Tag: DesignSingapore Council

EMERGE: Exploring Contemporary Material Culture in Southeast Asia

Home to more than 100 ethnic groups who speak hundreds of languages and dialects, Southeast Asia is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. It is also rich in natural resources, with its 4.5 million-square-kilometre area supporting a fifth of the world’s plant, animal and marine species. But despite this bounty of treasures for craft and design, the region has long been overshadowed by its surrounding creative capitals, including India, Japan, South Korea and China.

A change is underway, however, with the emergence of a new generation of Southeast Asian designers. Mostly born after the 1980s, they grew up in a time when the region prospered through trade and investment; this was the outcome of decades of post-war industrialisation precipitated by territories seizing their independence after more than a century of colonial rule. It remoulded a region that had for centuries been a vital hub in the spice trade into a major exporter of diverse materials for manufacturing as well as an attractive manufacturing base for international companies.

Along with Southeast Asia’s growing, globalised economies came a wave of modernisation and cultural globalisation that utterly transformed the region. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, McDonald’s expanded from its first outlet in Singapore into Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. In 1995, MTV began broadcasting an Asian edition throughout the region. Skyscrapers rose across the rapidly growing cities, with the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur claiming the title of world’s tallest building in 1998. This arrival of modern ideas and cultures in a region steeped in tradition created a melting pot of cross-cultural interactions that have only been accelerated as the region has hooked up to high-speed internet and the increasingly globalised world.

Emerging from life between the local and the global is a new kind of Southeast Asian designer who desires to participate in creative culture that is unbound by conventional geographical boundaries. Not satisfied with their local design education, which until recently focused on equipping designers with the technical skills to serve manufacturing economies, some are going on to study in more design-forward places such as Europe, Australia and the United States, where they are encouraged to develop their creativity. And after graduating with top honours and going on to work for leading global designers and companies, some are returning home to Southeast Asia to ignite change in their local design scenes.

➜ Read the four essays in the EMERGE publication


What is design? This is a question that frequently popped up when putting together this publication. Many of our interviewees expressed (pleasant) surprise to be featured in a “design” publication, while some designers were sceptical about including less than professional work. Underlying these reactions is an assumption that “design” is extra (ordinary) and can only be created by those trained in it. This has led to the popular view that there are chairs, and then there are “designer” chairs—a binary view we seek to reframe with By Design: SINGAPORE.

Our compilation of 10 stories challenges the belief that design is only a stylish product and a tool for innovation. While such points of views have propelled its meteoric rise with industrialisation, design is ultimately a creative act necessary for living. We all carry this out when trying to overcome challenges in the environment. As the American design writer, Ralph Caplan, once wrote: “[D]esign is a process for making things right, for shaping what people need.” This was from his 1982 book, By Design, whose name we borrowed the name for our publication.

Another inspiration is from where we come from: the city-state of Singapore. In a speech to design students in 2018, its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that: “Singapore is a nation by design. Nothing we have today is natural, or happened by itself. Somebody thought about it, made it happen.” Designers in Singapore have no doubt contributed to this. We highlight some unexpected examples, including a prosthetic for a hornbill, several restored historic buildings and the effort to build high-tech “tropical” data centres. But we are also interested in how the rest of Singapore society has harnessed design as a process. For instance, local food hawkers have crafted new tools to prepare traditional delicacies for modern times, while its food technologists are inventing fresh ways of repackaging Singapore cuisine to the world.

In examining design as broadly as possible, By Design: Singapore shows how design is everywhere around us. It can be stylish. It can be innovative. But more than a consumer product or invention, design is an action each of us can take to make an impact on the world.

The publication was supported by the DesignSingapore Council and was first published for the Singapore Design Week 2019.

Concept: In Plain Words
Design: Modular Unit

The 10 stories:

  1. A City for Nature
  2. A Vernacular Sign Language by Vikas Kailankaje
  3. Huat Ah!
  4. The Future of a City’s Past by Stephanie Peh
  5. New Ways, Familiar Tastes by Sheere Ng
  6. We Make This City by Don Wong
  7. Science of the Secondary: Rubber Band by Atelier HOKO
  8. Cooling Down This Hot Island by Timothy Misir
  9. Housing Singapore’s Smart Nation
  10. Consider the Wok by Sheere Ng

Design Frontiers

They are driving new design frontiers in their fields. Recognised in the President*s Design Award in 2018, 5 designers discuss challenges, renewal and how to stay relevant.

➜ Read the full story in Skyline 10