It’s both exciting and sobering to discover that Singapore—an island city-state in southeast Asia that’s smaller than New York City in both square miles and population—has its own five-story National Design Centre.
With a shop featuring cool products, an auditorium, galleries, offices, prototyping labs, and meeting rooms, the National Design Centre commands a city block in an historic area with famous hotels, museums and parks.
When I stopped by, I was lucky to be able to tour—with hardly another soul in sight—no docents, no guards—it hadn’t officially opened yet—the exhibit “Fifty Years of Singapore Design 1965-2015.” The exhibit, which celebrates Singaporean designers’ innovations in visual communications, product and industrial design, fashion, and environmental design, will be open to the public at no charge until the end of the year.
Excellence in environmental design is what’s most obvious to visitors, who can’t help being dazzled by Singapore’s architecture, parks and gardens. “Welcome to our garden city,” said a designer I met for my upcoming article for HOW magazine on the graphic design and branding scene. Singapore is home to hundreds of small studios producing excellent work, as well as to all the major tech companies and global ad agencies, which tailor campaigns for local and international brands to the tastes of the island’s multicultural, multilingual population. It is a garden city. Not just the amazing Gardens by the Bay, with its giant eco-trees and nighttime light shows, but for the manicured plantings almost everywhere and the gardens that seem to drape off the terraces and rooftops of hotels and apartment buildings. People care how things look and function, as the exhibit demonstrates, and have made design innovation part of the national culture.
After checking out design-envy-producing leather goods, jewelry, kitchenware and textiles in the first-floor Design Centre shop, I ventured into the materials design lab, where I met Zhi Xiong, above, a 25-year-old student at the National University of Singapore, who is interning with a group that’s developing electronic products. “I’m making a robot that tracks where you are,” he explained.
Several floors contain studios and offices, including a “Design Thinking and Innovation Academy” and the DesignSingapore Council, established by the National Ministry of Culture — its tagline is ”Enabling Singapore to Use Design for Economic Growth and to Make Lives Better” — to commission, host and sponsor exhibitions, activities and conferences. For example, they’ve just finished celebrating Singapore Design Week (March 3 – 10), which featured 100 citywide events, including a conference that drew an international roster of speakers.
The “Fifty” exhibit, designed by Gallagher & Associates, Asia, in a lively, engaging Eames House-of-Cards sort of way, takes visitors decade-by-decade from “Building a Nation” through “New Technologies” and “Going Global” to “Looking Back, Looking Forward.”
“The Singapore design scene has flourished into a vibrant and dynamic creative culture,” reads the caption. “With the advent of Web 2.0, designers are working in an even more fluid, borderless creative environment… Entrepreneurship and self-initiated projects break new ground; designers are constantly experimenting and innovating to make things better, faster or simply more delightful… In the hive of activity, there is a movement of ‘looking back’. This is set against global trends such as the return of craft; and in a more local context, a ‘return to roots’. The trend is not just about nostalgia, but an active reinvention with an interest to preserve and conserve what has been done in the past.”
Among the well-designed literature, I was most delighted by “My First Design Book” (top left). For 7 to 12-year olds, like the corresponding section of the exhibit, it’s a free handout intended to help young people discover design through play, and it simply and clearly describes the design process, the tools for different design disciplines (markers, utility knife, Pantone swatches, sewing machine), and allows space for sketching and building a small model. Luckily for those of us who can’t spare the time for a 20-hour plane ride to see the exhibit in person and pick up a copy, a downloadable version is available here.