Design of the Year 2015
Prologue Collection
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DESIGNER
Outofstock Pte Ltd
Gabriel Tan
Gustavo Maggio
Sebastian Alberdi
Wendy Chua

“We do not believe in fixed formulas. Instead, we approach each project with a fresh pair of eyes.”

Outofstock designed Prologue Collection, a 12-piece set of teakwood furniture collection, with a very specific market in mind: Japan. When the designers accepted the commission from the client Scanteak – which was trying to expand their retail presence in Japan – they were well aware that cultural and social norms played an important role in informing and influencing consumers. Both Outofstock and Scanteak were especially aware of the importance of research to uncover user insights before design ideation.

The key research took place in densely populated Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe with a myriad of houses, condominiums and public housing flats. Predominantly, space was scarce but the designers were keen to tap into the collective knowledge of adaptive living in the context of shrinking floorplans to reframe their design brief.

The designers asked: “How do we design furniture that transcends decreasing spatial boundaries? What are the attitudes of the Japanese consumers towards furniture? And how do we influence their motivations to buy, use and maintain a chair or table?”

Through their research, Outofstock began to understand the cultural values and living rituals that drive the choices of Japanese consumers. Insightful observations were collected: A lady shared her childhood nostalgia through a wooden chair that her mother kept for her, aptly placed next to the wooden tricycle her son now uses. An elderly couple remembered a Danish dining table they had been using for 20 years, and portholes in the walls that allowed their cat to move freely between rooms.

Outofstock also trailed a Scanteak delivery truck for two days to get a glimpse into the homes behind closed doors. Outofstock spoke with the Scanteak’s Japanese showroom staff. Over time, everyone on the front end of retail observed the hidden needs and motivations behind a customer’s request. Bringing this intuitive knowledge to the drawing board was part of the design process.

The result of the research was the Prologue Collection: teak furniture with a lightweight visual language and versatility in function. Teak, a luxury wood, is pared down and softened with upholstery and textiles in hues of blue. Wide armrests hold a cup of tea; coffee tables are raised just that bit higher to function as a work surface; benches pivot to orientate flexibly for dual spaces.

The Outofstock team continues to learn from feedback it receives to make further tweaks and edits. In so doing, they are reminded of Ushio-san – their translator and experienced employee of Scanteak – who shared his distillation of what furniture means to the Japanese. “The agriculture legacy of their forefathers has given them the perspective of a landowner. For them, the home is like a piece of land; his furniture, the crops that he takes good care of as they age with him. Furniture should accompany a person on his journey through life. A table of 20 years speaks of countless stories of family activities, whilst a chair shines with the lustre of age and use.”

ABOUT THE DESIGNER

The landing page for Hans Tan’s website gives a hint of the designer’s subversive wit. It’s almost too easy to skim over the three innocuous looking lines: “Designs… plural noun… a secretive plot or scheme, often with hostile or selfish intents: He had designs on the chair.”

This playful thrust is a thread in the designer’s work. Everyday objects – many rooted in Southeast Asian design – are reimagined with restless imagination and cheerful glee.

“My work is often occupied with the authenticity of the contemporary design artefact being a deliberate gesticulation of material culture,” says Hans, who is also an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Division of Industrial Design.

And so, a tray is made of white nylon springs made from 3D imaging. The patterns on a traditional Peranakan teapot are perforated into individual dots that resemble a magnified Roy Lichtenstein print. A sequence of Singapore’s national lion symbol transforms an ordinary white plastic shopping bag into an eye-catching accessory. Each work provides a fresh perspective and brings a smile to one’s face.

This is not to imply that Hans’s work is without discipline. For all the apparent frivolity of the final product, he takes the task of design seriously, investing his work with impressive fundamentals. Every design is never produced for its own sake. Every finished product can actually be used. As Hans points out: “I see design as a medium, and I make use of its utility as a pretext to explore ideas.”

When asked what, or who, has influenced his design philosophy, his reply is as instructive for neophyte designers as it is remarkably nuanced: “The perceptiveness of Gaston Bachelard’s work on phenomenology; the lightness in Italo Calvino’s conceptual yet narrative approach to writing; and Georges Perec’s sheer wit in describing everyday life.”

In Han’s case, everyday life means the local Singaporean culture. “That’s always been a major influence on my work. I cannot imagine responding to the condition of being Singaporean without being in Singapore.”

This perspective has been hard-earned. His greatest mistakes have occurred when the value or potential of a design, or the complexity of the process is not recognised from the outset. This is a theme that runs through in his work and in his lectures. “The underlying principle of many of the pedagogical methods and strategies I develop are rooted in the idea that creating is ‘deforming the existing’, rather than ‘creating anew’.”

Given this sense of connection between time and place, it’s no surprise that Hans sets the value of the President’s Design Award so firmly within a local context. He is especially appreciative that “it has created a benchmark for design in Singapore, and places a seal of worth on design at a national level”.

Advice to Emerging Designers:

“Learn the rules, bend the rules, then break the rules. Above all, take risks, and learn from your mistakes.”

JURY CITATION

Outofstock was commissioned by Singaporean manufacturer Scanteak to create a furniture range for the Japanese market. Before committing anything to paper, the principal designers decided to embark on an intensive research trip to Japan to study the country’s typologies, living spaces and cultural habits. Their home visits and interviews resulted in a human-centric furniture collection that is full of subtle, sensitive and insightful details. The flippable back-rest of the Duo Swivel Bench allows users to sit facing either the dining table or the living room simply by changing the direction of the back-rest. Equally ingenious is the angled shelf under the coffee table that provides storage without impeding leg-room when the user is using the coffee-table as an impromptu work surface.

NOMINATOR CITATION

Foo Ah Hiong
Executive Director
Scanteak (Hawaii Furnishing Pte Ltd)

The Prologue Collection features teak furniture pieces in smaller proportions and cleaner forms. It was largely inspired by the Japanese lifestyle, which is predisposed towards design based on the natural texture of wood. In particular, the collection is the culmination of intensive research – through home visits and observations conducted by Outofstock in Japan – into contemporary living rituals in increasingly dense cities.

Compromising neither form nor function, the Prologue Collection comprises elegantly unassuming designs that are, nevertheless, functional works of art in the way they dovetail teak home furnishings with users’ needs. The Duo Swivel Bench, for example, has a back-rest that moves to face two directions without the need to turn the entire seat around. This flexibility is achieved by a structural innovation that creates a thin, long back-rest that will not warp, nor sacrifice strength and durability. It is a clever detail that is eminently suitable for small spaces. Sharing a similar design philosophy to furniture created in Scandinavia and Japan, Prologue is simple and minimalistic while accentuating a quiet elegance.