In the three years since S u p e r m a m a opened in 2011, it has expanded from a design retail store to an incubator for Singapore designers and designs as well. It recently re-opend its original store at Seah Street, which had been turned into a workspace for designers and artists for over a year. We spoke to S u p e r m a m a founder Edwin Low about the renewed vision for his store, and how it will stand out in an increasingly crowded market of Singapore design products.
Why is Supermama@Seah Street re-opening as a store after it was turned into a residency space in November 2012?
We shifted our retail operations to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) after running our flagship store at Seah Street for two years. While the retail store at SAM creates a greater awareness to local and international audiences, I find the customer’s pace of interaction (people-people, people-object, people-space) within the shop pretty rushed. I kinda missed the pace in Seah St where customers literally slow down just by stepping into the shop — which creates a more intimate and natural setting to form conversations over the products we carry.
There is also a practical reason as we are transiting from the current shop space at SAM’s 8 Queen Street to the official SAM shop within the main building. We will be taking over the official SAM shop from September and re-opening Seah Street allow us to reframe our approach, and create a better retail/gallery experience before embarking on the next one.
How is the re-opened Supermama@Seah Street different?
Previously, we ran it more like a select shop where we curated a range of labels within a space — a credible, but not exactly sustainable model for a shop. In the past year, we have gained significant access to many craft facilities in Japan and also created our own label, Democratic Society (DS). Currently, we are focused on presenting our labels and the maker’s production capabilities to our customers.
We have also retained the residency space, and I think it is pretty refreshing for customers to actually have a glimpse into the work studio of artists and designers.
Who has taken up residency in Supermama@Seah Street and what were some projects that have come out of it?
So far, we’ve had Dawn Ng (artist), Olivia Lee (industrial designer), Melvin Ong (desinere), Tiffany Loy (parasol bags),Jotham Koh (photographer). Their projects include collaborations under our DS Label, e.g. Dawn created a collection of tea towels using fabric made with a textile company based in Nagoya, Japan. Melvin was one of the designers who took part in our “Singapore Icons” project, a collection of porcelain produced with a label in Arita, Japan. Tiffany did an exhibition on “textile embroidery machine,” while Jotham’s is currently presenting his first public work, “Craftsman,” for our re-opening.
You’ve been involved in creating Singapore design products for some time, beginning from “Singapore Souvenirs” (2009), a speculative proposal on what gifts from this city-state could be. Is the Democratic Society label you’ve started a successful implementation of these early ideas? How is it different?
For DS Label, it is strictly about stories (past or current) that can be communicated through objects. I’m intrigued by the study of material culture in our social context — I like the fact that objects which surround us are an extension of who we are, which ultimately defines us. For instance, I visited Arita, a porcelain town in Kyushu, Japan, and I was totally bemused by how a material — porcelain — plays such a huge role in defining the culture and lifestyle of the people living in the town. So for DS Label, I wanted to introduce a new material typography in Singapore and see the reaction to it. Can it be accepted? Can I create a new identity? Can this collection go into the daily lives of people? How would they fit in, etc.As industrial designers, it is only natural for us to want to create a label much like Muji, however, there is not much context for us to do so. Not until the Singapore Souvenirs (SS) project. I would say that the DS Label is a progression from SS. For SS, it was a pretty green attempt by a local design collective to create meaningful content, and many of the ideas were one-off, almost random, and across many mediums — which is probably the beauty of the project.
How have DS products been received by both Singaporeans and tourists? Are they selling well?
Pretty overwhelming, I must say. As I wrote this reply, I met a customer who tore out the page with a writeup of our products from the Singapore Airline in-flight magazine to look for us. To be blunt, the DS Label is possibly the only label and collection of products I have in my shop that is commercially viable.
DS is not the only producer of Singapore design products these days. What differentiates your products from others?
Personally, I find most producers still skimming the surface, mostly playing up on bold colours and nostalgia to sell. I think we can go beyond that.
For DS Label, I think about longevity — both in its artistic direction and as a business model, which is why the tie-up with multi-generational craft facilities in Japan plays a vital role in the setup. We also spend considerable amount of time researching (sometimes with support from the National Archives of Singapore (NAS)) and communicating the rich content behind every artifact. Take our recently launched “OneSingapore” porcelain piece for example, we did not just provide a writeup on the icons, but worked closely with NAS to sift out archival images to create a story booklet that communicates the stories behind the icons — so much so that I have customers requesting to purchase the booklet too.
Another approach I take is to involve as many designers as possible. This is why I decided on the name “Democratic Society”, it is a label defined by many designers and artists. That is when the design language for the label become “democratised.” It’s a language owned by many people. With this, I can potentially reach out to a wider audience.
The DS model of applying concepts by Singapore designers on to Japanese crafted products seems to play to the strengths of both countries’ design capabilities. As an industrial designer yourself, do you think this is the best model forward for Singapore’s design industry or should we also develop made-in-Singapore products too?
I think it differs from industry to industry. For an industry which involves years of training or requires a large amount of space, we have to take a collaborative approach. Porcelain is one such product type/ industry. The facility in Arita is so massive that it’ll not make sense (cents) to have it in Tokyo, let alone Singapore. However, if you are looking at a trade such as leather making, letter press, etc., then it makes sense to develop the capabilities of making in Singapore.
We do also need to look at production volume. Personally, I feel that it is good to develop artisanal facilities in Singapore.
You’ve run a business retailing Singapore design for three years now. What are some challenges and issues you continue to face?
