Tag: Singapore Design Festival

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.

No Singapore Design Festival: So what?

There won’t be a Singapore Design Festival this year as the DesignSingapore Council reviews the format and content of this biennial event that has been held since 2005. Again, like a national design centre, it’s not the first time the government has organised a design event of this scale. In 1988, the then Trade Development Board (TDB) launched the International Design Forum, a biennial event held at the Raffles City Convention Centre that included an exhibition of world designs from the likes of Japan, UK and the US and also a series of talks by leading design studios of the times, such as Pentagram Design, Vignelli Associates and GK Industrial Design.


The forum brought the spotlight onto Singapore design both here and internationally, helping to grow the industry and community here. However, after five successive forums, Business Times reported in 1998 that some wondered if the forum had become nothing more than a commercially-oriented trade show to sell design services rather than one that showed design in its “pure form”. There is no news if subsequent forums changed in response to this criticism, but it continued to be held three more times, in 2000, 2003 and 2005.


The final time the forum was held was together with the first Singapore Design Festival in 2005. It became just one event on a festival calendar that aimed to showcase design as more than just a business tool but also part of our culture and society. This expanded direction reflected its new organisers, the DesignSingapore Council, which was no longer overseen by an economic-driven agency, but instead housed under the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.

According to the the festival’s press release:

 The most important differentiating factor of the Singapore Design Festival is the focus on the design process and the conceptualisation of ideas, as opposed to the showcase of static end products. In essence the Festival aims to transmute the design culture in Singapore and from around the world into an interactive and “live” presentation of the design process and its end products.

In my opinion, the festivals did bring this aspect of Singapore’s design culture out through exhibitions such as 20/20, Utterrubbish, and 10 Touch Points. But, by the last edition in 2009, even though the festival successfully hosted the Icsid World Design Congress, I felt what was presented to the public was more a trade show than a festival that looked at design culture.

Could this issue be at the heart of the current review of the festival? The issue of what role design is expected to play in the eyes of the government? Can design culture justify the millions being pumped into growing and supporting it?


When the Singapore Design Festival was launched in 2005, the architecture community also launched a similar event to bring architecture to the public. The Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA), a non-governmental organisation for the architecture community here, started Archifest in the same year to also reach out to the general public. The biennial event has grown from strength to strength and successfully held its fourth edition this year.

The design community has much to learn from this event as it has shown how a festival can be possible with the government playing a supporting role rather than as an organiser. One possibility is that design organisations like The Design Society and the Designers Association Singapore could take the lead. Or it could be a completely ground-up initiative as suggested by Felix Ng of Anonymous and Silnt during an interview: “We shouldn’t need a top-down approach to organise a festival. People on the ground can come together and do it. There are very capable and enterprising independent creators in Singapore, and we can come together and make a month of design here ourselves.”

A self-reliant community will better be able to steer how design should grow and develop rather than be at the whims and fancies of government policies. However, the biggest questions for many designers, I suspect, is why should I be forking out my own time and money for the community to benefit when I’m already struggling and busy enough? It is such a mindset that is preventing a more robust design community from emerging, and until that changes, the development of the entire industry is still going to be very much up to the government of the day to direct.