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Ahead of the pack: Top creative names in Singapore you need to know now
ANYONE WHO CAME OF AGE before the Internet can tell you how much faster the world has become. News, trends and innovations have always come and gone, but today they're chewed up and spat out faster than you can ask: ''What's new?'' Social media makes potentially hot trends go viral almost instantly. But soon after it flares up, it's swept aside to make way for the next new thing.
In such a rapidly changing environment, leading creatives have learned to stay in the game by staying ahead of it. They improvise and experiment, savvily adapt to current tastes, and seek inspiration from the avant garde. They put a fresh spin on their aesthetics while staying relevant and true to their own personal callings. And in the course of that, they get our vote for being ahead of the pack.
Here's our pick of some of the fast risers, trailblazers and steady hitters of different industries, from floristry and food, to design and fashion.
John Lim, founder of Humid House
TALKING TO JOHN Lim, the founder of Humid House, is like taking a class on modern art.
The botanical design studio creates floral arrangements that reference ''impressionist paintings'', the ''sculptures of Tara Donovan and John Chamberlain'', and the ''choreography of William Forsythe''. For good measure, he also turns to cinema ''to give us the vocabulary to describe narrative and mood''.
Small wonder then that almost everything Humid House creates looks like no flower arrangement you've ever encountered. The compositions are askew. The colour combinations are by turns complementary and clashing. The flowers look like alien life forms.
But their uniqueness is precisely why Humid House has become the go-to florist for the elite. Though incorporated only last year, the studio has amassed an enviable client list that includes Gucci, Cartier and Kenzo - as well as many socialites and celebrities. Lucy Liu's recent gala dinner to mark her debut art exhibition in Singapore featured Humid House creations on every table.
Mr Lim studied architecture at The Cooper Union (see amendment note) in New York, where he met Wee Teng Wen, the co-founder of The Lo & Behold Group. The group owns private members club Straits Clan where Humid House runs a floral concierge.
Having worked for starchitects Steven Holl in New York and Ole Scheeren in Beijing, Mr Lim says his architectural training teaches him to read a space astutely: ''For example, the proportions of a room may call for an arrangement or installation that's large, imposing and tower-like, or, conversely, modest, lateral and sprawling.
''Our design for a wedding at Fullerton Bay Hotel had hanging garlands the shape of the inverse of the roof trusses, which celebrated the architecture and expansiveness of the space, while the overhanging effect of the garlands brought a layer of intimacy to the festivities.''
Mr Lim explains: ''Our seven-member core team is very focused on form and shape. We judge many of our arrangements formally, as we would, sculpture.''
The 34-year-old says he has never taken a course in floral arrangement - unless you count the YouTube videos he turns to, to pick up practical tips. But he did grow up surrounded by verdant flora: ''My paternal grandfather was an avid gardener. We had the best fruiting trees - mangoes, rambutans, chikus and papayas. So I've been interested in plants and flowers since I was a child.''
That interest has certainly evolved into the eclectic and esoteric: ''I have a weakness for the oddballs: Alliums that curl themselves into knots; flowers that resemble genitalia or don't resemble flowers at all, ingredients that are prickly, aggressive and unlovable to most… Right now, I'm excited for the spring arrival of the fritillaria, an exquisite-looking plant.''
Google ''fritillaria'' and you'll find large, droopy, bellshaped flowers that look dead even when they're alive. But that morphological kink is precisely why Mr Lim thinks they're fascinating. And chances are, he'll make you think so too.
Humid House's reputation has extended beyond these shores, with enquiries increasingly coming in from global clients. Yet when asked what his dream assignment might look like, the cosmopolitan Lim offers a reply that suggests he'll always be a Singaporean at heart: ''We'd love to have a platform to develop a national conversation around regional flora. We'd love a residency at the Botanic Gardens where we'd have the freedom to use ingredients foraged from the ground.''
Website: humidhouse.com. Instagram @thishumidhouse.
Kamil Foltan, Indigenous Bartender Headquarters (IBHQ)
A STICKLER FOR research with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, Kamil Foltan is now acknowledged as one of Asia's leading bartenders/beverage consultants. He is also behind an online platform that he started in 2016 ''for like-minded bartenders (and foodies) looking to explore locally sourced ingredients and their uses with a culinary and creative approach''.
