'I do not believe in design for design's sake. Every element must be purposeful and functional.'
'As a designer, I find the dichotomy between the digital and physical a rich area to explore.'
DESIGNER George Soo believes in "keeping design real".
Says Mr Soo, 35: "I don't believe in design for design's sake. Everything must have purpose and function, from size and dimensions right down to the colour, material, even the buttons. I want the user to feel that the product has been designed with their needs in mind. More often than not, design is so focused on the aesthetic that it becomes 'cold' to the audience."
Keeping design real is also the tagline for his design firm, Fliq, which he founded two years ago. Mr Soo recently launched an updated range of his furniture, Next, which was first conceived in 2001 and introduced as a collection in 2005. "I designed and sold furniture for Xtra then, and created a few pieces in the first range which are still selling today," he explains. No new designs have been added to the Next collection since then. In 2012, with an increasing demand for a workspace that inspires creativity and enhances productivity, Mr Soo proposed to the furniture retailer to consider a major refresh of the brand and introduce an updated range of furniture.
The theme of the revamped range is about working smart, challenging the notion that a workspace environment has to be sterile, straightforward and designed to be task-oriented. "The Next collection goes beyond furniture's basic purpose of providing a seat, and to offer functional elements to support a smart and dynamic workspace," says Mr Soo. The Next collection is sold at Xtra.
Within the Next collection, Mr Soo is especially proud of his Grover&Jones, a three-seater and a single-seat sofa combination which may be used together or individually to smarten up the workplace. "Grover promotes interaction by inviting users to lean on the sofa's multifaceted sides for quick discussions, while the single-seat Jones adds a point of interest to any office with its angled shapes," says Mr Soo. Grover&Jones won a Singapore Good Design Mark.
Mr Soo, who graduated with a diploma in product and industrial design from Temasek Polytechnic and later, a bachelor's in mass communications from RMIT/SIM, does more than just furniture design. "Fliq offers end-to-end product design and development consultancy services. These include conceptualisation, design, development, packaging and branding," he says. He recently completed the interiors for Shinkansen and The Secret Mermaid, a salad bar by day and a bar by night, respectively.
On the challenges of being a designer in Singapore, Mr Soo says that there needs to be more enterprises and companies to believe that design can pave a new direction for their business and create new possibilities for revenue.
"Too often designers are given a pure design brief which is just about enhancing the aesthetic. If businesses brought us into the conversation from the start, such as in understanding the business objectives and problems, we would be in a better place to design ways to transform aspects of their business which could have real impact," he says.
Spartan use of space
TAIWANESE-THAI student Auradee Sae-Lin, 19, knows a thing or two about designing furniture for small homes. She is, after all, the first-prize winner of the inaugural Ikea Singapore's Young Designer Award this year.
The Raffles Design Institute student won with her UNI Space Saving Compact Table. The competition was launched as a platform for students to demonstrate their creativity and develop furnishing solutions that were functional, well-designed and aesthetically appealing, based on the theme Make Space Better at home.
Ms Sae-Lin noticed that the living rooms in most flats in Singapore tend to lack space. "For instance, there is no place for large numbers of people during gatherings and no place for people to have daily activities such as doing some yoga," says Ms Sae-Lin. So she designed the UNI Compact Table. The table comes in only seven components with no jointed parts, making it easy to assemble. "It provides flexibility on space usage as it can be stored compactly or extended into a bigger dimension by simply pulling another table underneath and rotating the upper part of the desk," Ms Sae-Lin explains. When not in use, it can be easily kept under the sofa. Made from WPC, a sustainable material made of recycled plastic and wood fibre, the table is durable, water and rot-resistant. Ms Sae-Lin says that discovering everyday problems and finding a solution for them are her inspirations for designing.
The final year student chose to specialise in product design partly because of her family business. She raves about learning professional skills, such as sketching, 2D illustration, 3D computer rendering, and learning how to make prototypes. "One thing that really makes me feel complete and satisfied is that you bring out your concept idea into the real world," she says.
Apart from her award-winning UNI table, other products that she has designed include lighting, furniture, electrical products, transportation design, cutlery design, toy, pavilion structure design and hotel buffet and pastry display. Her award includes a trip to Ikea in Sweden, and she will also take up an internship with the company. "As a young designer, I want to gain more experience and develop skills in design management and learn how to market myself for the future," she says.
She adds that it would be a great achievement if one of her products is manufactured and sold internationally by Ikea. Ms Sae-Lin also has bigger dreams. "My dream project would be to collaborate with renowned designers such as Philippe Starck and Naoto Fukusawa. I admire their work greatly."
Crafting a digital niche
SOME designers create products the old-school way - sketching either by hand or using a computer, then creating prototypes.
But not Clement Zheng, who calls himself a "digital craftsman", as his works tend to employ algorithms or digital fabrication. But he is quick to add that, as an industrial designer, he is always very grounded in physical processes and efficiency.
"I would say that I am an extremely logical designer, and it is not just for the problem-solving aspects of the project, but also in communication and design expression as well," he says.
Now a teaching assistant at NUS, Mr Zheng, 27, graduated from the division of industrial design, with first-class honours in his Bachelor of Arts (Industrial Design) two years ago. While being a teaching assistant at NUS is his full-time job, he also creates his own projects on the side.
