‘Not only cute chairs’: the surprises of Singapore Design Week

The convention centre at Marina Bay Sands, 55 storeys below the world’s longest rooftop infinity pool and surrounded by designer shops and celebrity chef restaurants, is a fitting place to find S$25,000 ($17,000) sculpted glass exercise bikes, displays by petrochemical companies, crystal chandeliers and a man in Balenciaga trainers aggressively painting a canvas to promote a new piano, being played by his twin brother.

Perhaps less so the objects made from cow dung, cigarette butts, old newspapers and sweepings from dog groomers. But all of these were at the first FIND design fair, one of the sources of surprise at Singapore Design Week.

Launched in 2014, Singapore Design Week returned in 2022 after a two-year break. “You can really feel the city come alive again,” says Dawn Lim, executive director of the Design Singapore Council. “And we’re ready”.

The Design Week organisers say that the 2022 edition, which ran September 16-25, aimed to promote Singapore and its “distinctive brand of creativity” globally. The hiatus, due to pandemic restrictions, was a “good time to hit the refresh button”, says festival director Mark Wee.

The programme had three themes, or “pillars”: Design Futures, which builds on the idea of Singapore as a futuristic prototype for the world; Design Marketplace, which looks at design trends in south-east Asia and positions Singapore as a “global-Asia hub”; and the socially conscious Design Impact.

A bird’s eye view of a woman sitting next to a table. Behind her on the floor is a spotted rug made from natural dog hair. The rug is also shaped like a dog lying down on its stomach
Cynthia Chan’s Furlicious rug, made of dog hair collected from groomers

Events across Singapore included public installations, exhibitions and tours, as well as the Design Futures symposium at Victoria Theatre.

Developed by creative director Paola Antonelli, curator and director of R&D at MoMA, the symposium was titled “Agency for the Future: Design and the Quest for a Better World”. Speakers included the architect Thomas Heatherwick — creator of huge public spectacles such as New York’s Vessel, the B of the Bang in Manchester and London’s unrealised Garden Bridge — who decried “boring” architecture.

Gerontologist Emi Kiyota, who has advised on building communities for retired monks in Bhutan, spoke about the need to create homes for seniors without segregating them. “Older people don’t want to live only with other older people,” she said.

“Agropolitan” expert Stephen Cairns, of ETH Zurich’s Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore, discussed how to turn a place that imports 90 per cent of its food into one that produces 30 per cent, as Singapore aims to do by 2030. His solution is to use black soldier flies to quickly process food waste into fertiliser for more crops. One question arose from the audience, though — is it halal?

Architect Thomas Heatherwick (left) and Erwin Viray of Singapore University of Technology and Design at the Design Futures symposium
Architect Thomas Heatherwick (left) and Erwin Viray of Singapore University of Technology and Design at the Design Futures symposium © Vivid Snaps

Singapore might not be “giving all the answers yet”, says Antonelli. “But
it’s asking the right questions, questions that can be extrapolated in the outside world.” There is one certain conclusion drawn from Singapore Design Week. Design is “not only cute chairs”, in her words.

These are the highlights from a week showcasing the best design.

FIND design fair

A Qing dynasty-style console table in black and gold with black and white stripes and a glass top
Thai designer Teerapoj Teerapos created arresting stripes in his Qing dynasty-style Chino console table © Marc Tan; Studio Periphery

Marina Bay Sands hosted the first edition of new annual trade show FIND — Design Fair Asia. The show had more than 11,000 visitors over three days and more than 500 interior and furniture design companies, from Singapore and abroad. Partnered with Fiera Milano, home of Salone del Mobile, and with speakers including Low Yen Ling, minister of state for trade and industry, and Italian ambassador Mario Andrea Vattani, the programme was aimed at introducing Singapore to the global design circuit.

But for something more radical, there was the Emerge @ Find showcase, featuring 55 innovative upcoming design studios from south-east Asia, curated by Suzy Annetta, editor-in-chief of magazine Design Anthology.

Many of these designers subverted traditional techniques and materials to create contemporary objects, such as 14th-century Thai celadon pottery glazing on insulated double-walled tea cups and bamboo sculptures by Piboon Amornjiraporn of Plural Designs. Weaving was used to create psychedelic geometric shapes, as in the vast digital loom jacquard piece by Tiffany Loy from Singapore.

The bendiness of locally grown cane and rattan was exploited in unfamiliar new shapes.