So far, ''we have published 95 articles online, each inspired by one ingredient that originated in Asia, with useful facts and tips on how to use them in cooking and in the bar,'' says Mr Foltan, who came to Singapore in 2014 to head the bar programmes at The Black Swan by Lo & Behold group, The Tippling Club and Indonesia's Potato Head Group.
There were no limits to his R&D for projects, when they would pair each key ingredient with champagne, gin, whiskey, bourbon, cognac or vodka with syrups, infusions and more, just to ''see what comes out best''.
Which was what happened with jackfruit and curry, a ''discovery'' that became a Jackfruit and Curry Negroni at IBHQ (the drink has the bittersweet profile of a negroni, with the spicy fragrance of curry and the fruitiness of jackfruit, which took a while to process).
''We are very experimental - we push the boundaries of where the flavours can go; introducing them in an unexpected way. I don't go for the easy matches, it should always surprise the drinker.'' He likens each cocktail in his flight 774A menu (three cocktails for S$58 or five for S$88) - where the dominant flavour of an ingredient is presented in different ways - to a dish in a degustation menu.
So what's the difference between a good cocktail and a ground-breaking one?
''A good cocktail is one that people enjoy,'' muses Mr Foltan, ''If you would order it again or come back for it very soon, that's good. But to make a ground-breaking cocktail, it is about what's coming next. It is like fine dining in liquid form. It is a flavour combination that you would not expect to work together, but does. It is about the quality of the drink in terms of texture and balance. Presentation is part of the game; however, simplicity and elegance is my personal choice. It is what's inside the glass that counts,'' he says.
On his part, Mr Foltan hopes to inspire the industry and young professionals.
''It's more about getting them excited about cocktails. Do you go to a restaurant to get full, or to enjoy conversation and have an experience with friends? I look at the cocktail scene the same way. Why can't you go to a cocktail bar and have a great flavour experience the same way as you do for dinner?''
Once a month, he organizes a themed Bartender's table (S$108 per person) that offers deeper insights into everything from gin and tea pairing to the citrus of Kochi prefecture. And whichever ingredient he focuses on, it will be an eye-opener.
Find out more at www.facebook.com/ ibhqsingapore/IBHQ, 774A North Bridge Road, Tel: 90253234
Desmond Shen, Magic Square
IT STARTED OUT as a means to an end. Identify promising chefs, give them a platform to cook without worrying about financial risk, and see if they do well enough to headline their own restaurant once the experiment is over.
That was the thinking of The Naked Finn owner Tan Ken Loon when he launched Magic Square in May 2018 - a year-long 18- seat pop-up restaurant helmed by local boys Desmond Shen, Abel Su and Marcus Leow. The chefs take turns to present a month-long tasting menu, and Magic Square has been a hit from Day One. The trio work to showcase local and regional ingredients in original recipes, at an accessible price - a tall order which requires them to stretch their limited resources as well as their own culinary skills.
From this baptism of fire, Desmond Shen has emerged as a talent to be reckoned with, turning his obsession with plants and fermentation into a culinary art form.
Thanks to him, petai (stink beans) get a new life as a creamy, cheesy miso that is aerated into an addictive dip for homemade rice crackers. He hasn't stopped there, experimenting with candlenut and buah keluak, using a method he developed that cuts the fermentation process from more than one month to two weeks.
The 26-year-old Temasek Polytechnic alumnus cut his teeth at the likes of The Naked Finn, Odette, Whitegrass, Blackwattle and Narisawa (as a stage) in Tokyo, where he was introduced to koji and fermentation. He also worked for Farm deLight, an indoor herb farm, where he learnt about growing and harvesting plants at the right stage.
''When I came back from Narisawa, I went on a massive miso and fermentation exploration at home,'' says Chef Shen. ''I was very lucky to have caught it before the craze came here. I went really in-depth into research for two years, so by the time the restaurant started, I was already quite proficient.''
He is fueled by curiosity - to understand how things work and where food comes from.
''This is why I join establishments like The Naked Finn, because they are really into their produce.''