I do not want to sound pretentious, but I was completely dumbfounded by this question. I enjoyed what I do so much that I don’t see challenges as separate from the joy of running the business. I wish to say high rental cost blah blah… but these issues are not unique to my trade, everyone is facing the same thing, so it’s not exactly an issue when everyone is facing the same issue, isn’t it?
Artist Debbie Ding invents games, solves mysteries and seeks adventures to cope with the banal everyday life her city of Singapore
Daily travels in a city is a boring journey most of us endure. We distract themselves by catching up on sleep, reading a book, watching videos or playing games on our phones or media players. So does Debbie Ding, except the city itself is the text she reads and her playground for fun.
While working in a creative agency inside Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD), Debbie invented games to entertain herself during her lunchtime travels and when she needed to walk to her clients’ offices in the neighbourhood.
“I had a map where I outlined roads I walked before, and I would try to walk roads I had not every time I had to get to places. It’s kind of like the game Pac-man, where I had to walk through every single road,” she says.
It was during these walks that Debbie also began noticing circular symbols with random numbers and letters painted on the floors and buildings in the CBD. What began as a few random photographs grew into another “game” to discover what they were. Her search for these mysterious symbols even got her colleagues hooked, and they often reported to Debbie on new “sightings”. The “game” was completed when Debbie solved the mystery, correctly decoding the symbols as a language used by building contractors working on a new mass rapid transit railway line running underneath her work place.
Such playful views of the city has been a defining element in Debbie’s approach to her art and projects, which she has often described as “psychogeographical games”. These investigate the city, challenging how we see, understand and even navigate them. Her inventive nature has been with her since a child, says the English Literature graduate from the National University of Singapore says who made herself believe ‘green’ was her favourite colour when she was 10-years-old because she thought it was strange she didn’t have have a favourite. It was only when she started working in London in 2009 as a copywriter for a creative agency that she started taking an interest in cities. Despite London turning out like how the self-professed Anglo-phile had expected, Debbie felt the city was special and it while attempting to make sense of the place that she began devouring books and academic texts about cities, opening her eyes to a new way of looking at her surroundings. At the same time, she was also taught herself how to use multimedia tools like Flash.
In 2010, she brought this vision and skills back to Singapore and carried out her first major art project “\\:The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultine”, which explored a landmark of this city as a “site at which memories of spaces, fictional (imagined) spaces and dream spaces interact, merge or drift apart”, explains the exhibition catalogue. Held at The Substation, Debbie’s project had had drawings and an interactive multimedia booth that examined the shape or the river. There was also a game, “Here the River Lies”, which visitors could write their memories — real or not — of the Singapore River on to a physical map, transforming it from a geography of the urban landscape to that of a community.
The game was inspired by a lawsuit happening then between the Land Transport Authority sued Streetdirectory.com. The latter had been sued for infringing the copyright of the transport authority’s maps, using them to run an online map service. Reading about the case, Debbie learnt that map makers often created fictitious locations on their maps as a way to protect their copyright. In the 1950s, one such location on a map of New York became real when someone set up a store there and named it after the location. “A place became real because of the map, which is quite a nice idea. That’s why I thought having people write on a map would be interesting,” explains Debbie. “It’s almost like things don’t exist unless you archive or write them down.”
As if to prove the city around her exists, Debbie has become its compulsive recorder, often walking around the city in search of her next game. While she used to draw maps of these travels on her notebook, she now does so with just her iPhone, snapping pictures and recording audio samples. Recently, she was featured in a short documentary by Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin where she talked about her discovery of a mysterious set of graffiti in a stairwell of the disused Yangtze Cinema in Singapore. What she chooses to record is largely based on intuition, she says. A fragment here and a fragment there, but eventually, Debbie puts together the pieces to make sense out of them, constructing a narrative for her projects. It’s a process she terms “psychogeoforensics” — another one of her inventions. This builds upon her playful approach to the city, turning it into a space of mystery encouraging people to let their imagination run wild, piecing together elements of the city to tell stories. It’s an approach she hopes more Singaporeans will take up, and she has set up the Singapore Psychogeographical Society and published a free guide online on how to look at the city in a manner that will help people have fun in the city again. “When you’re on holiday, you would think a place is fun, but when you’re living here, you don’t think like that at all even though a building is new,” she says. “But being able to imagine you’ve never seen something before, that would make the city interesting even if you’ve lived here all your life.”
It is at this juncture that Debbie reveals that this is how she has been coping with life in Singapore, a city which she feels lacks a sense of playful adventure and random possibilities. “Everything here is almost predictable, when you go out to meet people, they already band together based on what school they come from. I got friends who have settled down and you can almost trace their lives and chart where it is going. There’s a plan in life, and I feel like I need more than that,” says the 28-year-old. She herself was set to become of the Singaporeans she rejects now. Debbie was once enrolled with the rest of the country’s elite students in the Gifted Education Programme. But she did not do as well in her examinations and ended up in a junior college she had never heard of. It was there, without the weight of expectations, that she had the freedom to explore and think of other possibilities in life, beyond one measured by what school one was from or how good one’s grades were.
“I always thought that it is in spite of the education system that I became like that,” she says. “A lot of things I’ve done are all self-taught and I enjoy teaching myself more than being in school. So I guess the whole idea of teaching yourself is that you don’t lose the child-like curiosity of things and playing is a way of keeping it going.”
Although such a playful mind has kept Debbie occupied with Singapore all these years, she says it is become increasingly challenging to stay in such a small city.
So will there be a game over soon? Will she find another city to play in?
In what people who have spoken to her will recognise as classic Debbie-optimism, her eyes light up at these questions. “There won’t be a game over,” she says. “But there will be new games.”
A feature written for FIVEFOOTWAY magazine’s issue on PLAY