"As a designer, I find the dichotomy between the digital and physical a rich area to explore. What I hope to achieve as a designer is to develop projects that are both digitally and physically relevant; that is, to create holistic experiences that can really make use of the best of both worlds," he says of his career choice.
His focus is on digital design, not just for products, but also looking at services and experiences. "Most of my works thus far are from my design research on the intersection between craft and computer," he explains.
Mr Zheng is the top winner at this year's Furniture Design Awards, an annual competition organised by the Singapore Furniture Industries Council that celebrates the best achievements in furniture design.
His winning creation is the Torus Lamp, a series of digitally fabricated pendant lights assembled from paper modules. Mr Zheng developed a set of algorithms that are able to deconstruct three-dimensional geometry into flat modules.
Through a computer application, a person can customise the size and form of the lamp to suit different contexts. The application then generates the flat modules required to assemble the lamp. The lamps are very material efficient, each one requiring a single A1 sheet to produce, while the specialised joints designed ensure that minimal accessories are required to put the lamp together.
"In this sense, Torus Lamp is a design that can exist within a small community, where the design, fabrication, and distribution can all be kept very localised," he says.
3D printing is another area that he is interested in for "its strength in producing geometrically complex objects in a made-to-order manner."
His 3D printing creations include Fusili, a springy bracelet generated from a mathematical algorithm that he designed. By changing the algorithm, different variations of the bracelet can be created. The chosen variant can then be 3D printed into a bracelet and even be dyed in different colours.
Mr Zheng is now exploring the idea of mass customisation, such as developing an algorithm that is able to digitally tailor fashion, in such a way that clothes will fit anyone, rather than the buyer trying to fit into fixed silhouettes. "With this algorithm, hopefully fashion houses would be able to develop services that can produce tailored garments, yet within the efficiency of digital fabrication techniques," says Mr Zheng.
Mosaic STL is another project that he is working on, which again involves algorithms, to transform a 3D file into a colourful sculpture, achieving an uncanny mosaic tiling through digital means rather than the traditional craft.
His dream project, however, goes beyond merely creating objects. "A project that I would love to do right now would be one that encompasses another discipline or field, such as a medical project, or maybe even something educational for children," he says. "I think crossing disciplines would really bring in fresh ideas and not cause me to stagnate."
Challenging design archetypes
IT wouldn't be wrong to say that Olivia Lee has a successful career as a designer in the six short years since her graduation from Central Saint Martins. Mathmos, the British company responsible for the iconic lava lamp, invited her to design a limited-edition graphic plate for their projector lights. The "Microcosmic" edition sold out fairly quickly.
Fresh out of college, Ms Lee was invited by UK's Icon Magazine to be their featured guest illustrator, where she was conferred the honoured last page of the magazine to depict monthly illustrations that were the design industry's equivalent of political cartoons.
And LVMH-Glenmorangie handpicked her to participate in a workshop on the Art of Luxury at LVMH House (London), where she created new whisky bottle concepts for the spirit brand, based on glaciers.
Ms Lee, 29, has her father to thank for guiding her in the right direction. She recalls how as a child, she wanted to be many things: scientist, inventor, artist, architect, poet, graphic-novelist, philosopher, illustrator and entrepreneur. "I was pretty lost when it came to deciding on a profession that would satisfy all my interests," she says. Her father suggested she check out an industrial design course since it is a blend of creative, engineering and business practices. "To me, design is not just a career. It is a way of understanding and interpreting the world in insightful and novel ways. It is expression, criticism, communication, problem-solving, harmonisation and innovation," she says. "Design is just one of many terms that can be used to describe these ideals."
She graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, with an honours in product design in 2008.
Ms Lee recently started her own studio, where she sees herself as an independent designer with a model of collaboration that changes all the time. "I like to think that I operate independent of disciplines, instead following projects and people who resonate with me," she says. "It is liberating to meet clients who appreciate this philosophy. Trust goes a long way when you are dealing with the capricious nature of creative work."
In Singapore, her works include Float, a coffee table that appears as a levitating lotus pond supported by a trio of intertwining stems. Each table is unique, containing an arrangement of lotus leaves sourced from South-east Asia. A cup of tea placed on the table appears to float on water. Another product is the Revere Vase, a shallow bowl-like vase with a rounded base. "I wanted to explore the concept of stability and to challenge the archetype of a vessel needing a flat base," she says.
Both Float and Revere Vase were designed for Industry+, a brand new contemporary Asian furniture label that was launched in March 2014. She was also among 30 designers who designed a public installation using unwanted logs from parks in Singapore. Her piece, titled Struck, features a mirror surface on the bench, signifying a tree struck by lightning.
Last year, she designed a National Day Tote Bag for the National Heritage Board, which featured an artwork that referenced the traditional Chinese almanac wall calendar. "Designed specifically as a souvenir, locals are able to relate to the patriotic and nostalgic meaning behind the print while visitors can appreciate the historical significance of National Day," she explains.
She is tight-lipped about her current projects, but would only say that she may be working on one for next year's Milan Design Week. "I cannot tell you any more than that, except that I am super-excited," she quips.
On her design style, she says there is none. "There is no intentional style to my work. I follow my instincts and let the work describe itself. Observers tend to describe my work as poetic, soulful, light and dream-like. I don't mind those descriptions at all."