Chef Shen is well aware of the tough road ahead for young Singapore chefs. ''Many people do not believe in us because, to be honest, we probably have not given them a lot of confidence,'' he says candidly. ''Some restaurants close within six to 12 months of operations, so there is no longevity. Their menus are also priced quite high. But I feel that is something you can do only if you have managed to build up a trust with the customer.'' At Magic Square, a nine-course meal is priced at S$78.
Another hurdle is that ''in Singapore, there is a limit to how radical your food can be,'' he notes
''When we go abroad to work, we absorb new cooking ideas which strengthen our own foundation and allows us to fine tune those ideas to make them more accessible for Singaporeans. That's our goal. We don't want to be too crazy. With the techniques and our sense of how food can be, we can do this in a new way.''
He lets on that while Magic Square has enjoyed a positive response, there were diners who told them that they should just be cooking Chinese food.''
But going the conventional route like some of his peers - ''working their way up to sous chef position and then go out on their own'' - is not for him.
''We don't think the same way. While we're still young, with energy and ideas, we just want to go out and do something. Our mentality is, 'We have nothing to lose'.''
So what happens when Magic Square wraps up in two months' time?
''We have not talked about it yet, but we are going on a very long vacation to recharge, then start thinking about what's next.''
For sure, this is one talent we haven't seen the last of.
Magic Square, 5B Portsdown Road, #01-02, For reservations, please text +65 8181 0102
Ben Goh, InterContinental Singapore and Chong Koo Jee, SKAI, Swissotel The Stamford
BEN GOH AND Chong Koo Jee are two high-achieving pastry chefs who have competed together internationally and are now raising the game in their respective workplaces.
Chef Goh, for one, already has multiple awards under his belt, including firstrunner up at the 2016 Japan Cake Show Tokyo and second-runner up for the team competition at the Mondial Des Arts Sucrés (International Confectionery Art Competition) 2018.
The story-telling element is crucial in his creations, be it for work at InterContinental Singapore, where he oversees all dessert production across several F&B outlets, or for competitions as part of the Singapore National Pastry Team.
Most recently, he and Chef Chong, who creates the desserts at SKAI, competed in the World Pastry Cup (Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie) in Lyon, France, in January 2019, where they were placed seventh.
''Every art piece or dessert has a story, it is not just for display. Then it has to be visually enchanting - and then I work on making it delicious. It's not about visuals but a multisensory experience - it has to resonate with you,'' says the dynamic 33-year-old who has been in the industry for 13 years.
His ethos comes through in his whimsical afternoon tea collections at the Lobby Lounge of Intercontinental Singapore. Last Christmas, he created a 'childhood' theme featuring six chocolate-based desserts on a chess board, for guests to try and checkmate the 'King' (Whipped Valrhona blond chocolate ganache, pear confit and cinnamon sponge) with the 'Rook''(Valrhona Strawberry Inspiration meringue mousse, crushed lemon confit and lemon streusel).
''There are chefs whose work is their main challenge and don't compete but I feel it's important if you want to stay in top form,'' says chef Goh, who modifies his competition works to serve to his guests.
Chef Chong agrees. The winner of Singapore's Best Female Pastry Chef at the Singapore Pastry Cup 2015 - among other awards - feels there is still much room for development. It helps too that the hotels support their competitive pursuits.
Not everyone is cut out for the competitive life, though.
''Many chefs think that it's not practical (as it involves long hours of practice and commitment). But it's important to learn constantly - you can pick up new techniques along the way. I enjoy the challenge, I like that it is tough,'' says the 30-year-old Chef Chong, who previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry before she dove into the world of pastry seven years ago.
''We should continue to break boundaries and think out of the box. To be a pastry chef now, one has to be versatile and be more open to techniques from various disciplines, not just pastry,'' says Chef Goh, who is proficient in both chocolate and sugar work.
Gone are the days when baking skills would suffice. Technology, such as 3D printing (for moulds) and laser-cutting tools (for chocolate, icing and more) are already in the mix and all these help in the creative process, says Chef Goh. ''In a recent competition, I asked a 3D sketcher to sketch the shape I wanted. We did a 3D printed mould of it so I could get dessert to look exactly the way I wanted,'' says Chef Chong, who specialises in sugar work.
