Tag: Consumerism

SG Design: Consumption or Culture Cultivation?

When I first began writing about design, an editor of an Asian design magazine categorised my essays as only interesting to designers. Instead, I needed to re-tune my writing for “design consumers” if I was to write for their magazine.

The remark gave me much clarity in what I sought to write about. I’ve never wanted to sell or promote the coolest or latest designs , but I’ve always seen design as a part of our everyday life, as well as a product of our culture and times . But such a view is rare amongst how many in Singapore view design. One of the most telling indicators for me is how design is often represented in the local mainstream media. When design gets coverage in newspapers like The Straits Times and Business Times, design is usually portrayed as a consumer product: designer furniture, stylish interiors, and dream homes. The same goes for many magazines about design that I find in Singapore.

Such a dominant view of design’s role in society probably explains why there was hardly a reaction from designers and architects over the fact that Singapore sat out of the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. As compared to local artists currently going brouhaha over the government’s decision to pull out of the contemporary art version of the Venice Biennale next year, the response has been rather muted except for some comments elicited for an article on The Straits Times over the weekend (Singapore skips architecture biennale. 1 September, 2012). After participating in every edition since 2004, building national pavilions around themes such as Second Nature (2004), Singapore Built and Unbuilt (2006), Singapore Supergarden (2008), and 1000 Singapores (2010), Singapore designers and architects will not be able to showcase their ideas, culture and work on an international platform this year.

While DesignSingapore Council has chosen to remain “tight-lipped about this year’s non-participation”, its executive director Jeffery Ho told the newspaper that the council was focusing on other events such as the Milan Furniture Fair, Maison et Objet in Paris and International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. As Colin Seah from Ministry of Design pointed out in the report, this indicates the council’s direction to concentrate on “more commercial and trade events” — which supports my view that the council has become more interested simply promoting design for economic consumption. From what I understand, the Venice Architecture Biennale has always been an exhibition about ideas in design and its role in arts and culture as opposed to the business of selling design.

This latest pullout follows in the wake of the postponement of what was supposed to be the fourth Singapore Design Festival last year. There is still no news if the council will hold the festival this year, traditionally happening between October and November. What we can say for sure is that policymakers are reviewing their strategy of promoting and supporting design, perhaps aptly so since next year will be a decade since the council was set up.

A cue for the future of how the Singapore government will support and promote design can be found in the council’s plans for the upcoming National Design Centre due in 2013. It seems that government policies are shifting back to the view that design is for commerce and trade alone. This marks a shift in the original agenda set by the council’s late founding director, Dr. Milton Tan.

As one of his staff recalled in a eulogy for him that was published in The Design Society Journal No. 02, “Milton’s eventual vision for Singapore design was formed with the Ministry’s support… His research in design creativity also informed him that a healthy design strategy had to be integrated with culture, craft, and inspiration. This is why Dsg is in the ministry leading the creative industries, and not trade and industry. Though frequently challenged by MICA to deliver the economic numbers when formulating the design strategy for the next five years, Milton continued to push the cultural agenda.”

Could the time be up for the council and it finally needs to justify continued support for design with indicators of how it has benefitted Singapore economically? How will national design policies that ignore culture and affect the industry and community in Singapore?

This is a similar concern raised almost 15 years ago in a 1998 news report in the Business Times reviewing what was then the decade-old International Design Forum held in Singapore, another government initiative for design. The question was asked if the now defunct forum had become “too commercially oriented at the expense of highlighting design in its pure form”.

An optimistic view would be to say the council has laid a foundation and the growing community of designers and architects can continue cultivating the seeds of cultural evolution. But has the scene arrived at this point? It’ll be sad to see the council’s decade-long work of pushing design beyond the realm of business go to waste, but what is even more painful is to realise this is something that has happened before. And likely to happen all over again.

The Heartlands: Blk 230G, Hougang, Playgrounds

I’ve recently got myself involved in a series of work that revolved around the heartlands of Singapore.

At Our Doorsteps Cover

AT OUR DOORSTEPS is a community project photographer Sam Kang Li started to get to know his neighbours better. He knocked on the doors of all the 44 units of  the block he stayed in and photographed portraits of his neighbours at their doorstep. These portraits were exhibited in May at the void deck of his block and compiled to a block album I helped Kang Li put together.

On the left is the album cover, which took reference from the elements found in the block, including the distinct coloured tiles and the lift buttons.

Find out about At Our Doorsteps through this video he made in the midst of doing it, and another after the exhibition was held.



MEET THE PEOPLE is a collection of videos that Samuel He put together over a few days in the run-up to the recent by-elections in Hougang. He wanted to reflect the voices of the people in the constituency by “eavesdropping” into their everyday conversations about the elections. During the hustings, he walked the constituency of Hougang, approaching residents to get them to talk about the elections, often putting his camera in front of them and letting it run till they forgot it was there.

Check out the videos here.


Mosaic Memories

MOSAIC MEMORIES: Remembering the playgrounds Singapore grew up in is an e-book I authored that contains stories of four Singaporeans, including the designer Mr Khor Ean Ghee, and their memories of old playgrounds in Singapore. Inside, you will also find portraits of the interviewees by Zakaria Zainal and an illustrated map by Wee Ho Gai of where the remaining old playgrounds are still standing today. This was a publication commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project as part of their “Drawn from Memory” series.

This e-book is the third time I’ve produced a piece related to my fascination with these old playgrounds that were designed and produced in Singapore. It began with an article I wrote for Singapore Architect in 2009, which was updated with even more details and reference in my most recent piece for FIVEFOOTWAY. Mosaic Memories comes from a very different angle, featuring the playground users instead of the designs.

You can download the e-book and read an interview I did with irememberSG!

Nostalgia For Sale!

I recently visited BooksActually’s new store in Cineleisure and was a little surprised that it sold few books, but lots of retro knickknacks instead. These range from the useful such as old notebooks and wooden rulers to the entirely kitsch such as fish-shaped soya sauce bottles and bird warblers.

Shopping at this BooksActually store reminded me of walking through Sungei Market (Thieves Market) with its range of curiosities and old stuff, except the store was more a curated exhibit rather than a market. Instead of discovering gems amongst the garbage, and haggling with an Uncle over the price, the objects have already been “sourced”, cleaned, and even price tagged for my purchase. A similar store that comes to mind is The Little Dröm Store, which is located near the main BooksActually store in Telok Ayer Street.

Though the items in both stores bring back memories of my past, I just find it hard to buy anything from them nowadays. I used to buy authentic artifacts from the past such as posters, pins and books. However, now that they sit on my shelves collecting dust, I question what use do these items have in a contemporary context? In paying for authenticity in these items, I have in fact commodified my memories for something that is just a simulation of it.

Increasingly, I’ll rather spend on an object created out of inspiration from the past, rather than something found from my past and put up for sale. Examples of what I’ll rather buy are items found in the newly-opened FARM Online Store. Take the Merlion Shopper for instance, a polyester version of the Merlion print plastic bag created by Hans Tan. Stocks of the original plastic bags would have been been “sourced” and sold at the stores peddling retro stuff, but this bag has actually been “redesigned” to contemporary times. Same goes for the 1960s National Museum Tote Bag.

On a side note, the Merlion Shopper probably sounds familiar because it first debuted as part of the exhibition Singapore Souvenirs held during last year’s Singapore Design Festival. The Kueh Tutu eraser from the same exhibition is also on sale.

An item I’m really keen on getting is Michael’s Lost Monuments Poster, a beautiful poster that appeals to nostalgia but has been placed in context.