What does a design ambassador really do? Are her days filled with parties, wine and cheese? We find out from Design Ambassador Agnes Kwek who assumed her new role on 1 October 2018 in Paris, France on what she does to promote Singapore design and designers on the global stage. Agnes was the DesignSingapore Council’s Executive Director before relocating to France with her family.
First, tell us what you hope to achieve as a Design Ambassador?
I do three things as a Design Ambassador. First I help Singapore designers, design companies and brands access the Europe and North America market, but also equally the other way round. If a European/American designer hopes to make Singapore its base to expand into Asia, I will see how I can help them to set up a presence or partnerships in Singapore too. Second, I tell companies why Singapore is a great place to set up their innovation hubs, to design for the Asian market. Third, I generally raise the awareness of Singapore as a city of design.
In the next coming months, I think a good goal is to get great media articles about our talented designers, to get more of our designers’ voices heard at conferences, and start conversations between European and Singapore companies who are keen to explore partnerships.
What is a day in a life of a Design Ambassador like?
On a typical day, after saying goodbye to my kids at 8am, I fire up my computer to catch up on emails or hop on calls with Singapore. I’ve never been a morning person but now I have become one because of the time difference. I use lunchtime to meet new contacts in Paris.
So far no two days have been alike. One day, I could be giving a talk about how Singapore formulates and implements its design policy; another day I could be giving tips to in-house innovation teams on change management; the next day, I could be at the ateliers of Singaporean designers based in Paris – such as Mashizan and Andrew Gn – ogling at their beautiful designs and hearing stories about how they run their businesses. Design is such a wide field, from innovation to products, to spaces. There’s just no saying what I could be engaged in next.
My work also requires me to travel as I cover Europe. I typically travel to attend design weeks to get a sense of the design scene, understand the markets, and speak at conferences – usually on innovation and design policy. I have been to Eindhoven, Brussels and London. On my schedule in the upcoming months are Stockholm and Milan.
How have you been establishing yourself in Europe?
I follow up diligently on every contact I have met, and ask them to introduce me to more people. I offer to share my expertise freely, making sure that I can bring something of value to the table. I find that when I do this, people are very open to helping me as well. I explain at every opportunity Singapore’s design vision, the role that design has played in our nation building, and of our ambitions as a design country.
What questions do you get from those who have met you?
“How DID you get this job” (envious tone). Usually followed by “How can I get a job like yours?”. Another question is “So what is Singapore design?” To the first question, I explain that they might have to first become Executive Director of their Design Council.
To the second, I tell them that Singapore’s design DNA was baked into the history of our country. When we had nothing as a country, we had to invent our own playbook on many solutions from scratch – and this was essentially design. I love what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said recently: “Singapore is a nation by design. Nothing we have here today is natural, or happened by itself.” I think we tend to forget that. I also say that Singapore design is our culture – firmly rooted in Asia but constantly evolving and with an ability to adapt to a wider global audience.
Has it been hard to be taken seriously as a Design Ambassador?
This question implies that design is thought of as frivolous. But every time after I explain that design has played a key role in Singapore’s nation building – how we built something great from nothing, and that every system-level innovation from our housing, water management, transportation, education, pension policies was actually design, then people understand that design is not frivolous.
When I explain that design is key to our ambitions as a Smart Nation, that it is driving our private and public sector innovations in finance, retail, healthcare, people are inspired by our vision for design in the nation. And most of all, they are impressed that the Singapore government has the foresight to create a role of Design Ambassador for me. It is the only one of its kind in the world.
So no – I am taken seriously as a Design Ambassador. And as a result, so is Singapore design.
Agnes at the 2018 International Design Policy Roundtable held in Brussels, Belgium, where she shared lessons from Singapore's progress on the Design 2025 Masterplan.
What have you been busy with since October?