Moving forward, Chef Goh would like to share his experiences with more young chefs. ''The standards that you hold yourself to and the discipline that you must maintain (in competition) should extend to your work. And whether you are presenting creations to a judge or to your guests, you have to present the best.''
He also hopes that more young chefs understand that fame doesn't come overnight; it takes time to gain skill and experience.
Adds Chef Chong, ''In our industry, hours are long, and the work is physically demanding. Some people who enter the industry may regret it, but I don't believe in looking back. If you do, you'll never move forward.''
The Lobby Lounge, Intercontinental Singapore, 80 Middle Road. Tel: 6825 1008 SKAI, level 70 Swissotel The Stamford, 2 Stamford Road. Tel: 6837 3322
Leong Hon Kit and Si Jian Xin, Wynk Collaborative
DESIGN FIRM WYNK Collaborative may not have millions of followers on Instagram, but they don't need to. Not when the spaces they've created - the tech-enabled grocery and dining concept, habitat by honestbee; cocktail bar The World Is Flat at Changi Airport Terminal 1; and the lobby of The Projector cinema - have already been widely photographed, posted on the social network and become 'like' magnets all on their own steam.
Still, partners Leong Hong Kit and Si Jian Xin say that designing Instagram-friendly spaces was never on their agenda.
''If we did that, we would really have lost the plot,'' says Mr Leong, 38.
Mr Si, 37, adds, ''We design spaces that people want to visit, and the results are such that these places attract a lot of Instagram 'likes'.''
The firm formed in 2011, and while they began with designing home interiors, they are now better known for commercial spaces - largely F&B joints and offices.
On their design philosophy, Mr Leong says, ''if you strip away the colours and the materials, we are really functional designers. We look at how people use the space, and how to design a space to help businesses.''
Mr Si adds, ''our ethos is to make spaces experientially variant and fun. We leave it to visitors how they want to use them.''habitat by honestbee has been their most significant project to date, not only for its size, but also the complexity. ''It was almost like we were masterplanning the space and not just designing the interiors,'' says Mr Si.
To design habitat by honestbee, they had to think about the future of retail, how to integrate technology into grocery shopping and dining, and at the same time not make the space feel too foreign.
With F&B joints, they say that while the food is still the main selling factor, having outstanding interiors help too. ''Especially now when people remember restaurants not only through their taste buds but their phones too,'' says Mr Leong.
He proudly declares, ''all the F&B projects that we have designed are still standing even after their first lease has expired.''
Their foray into designing F&B spaces started with Standing Sushi Bar at Raffles Place in 2014, where they took inspiration from a Japanese fish market. Happy with the results, Lim Huinan and Howard Lo, founders of Empire Eats hired them for their next outlets including Tanuki Raw and The World Is Flat. Wynk is currently working on another three more projects for them.
''After five years of working together, we have developed a tight rapport and understand each other's working styles and preferences,'' says Ms Lim. ''Over the years, they've learnt to strike the delicate balance between design integrity and budget constraints. We really like their originality, which is why we continue this relationship, and strongly recommend them to our friends.''
Mr Leong reckons that their popularity stems from the way they do more than just design a space. ''We consider branding, marketing, user experience, comfort and technology for our clients,'' he says. ''Choosing nice materials is the easy part.''
For example, noting how Singaporeans dislike bar stools, they used conventional chairs at the counter of Tanuki Raw, but created a sunken space behind the counter so staff can still engage with diners.
The duo also check our other F&B outlets to see how they're run. ''It is important to have a holistic view, so that we can incorporate it into our next project,'' says Mr Si.
Quck Zhong Yi, Wong Ker How and Lim Jing Feng, Asolidplan
SAY YOU FLIP through a decor magazine, and you see a home done by Asolidplan that you like. You go to the design firm, and ask them to do the same for you. More likely than not, they will tell you 'no'.
Don't be offended, though. It happens all the time. ''It would be easy money for us, to copy and paste, but we will turn down the job,'' says Wong Ker How, 38, one of the three founders of Asolidplan. ''It isn't fair to the first homeowner, and it is not our style to replicate designs.''