Dung speakers by Adhi Nugraha
Speakers made of cow dung by Adhi Nugraha © Marc Tan
Alvin Tjitrowirjo’s curved Log bench
Alvin Tjitrowirjo’s curved Log bench

Indonesian designer Alvin Tjitrowirjo showed a flowing Log bench, and Teerapoj Teeropas of design studio Kitt-Ta-Khon, from Thailand, added nylon to create arresting black-and- white stripes in his Qing dynasty-style Chino console table.

Sustainable and salvaged materials were another theme. Cynthia Chan from Singapore created woven and felted “pelts” and upholstery from clipped dog hair that would otherwise end up in landfill, recovered from local pet groomers. Adhi Nugraha from Indonesia made use of (thoroughly cleaned) cow dung and cigarette butts in curvy lamps, speakers and stools.

Anybody drawn to dramatic shapes and sleek luxury was well served by a litany of pieces — including Dear Spirits, a series of jagged welded altars by Tan Wei Ming of Sputnik Forest Labs, Malaysia, and the gleaming blue-green resin Fossil chair and cabinet by Charif Lona of Thailand’s Studio AOK.

New Optimistic Works by Studio Juju

Galvanised metal table lamp by Studio Juju
Galvanised metal lamp by Studio Juju © Studio Juju

At the National Design Centre, which houses studios, gallery space and the offices of the Design Singapore Council, was an exhibition by designers-in-residence Studio Juju. New Optimistic Works aims to “work with the possibilities and constraints of manufacturing within Singapore” and develop a design identity for the country. Some goods are produced in part here, says Studio Juju’s Timo Wong, but shipped elsewhere to be turned into finished products.

Pieces included a galvanised metal lamp, a collaboration with Chop Wah Hin Sheet Metal Works, which traditionally manufactures kettles, dustbins and industrial parts; a colourful metal side table that was finished in a car- spraying workshop; and recycled glassware fused in local kilns.

N*thing is Possible by Potato Head, OMA & Friends

Max Lamb’s chair made from recycled plastic bottles, displayed on a pile of plastic bottles covered with plastic netting
Max Lamb’s chair made from recycled plastic bottles © Marc Tan

Also at the National Design Centre was an exhibition by hospitality group Potato Head in collaboration with architects OMA. Illustrating the company’s dedication to reducing waste — it sends 5 per cent to landfill now compared with 50 per cent in 2018 — the installation featured slick furniture and other amenities for its Bali locations, created from hotel waste, displayed perched on top of their raw materials.

The average tourist in Bali produces 1.7kg of waste per day, which is a lot of free material. “It’s not trash,” says Simon Pestridge, chief experience officer of Potato Head. “it’s a raw product that can be turned into something beautiful.”

Max Lamb has designed colourful chairs from recycled plastic bottles. Each chair contains 830 of them, and offcuts of the resulting material are used to weld the panels together, ensuring no extra resources are required. Used cooking oil from the restaurants is cleaned and turned into scented candles in offcut wine bottles — for the Singapore exhibition the NDC on-site restaurant provided the oil. Damaged towels are turned into rugs and textiles by designers Toogood, Lamb and natural dye company Tarum, while a composite of styrofoam, oyster shells and plastics is used in toothbrush holders and bins for the hotel rooms.

The interiors of the Potato Head Studios hotel also feature recycled elements. Woven fabric by BYO Living covers the ceilings, made from 9,500 green plastic bottles per 2 square metre panel. “Turning plastic into a material that will stand the test of time in a building is the best way to use it,” says Pestridge.

Potato Head is also salvaging discarded timber to create a series of furniture with Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. OMA and Max Lamb are utilising Ijuk fibre — discarded palm tree bark — to create beach umbrellas and lamps.

Good Design Research pop up

Part of a feeled tree trunk cut lengthways into slabs
Local wood used by Roger & Sons, part of the Good Design Research pop-up © Lincoln Yeo

Located outside the Bugis+ shopping centre, this public display featured 17 projects that have received grants from Design Singapore’s Good Design Research initiative, which supports designers working on social cohesion, sustainable processes or new materials.

The pop-up was described as showing “design research revealing its presence and relevance in our everyday lives”. Projects included a renewable replacement for reinforced concrete by design studio Produce; a proposal for using trees felled in public spaces by Roger & Sons; underwear enabling people with physical disabilities to dress independently by Will and Well LLP; and an alternative to disposable packing used at hawker food centres by Forest & Found.

Lucy Watson travelled as a guest of Design Singapore Council

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