to the product itself. We feel it is very important for companies and designers to be aware of this,” says Kimming. He points out that even for ‘Treasures of the Little Red Dot,’ the group not only came out with the collection but also its branding.

To help more clients understand the importance of design and branding, the studio recently came up with the free guide ‘Design for Brand’. He notes that more small and medium enterprises in Singapore are becoming aware of the value of design and branding, which presents opportunities for a young studio like the Creativeans. This sense of possibility is what led them to set up shop in Singapore, even though it has a less developed design scene as compared to cities like Milan.

“It’s very nice to be there (Milan) for a designer. I learnt so much, and everybody understands and appreciates design,” says Kimming. “But another way of looking at it is that the market is saturated, there are too many good designers, and too many things that have been done before.”

In contrast, Singapore is just developing as a city for design, and the group has witnessed and benefitted from what they say is increasing state support and initiatives for designers like them. In the upcoming SaloneSatellite, Kimming reveals that Singapore will have a national pavilion for the first time, and the Creativeans will return to showcase two collections.

Being a part of this rising Singapore design wave is perhaps affirmation for the group’s name. Inspired by the word Singaporeans, the group turned the adjective creative into a noun, transforming themselves into citizens of a creative city—which Singapore is fast becoming today.


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