The firm's philosophy is all about being original and creating work that responds to the site in question, says partner Quck Zhong Yi, 39. And of course the challenge to ''experiment and push boundaries.''
It sounds like a oft-heard spiel but ''we don't try to be different for the sake of it,'' asserts Lim Jing Feng, 36. ''Each project looks different because of how the design responds to the issues affecting it.''
Veteran interior designer Nikki Hunt, founder of Design Intervention, reviewed some of the firm's projects for a design award. She says, ''I am impressed by their attention to detail and creativity, and how they implement a cohesive approach to their projects.''
A large proportion of their projects are residential - mainly the interiors and at times, the architecture. Some of their unconventional designs include a brass privacy screen for an apartment which became an eye-catching feature in the surrounding neighbourhood; a mirrored wall that gave a triangular-shaped apartment the illusion of being square and twice as big as it really was; and a labyrinthine network of staircases and flying bridges that connected all the levels in a terrace house.
On the public front, they designed a pool bar, with interiors deliberately resembling a swimming pool as a visual pun. In 2018, the firm was hired to design the set stage for the National Day Parade. Unlike previous stages which blocked views of Marina Bay, Mr Quck designed pivoting screens to connect the audience to its surroundings.
Mr Wong says, ''In commercial projects, we consider how our designs fit into a bigger picture, such as how the business positions itself in the market. Homes are more personal, so we have to be more sensitive to the users.''
Although each partner handles projects separately, the firm has fortnightly review and critique sessions, where all design proposals are presented for everyone to give their opinions. ''It gives us clarity of thought, because we can sometimes get too narrowminded in our designs, and someone else may have a better idea,'' says Mr Quck.
Mr Lim adds that communication, not only among staff, but with clients is crucial.
''This is particularly so when we design homes, as we see such projects as a collaboration with the homeowners,'' he says.
The trio say that homeowners are now more savvy and well-informed, but the most frequent request is still more storage. ''Most homes are already small, you don't want to waste space on a storeroom,'' says Mr Wong. They find creative solutions, such as storage spaces under platforms and built-in cabinets. Once, they created moveable cabinets that doubled as walls.
Do they ever run out of ideas? Mr Quck says, ''Hardly, because each project is driven by context, from the client and the site.''
He adds, ''we are not stylistically driven and we don't follow trends. Some of our best projects are not so much the best-looking ones, but the ones where clients are most satisfied.''
It also helps that their company's name instils confidence, since their clients have been singing their praises and spreading the word about their services. ''We are firm believers that having a solid plan will produce good design,'' says Mr Wong.
1. CONCEPTUAL ETHNIC WEAR
Priscilla Shunmugam, Ong Shunmugam
The go-to designer for elegant Asian chic has come a long way from nine years ago when 'lawyer-turneddesigner' was perpetually prefixed to her name - almost like an excuse for her fashion 'hobby'. Today, Priscilla Shunmugam is a leading light in Singapore's fashion industry, with her label Ong Shunmugam an established cult favourite of Singapore's most stylish women.
''I always design for an intelligent woman - one who makes consumption decisions based on design as well as thought,'' says Shunmugam. That is what sets her apart from the rest - her ability to tap into the psyche of the modern Singaporean woman who loves fashion but craves authenticity.
Her design aesthetic focuses primarily on her reinterpretation of traditional Chinese, Indian, Malay, Peranakan and Sikh womenswear.
''While the national dress still exists, it's increasingly confined to postcards, museums, ceremonial occasions, festive parades. But on the other hand, it seems to need validation from a Western or an established brand/ designer before it can find currency in the fashion system. Fashion as an instrument of identity negotiation and symbolic profiling — this becomes augmented on so many levels when you talk about Asians and Asian traditional wear — this is what interests me and ultimately drives the work that I do.''
For her, it's also about taking a progressive design approach. ''The huge challenge for us lies in taking traditional garments or textiles that the current generation of Asians consider to be outdated or restrictive — and fashion a rethink of them in some small way.''
