Furniture of the future

18 September 2021
The Straits Times

Forget the post-pandemic “new normal” and prepare for “normal” instead. Home-grown furniture designers like millennial Celine Ng are upbeat about the future and are taking a more balanced approach, looking at designs that can be produced sustainably in a world more aware of climate change. “The pandemic has been with us for almost two years, and we have all become accustomed to it,” says Ms Ng, 30, who runs Fraction Design Studio. “What was once thought of as the ‘new normal’ is now, well, just normal. Our customers are investing in home-office telecommuting infrastructure to help them work more effectively, and have become used to having young children around while they work.” Ms Ng believes that sustainable furniture will be more valued in a post-Covid-19 world than fast furniture – made of cheap materials that leave a high carbon footprint – and this is the design direction her firm will pursue in the months ahead. “A piece of furniture should be more than just a beautiful piece that suits a home or an office,” she says. “It should be crafted from recycled materials, flat-packed without unnecessary packaging and delivered by an electric vehicle. The use of the furniture should also be inclusive, catering to people of all abilities, and leave only a small carbon footprint.” Mr Nathan Yong, who co-founded Grafunkt furniture store more than a decade ago, is also advocating for more awareness about where furniture comes from and how it is made. He is one of the earliest multidisciplinary designers in Singapore. Swedish fashion giant H&M is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Singapore and marking this milestone by turning the spotlight on home-grown artists and craftsmen. Mr Yong and nine other artists and designers were chosen to create limited-edition pieces that are on sale at the H&M Orchard Building store till the end of the month. His tie-up with the fashion retailer has resulted in chairs and shelves made from waste metal and marble, as well as a lounging pouf called Trash Bean Bag, which H&M Singapore head of communications Lisa Chai says is the most popular design from the collaboration. The range costs from $280 for the Trash Bean Bag to $550 for a bar stool made from offcuts. Other furniture designers are also moving away from purely aesthetic considerations to creating pieces that are sustainably sourced, that look good and which can last a long time. Founders of home-grown furniture design firms such as Mr Ahmad Habshee of Urban Salvation, Mr Jarrod Lim of Jarrod Lim Design and Ms Chan Wai Lim of Trigger Design Studio are looking at more holistic ways to create, such as working with recycled wood or sustainably sourced hardwoods and designing multi-tasking furniture such as a dining table that can double as a work desk.

Local designers are also getting help in their plans to charge forward with various initiatives rolled out by the Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC). SFIC president Phua Boon Huat says the industry can expect to see an upside in the future. “Research has shown that the outlook for the global furniture industry remains promising, with a projected healthy growth rate of more than 4 per cent from 2021 to 2025,” he tells The Straits Times. In April last year, the council rolled out its fifth SFIC Membership Assistance Scheme called SFICAssist during the early stages of the pandemic to help its more than 300 members cope with the downturn and prepare them for the upturn. Mr Phua says that globally, furniture companies are increasingly shifting their operations towards one that is part of a larger lifestyle proposition. They are looking at design where furniture fulfils both the functional and aspirational needs of customers. In October last year, SFIC introduced Creativ-Space, a new business-to-business e-sourcing and marketing platform that is the first-of-its-kind in the Asia-Pacific region led by a trade association. The platform, supported by Enterprise Singapore, is a virtual meet-and-greet space that is aimed at trade buyers such as importers, distributors and architects looking for premium furniture and furnishing items for their projects. Mr Phua adds: “Upping the ante with the use of sustainable materials in design solutions will also be an increasingly important focus for many.”

Mr Ahmad Habshee started working with salvaged wood in 2015. He dug into his own savings to create distinctively Singaporean artisanal furniture that was good enough to be shipped to the world. At his six-year-old furniture business, Urban Salvation, he designs classic pieces focused on a modern aesthetic using quality, sustainable hardwoods from Singapore and Indonesia. He honed his skills over the years through working with master craftsmen in Malacca, Bangkok and Semarang in Java. Today, he has parlayed his passion into a 7,000 sq ft workshop and gallery space at Tampines Industrial Park A. He has a team of eight designers, makers and crafters catering to his growing base of customers. The 32-year-old is also currently taking full-time classes for a diploma in furniture and spatial design at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. “I promised my longstanding customers that I would go back to school and relearn everything about furniture design to revolutionise Singapore’s furniture industry,” says Mr Ahmad, who comes from a family of furniture makers.

Founded in 2014 by Ms Zaelyn Tan, 31, the studio started in a tiny shophouse in Keong Saik Road and moved to a 5,000 sq ft showroom at 3 Little Road about five years ago for more elbow room for its growing band of eight full-time designers. The company specialises in designing bespoke furniture. The pieces are made to last using hardwoods, natural marble, granite and quartz and no two pieces are alike. “We certainly are not the cheapest in town, but we assure our customers that the quality of work and our prices are competitive,” says Ms Tan. Prices start at $399 for a solid oakwood side table to about $3,000 for a walnut eight-seater dining table. The company also sells pet furniture upholstered with designer fabric. There are more than 200 fabrics to choose from and the designs are customisable. In January, the studio opened its concept store, styled as a cafe, in Dhoby Ghaut. The idea for Void Cafe was to showcase the range of lifestyle products that etch&bolts also sells besides its furniture customisation service. This includes its locally made tableware, arts and crafts, and home accessories such as rugs, carpets and lighting equipment. At Void Cafe, besides drinking locally roasted speciality coffee, customers also get to buy “everything you sit on or touch”. “This includes the coffee cups that our customers sip from,” says Ms Tan, a graduate in interior and multimedia design from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

When Celine Ng founded Fraction Design Studio in 2016, she wanted a company grounded in productivity, efficiency and quality. “These are what I think make up the Singaporean design DNA and which also help businesses become more collaborative and thrive,” says the 30-year-old furniture and industrial designer, who started out working on challenging commissions from companies that include Swedish flooring company Bolon and Singapore retailer Xtra. But then the pandemic struck. For a millennial with hopes and dreams, the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to be the test that would either make or break her young design practice. “We pivoted to designing for virtual spaces,” says Ms Ng, who studied 3D design as part of her degree programme at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts where she majored in furniture design in 2014.

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Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.