The biggest change from Executive Director to Design Ambassador was switching from a management role to a content specialist and individual contributor role. I now generate content (as oppose to vetting content) in the form of articles, market reports and presentations. I relentlessly build my networks, and have no shame in asking people to introduce contacts to me. I research into organisations that I am about to meet or want to meet, and set targets for myself. As this is a totally new role, there is no precedence, no established networks, no job description.
A recent highlight was serving as the President of Jury for the inaugural French Design 100 awards, which honours French designers who uplift French design overseas. The entirely international jury sifted through hundreds of pages of submissions for the 173 nominations. What emerged from our discussions was a strong consensus that great design needs to be sustainable. We were also curious about each designer’s philosophy as we wanted to know what drove them. In other words, an aesthetically pleasing portfolio is no longer enough.
I also had the privilege of addressing a key group of European government agencies driving the innovation agenda across cities in Europe, at the BEDA (The Bureau of European Design Association) Insights Forum in November in Brussels. I find that people are keen to hear about the Singapore experience. Something in the way in which Singapore drives innovation with a powerful combination of ambition and attention to implementation makes us a global innovation force to learn from.
What have you learnt in the recent months?
That we have to work very hard to raise awareness of Singapore’s design brand. Europe is a huge market with many opportunities for our designers and design brands, but currently the only Asian design that most Europeans are aware of is Japanese, and maybe Korean. We can offer a unique point of view of Asian design, using the materials in our backyard in Southeast Asia and giving them a fresh modern take. This is something that Singapore, as a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan and modern city, could do very well.
Three words to describe the experience so far…
Gratifying, hectic and beautiful.
Is it glamorous to be a design ambassador? Is it all cheese and wine?
Yes, it IS glam. I cannot pretend otherwise. I live in one of the most beautiful cities on earth, and I have had the privilege of going to work functions in the most beautiful buildings in Paris, like the Louvre Museum, Hotel Crillon, and Musée d’Orsay, and access areas in these places that one would normally not be able to. It is not all cheese and wine, there is plenty of champagne and canapés too.
However, my favourite moments are still being able to work from home and catching up with the team in Singapore. I love writing, capturing my experiences and thinking on paper, with my coffee.
Has your home in Paris been designed to reflect your official role?
The history of the apartment itself dictated the design. We are lucky to have found a typical Parisian Haussmannian apartment built in the 19th century, with beautiful ceiling mouldings, fireplaces and chevron wood plank floors, which demanded to be preserved. My home has been designed to reflect my lifestyle and my family’s needs, rather than my job. We love food and cooking, so the kitchen and dining space is our hearth. We modelled it after a typical Parisian bistro. This is a very different style from our hyper-modern apartment in Singapore which looked more like a New York loft.
But before we left Singapore, I invested in pieces that would remind me of home. My couch was re-upholstered by my favourite textile designer Onlewo in graphic motifs of HDB (Housing & Development Board) flats. So there is HDB in Paris now! I have cushion covers from Onlewo too, depicting motifs of Little India, East Coast Park, Botanic Gardens and Peranakan culture. My coffee tables are from Sam&Sara, which have become conversation pieces when I host guests at home. That, and my typical combination of serving champagne with bak kwa! This has been our Singapore-French secret combination ever since I met my husband 18 years ago. They pair extremely well together (like us).
What are the favourite Singapore designs that you always have with you when you go out?
For daily wear, my Charles and Keith black Oxford brogues or Mashizan sneakers, Dzochen leather jacket, CarrieK cuff, and Ling Wu bags. For more dressed up evenings, I wear Reckless Erika, The Missing Piece, or Peter Kor. My pièce de résistance for super dressed up evenings is my Thomas Wee gown. People are always surprised when I tell them I’m top to toe dressed in Singapore designers.
What will you be busy with in the next 6 months?
Travels. I am particularly looking forward to coming home for Singapore Design Week. I have a steady stream of presentations to give at schools and conferences, so there’s plenty of preparations for those. I have a very active Comms team at home hounding me for content too.
If you’re keen to contact Agnes, email her at [email protected]