Her appeal has extended beyond Singapore as well. ''We entered the Hong Kong market in April 2018, which I have wanted to do for years. Women in Hong Kong embrace fashion in a way that makes them a dream to dress. We also began producing in London in November 2018, working with a partner studio in East London.''
Atelier Ong Shunmugam is located at 43 Jalan Merah Saga, 01-76
2. GEOMETRIC CHIC
As the daughter of a draughtsman, it's not surprising that Sabrina Goh favours clean lines, symmetry and proportion. Her work draws inspiration from architectural form, sculpting strong yet feminine silhouettes focusing on oversized proportions and asymmetrical cuts.
Simple is never easy, which explains Goh's skill and eye for detail. She may design a shirt dress, for example, but there will always be something extra - say, a pleated oversized sleeve on a dress or mixed textures of cotton, nylon and lace on a clean white frock — all done in subtle fashion, therein the magic.
''We focus more on quality,'' she emphasises, adding that natural Japanese textiles like cotton linen are used in her collections.
Validation comes in the form of celebrating the label's 10th anniversary in 2019. ''In addition to that, we just opened our new store at Paragon level 3 and we will be relocating our flagship store to Raffles City level 2 in March.'' And as a career high, ''We recently launched Mickey The True Original Collection, which is our collaboration with Walt Disney Singapore for Mickey's 90th Birthday.''
Sabrinagoh is located at 3 Stamford Rd, #02-14, Capitol Piazza
3. FEMININE INSTINCT
Ting Ee-Ling, The Missing Piece
Unlike other designers who may lean towards a cutting edge aesthetic, Ee-Ling Ting's clothes look positively commercial. Which is entirely intentional.
As a mother of three, Ting identifies as a woman first and a designer second. In fact, she didn't even set out to be a fashion designer. ''It just grew organically from a hobby,'' she confesses.
Essentially, she speaks to women who don't live and breathe fashion, but know a pretty dress when they see one. The Missing Piece appeals for its Chinoiserie-inspired looks, but Ting's strength is in identifying her signature look, namely the clever side slits on her contemporary dresses.
''I'd like to think of my clothes as modern classics,'' says Ting, who learned to sew when she was living in Australia. Not many women who aren't a size 0 with a 25-inch waist will feel confident to show some skin. But Ting's dresses are cut in such a flattering silhouette, it doesn't matter if you're a size 2 or 6. Says Ting of her design philosophy, ''I'm constantly inspired by the women who wears my designs, and I never want anyone who shops with us to feel left out regardless of their body shape or size.''
Support for local talent has also helped to raise her profile. ''The community is really making a conscious effort, especially with new initiatives such as independent fashion events and the new Design Orchard, which give shoppers wider access to home-grown brands.''
The Missing Piece is located at 10 Winstedt, 03-06, Trixilini, 6 Scotts Road, #03-08 and Design Orchard, 250 Orchard Road.
4. BACKLESS BEAUTIES
Elyn Wong, Stolen
With everyone focused on the front of a garment, Elyn Wong wants to tell a back story - namely, backless pieces she created out of ''personal passion'', she explains.
''They may have a signature backless feature but it's nothing overtly sexy or body-hugging. It's more structural and architectural — a quiet kind of sexy. Now when people think of backless garments, they think of (her brand) Stolen.''
Wong wasn't trained in fashion but it didn't deter her from pursuing it as a career. It used to make her self-conscious that she lacked formal training. But, ''Now I find it very liberating''.
A backless garment may be a hard sell, which is where Wong's persuasive power comes into play as she extols their wearability by creating a variety of styles from dresses, to tunics, shirts and blouses.
''With my brand, it is always about opening minds and celebrating cross disciplinary creations. Fashion can be more than just a dress. So far, Stolen has created art installation pieces beyond clothes that showcased in Milan, Beijing, New York, and London.''
She's also encouraged by the positive response at home.
''In recent years, Singapore's fashion scene has a very different vibe. It's more about craft, sustainability and authenticity. Not so much about chasing trends. And more bespoke fashion is being appreciated, which is pretty cool.''
Stolen is located at Straits Clan, 31 Bukit Pasoh Road.
Amendment notice: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that John Lim studied at Copper Union, instead of Cooper Union.