Over the last decade, some 20 titles have sprung up from Singapore, riding the wave of its cultural renaissance and defying the fact the city-state was once known for its tight media censorship (Singapore still ranks 154 out of 180 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index). Over the decade or so though, the Singaporean government has pumped in millions of bucks to grow its creative sector and nurture creativity among its citizens—and an independent magazine scene has flourished from this intersection.
I was invited to speak on the topic of local publishing at Allscript x Comman Man Coffee Roaster’s “50 Titles” event last weekend. Yanda of Do Not Design selected for this event 50 examples of contemporary local books and magazines. Below is my response, a presentation on some of the titles and what we can learn about designers expanding their role in Singapore’s publishing scene.
I recently moved back to Singapore from New York. One of the things my girlfriend noticed was how difficult it was to pack my collection of architecture and design books into shipping boxes. Anyone who buys them knows how this genre of books come in all shapes and sizes, and seldom fit neatly into a box. In a sense, design books tend to emphasise a quality of difference, and I hope to explore this element in my presentation on contemporary architecture and design publishing from Singapore.
A few years ago, I fully immersed into the subject of Singapore design when I was commissioned to retrace the history of graphic design in this country. This resulted in my book, Independence: The history of graphic design in Singapore since the 1960s, which chronicles the evolution of the profession over the last five decades.
As a journalism graduate, one thread that attracted me while researching for this book was the rise of independent publishing in Singapore. From the mid to late 2000s, designers were putting out a trickle of local books and magazines, including Underscore, Brckt, The Design Society Journal, and kult. The periodical Singapore Architect had also just undergone a revamp under Kelley Cheng of The Press Room. Incidentally, this issue (#287) is her last as there is a new team coming on.
Designers who traditionally came at the end to give form to a publication are now creating the content, either by themselves or commissioning writers. It isn’t entire new nor unique to Singapore, but there is certainly a new generation of local designers who are putting together niche books and magazines all by themselves instead of trying to convince big name publishers to do them. With designers expanding their roles, what differences have they brought to publishing in Singapore?
Many would have recognized, but few actually seen IRL (in real life) the works displayed in I Have A Room With Everything Too. This recent exhibition at The Substation Gallery (2-12 July) showcased over a hundred books, magazines, and printed ephemera by design studios around the world—offering a rare opportunity to appreciate avant-garde graphic design outside the digital screen. Instead of viewing endless studio shots on infinite scroll and click thumbs up, graphic design aficionados could actually pick up design and flip, stroke, or even smell.
An annual report retold as a travel diary by Singapore design duo Couple, an art catalogue with a cover made from amusement park tickets by Indonesian studio Artnivora, and a calendar resembling a miniature pallet of printed sheets by Hong Kong based Co.Design were part of a line-up of eclectic projects assembled by curator Yanda Tan. Laid out across a single row of makeshift tables spanning the 23-metres long gallery were the mostly arts and cultural projects Tan had acquired from bookstores and designers via his art and design blog THEARTISTANDHISMODEL and recent travels to other cities.
The collection is a diverse portfolio of graphic design production possibilities which reminded visitors of “the joy of holding something tangible in our hands that took hours, days, months to put together.” But this worked only up to a point. There was little context besides the name of the designer and their city of origin in order for visitors to appreciate the works beyond design as a process of production. This was particularly telling for the foreign language publications whose contents were indecipherable, rendering them no different from a mockup by printers. Even as many of the works wowed with their cool surfaces and exteriors, the lack of details on production processes or a nod to the printers meant how the designs were created remained a mystery unless the curator was on hold to conduct a walk-through. For instance, Yoshie Watanabe’s One Plus One Crossing book is an intriguing flip book of die-cut pages, but what makes it even more impressive is it was actually a packaging designed in 2006 to hold the story behind an engagement or wedding ring.
As the exhibition title suggests, the showcase is the personal inspiration library of Tan who runs the creative studio DO NOT DESIGN. The self-taught designer has clearly studied his materials well, as seen in his works which also feature in the showcase. The elaborate cut-out cover of his latest DEAR magazine and the hand-scrawled marks plus torn edges of his album design for Monster Cat both echo Tan’s obsession for the materiality of design—an aspect that the exhibition rightly points out isn’t always evident in a time where the digital image is our most common encounter of graphic design. I Have A Room With Everything Too presents graphic design in third-dimension, but still keeps it on a pedestal that is to be appreciated as an objet, rather than a material we encounter in our everyday lives.
Visitors may have felt déjà vu at the exhibition for another reason. In 2011, Tan held the first edition of a similar exhibition featuring several of the same works, such as Theseus Chan’s WERK magazines and Stefan Sagmeister’s 1998 album design for song-writer Jamie Block. Back then, Tans’ exhibition was larger and even had a day of presentations by designers. This time around there was a printed supplement featuring question-and-answer interview with designers, as well as personal essays by lovers of print.
Without the shock of the new from four years ago, I Have A Room With Everything Too was less fresh, but still a welcome relief in a city where exhibitions on graphic design remain few and far between.