Tag: DesignSingapore Council

From Craft to Industry: Reflecting on Histories of Making in Singapore

Four exhibitions retracing Singapore's craft, design and manufacturing history (L-R): Tools That Built Singapore, Made in Singapore Products, FIFTY Years of Singapore Design and Craft | Singapore.
Four Exhibitions (L-R): Tools That Built Singapore, Made in Singapore Products, Fifty Years of Singapore Design and Craft | Singapore.

“Made in Singapore” has always been a challenging term for Singaporeans. Manufacturers grumble about the high costs of labour and land here. Designers lament the lack of expert collaborators willing to experiment and innovate. Consumers complain about paying a premium for local products that are no better than overseas imports.

Four on-going exhibitions in Singapore coincidentally retrace the nation’s history of making, offering an opportunity to understand and reflect on some of the issues that plague craft, design and manufacturing in the city-state today.

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Power Platforms: Raising SG Creativity

Just over a decade ago, Singapore unveiled the Creative Industries Development Strategy to build its creative economy. Today, this cluster consisting of the arts and culture, media and design has  grown and given the city a creative vibe. But while the  talents and their works draw the most attention, an important component are platforms that help to nurture these individuals and groups, raise their profile and support the design ecosystem. These range from the media, community-building initiatives, creation and collaboration programmes as well as institutions and shops. Over the next week, I will attempt to map out the platforms that underpin Singapore’s thriving design scene, starting today with the media.


From blogs, websites, magazines to publications, the Singapore design media has grown substantially from a decade ago. Today, design is featured regularly in mainstream newspapers as well as lifestyle magazines, and there are many local publications dedicated to it. In the early 2000s, the advent of iSh (1999),  d+a (2000), CUBES (2001) and a smattering of other initiatives breathed new life into a scene where design magazines meant interior design and fashion rags or the academically-driven Singapore Architect.

Since then, the local design media scene has grown tremendously with websites like DesignTaxi (2003), THEARTISTANDHISMODEL (2005), Culturepush (2007) as well as indie print magazines kult (2009) and Bracket (2010). They are also joined by the Asian offices of international design magazines such as Surface Asia (2010) and Dwell Asia (2011) that a licensed by MPG Media Publishing, as well as Australian design media brand INDESIGNLIVE who acquired CUBES when it expanded into Asia in 2011.SG-Magazines

Besides a growing mass media, the design book publishing scene has also grown. While local design book publishers such as PageOne and Basheer Graphic Books might have published the occasional monograph for a Singapore design studio — such as :phunk studio’s Universality (2007) — they were more keen on earning from reprints of  popular titles from the West. That has changed in recent years as overseas publishers have started looking more closely at the design scene here. Singapore-based Patrick Bingham-Hall has done several monographs for Singapore architects such as WOHA under his Pesaro Publishing, ORO Editions put out Lekker Design’s Horror in Architecture, and international creative books publisher Laurence King recently published a book on the the works of the Design Incubation Centre in the National University of Singapore. Design studios themselves are also trying out self-publishing including DP Architects (The Dubai Mall: Sand to Spectacle), Ong & Ong (Conserving Domesticity) and Hjgher (Creative Cultures).SG-Books

Beyond the written word, an emerging medium is film. Local design studio Anonymous was the first in Asia to put together A Design Film Festival in 2010, creating a platform to screen design films from around the world. While the festival has yet to screen a Singapore design film, it has started work on one. There are also similar efforts such as an on-going interview series with local creatives by Design Says Hello as well as government-sponsored documentaries on Singapore’s design scene including City Lights (2006), More Than Meets The Eye (2004) and Design Superheroes (2011).

Despite more buzz and media, much of it has represented design as a lifestyle and consumer product and a business solutions provider. A lot of the media also looks at Singapore as just one part of the larger Asian scene, and while this raises the bar for assessing what is worthy of coverage, it also crowds out smaller but significant  developments for the local scene. Both these features are most probably because most of the media are commercially-driven and need to create a product that can appeal to a wide enough market. What is missing is critical coverage on design, including examining its role in popular culture and society. A lot of the media also lacks depth as they focus on what is trendy and the now, but Singapore design has a history that is finally surfacing the increasing number of monographs as well as historical overviews being published, such as Singapore Institute of Architect’s new Rumah — 50 Years of SIA 1963-2013 and my own work on the graphic design community.

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.