Design Stories: Democratic Society x KIHARA
The Singapore Icons ceramic collection by Democratic Society x KIHARA is a beautiful amalgamation of local aesthetics and Japanese sensibility. We speak with Edwin Low, co-founder of S U P E R M A M A and the brainchild behind the brand, on the concept of meaningful gifts, the collaboration with the Japanese ceramics company and redefining what is iconic to us as citizens of the island-state.
All photos courtesy of Democratic Society
Ask anyone on the street for the epitome of a Singapore icon, and chances are they’ll mention the Merlion or its dynamic cityscape. Both of these national personifications are emblazoned on countless souvenirs and trinkets, which ironically dilutes their “uniquely Singapore” factor. Edwin Low, co-founder of S U P E R M A M A, a local retail boutique, set out to alter this predisposition with the Singapore Icons ceramic collection.
At first glance, the motifs may just appear to be pretty, stylised, Oriental pieces; upon closer inspection however, a tinge of familiarity lingers and it suddenly dawns upon you as you attempt to recollect where you saw those shapes before – the floral patterns are Vanda Miss Joaquims in full bloom. Origami cranes, paralleled with the mechanical ones which flourish on our landscape. The lush tembusu trees which gave Singapore its Garden City moniker. White blocky lines suddenly transform into the common corridors of HDB flats. Jagged lines racing off the edge of the plates become lightning bolts, a curious play on the rapid progress of the island nation and its governing party.
All five sets were designed by local graphic houses and artists who bore the desire to integrate an Asian perspective into their works in order to create meaningful gifts, known as omiyage (お土産). We spoke with Edwin about this concept, the collaboration with the Saga-based ceramic company and his pride as a Singaporean designer.
DBC: Please tell me more about yourself and S U P E R M A M A.
Edwin: I am an industrial designer by training and a design educator by heart. I believe that design is not just a set of skills (such as sketching, management or 3D modeling), but a way we interpret life.
S U P E R M A M A is a retail gallery founded by my wife Mei Ling and I when we decided to take a year-long sabbatical with the arrival of our second kid. The idea behind S U P E R M A M A was to create a space for quiet contemplation – a space where one can truly slow down and start thinking about life.
DBC: How did the concept of Democratic Society and meaningful ‘omiyage (お土産)’ come about? Why did you choose to focus on ‘omiyage’?
E: As the saying goes, it is better to give than to receive. Buying a gift is a profound experience as it concerns two people – the giver and the one who is going to receive. A good gift reflects the thoughtfulness (heart + mind) of the giver and elevates the emotional condition of the receiver.
From the culturally accepted norm of giving gifts to the attention to design details in gifts, nobody does it better than the Japanese. I hope to create a label that is centred on making people happy or happier through the giving of gifts. Being a Singaporean, I hope to create a label which Singaporeans will be proud to be associated with (like how the Japanese are proud of MUJI), thus the name Democratic Society which is lifted from our pledge.
DBC: The Singapore Icons series embodies Japanese aesthetics and Singaporean imagery. How did you bring both elements together harmoniously?
E: I wish to say that balance is the key but that will be too vague. A mutual respect for each other’s crafts by both the Japanese makers and Singapore designers made it all possible.
DBC: What was the collaborative experience like with KIHARA?
E: Simply amazing. I remember having a conversation with Mr Koji Matsumoto, KIHARA’s representative on the production of one of the designs (specifically the HDB corridors). He explained that though the lines may seem straight forward, achieving the correct visual perspective of the long horizontal lines on a concave surface took many tries. Working with a maker who carries pride in their work makes things easy for me. This collaboration is more than a business venture, it is an enriching experience.
DBC: What does Singapore design mean to you?
E: I’m always intrigued by how archaeologists can make sense of a particular culture by studying into the artifacts they take from the ground. This tells us that a well design object can be identified with the people or society that adopts it. Likewise, Singapore design is a representation of artifacts that defines us collectively as a society – whether it is designed by a Singapore designer or not.
DBC: What do you think makes a design iconic?
E: An icon is symbolic. It can represent a set of beliefs, or values. It speaks of a particular time and place, a people and their culture.
DBC: How can local designers tap on Singapore’s heritage, rich diversity and resources to create meaningful works?
E: Meaningfulness is subjective. I don’t think we should intentionally dig into our heritage to create a ‘Singapore’ design. Rather, we should allow our cultures, lifestyles, belief systems (religious), etc., define the work we produce.
DBC: Do you think it is important for designers to diversify their portfolio?
E: I think the more important thing is for designers to remain passionate and relevant in what they are doing. Whether to diversify their portfolio or not, is their personal belief.
DBC: What else can we look forward to from S U P E R M A M A and Democratic Society?
E: We are working on our second collection with KIHARA. On top of this, we’ve got a few more Japanese makers opening to us.
To learn more about the collaboration and to purchase the collection, visit www.democraticsociety.co.