by Manu SharmaAug 01, 2022
“Future living” is the design buzzword of the day, brought to the fore by the imminent threat of environmental disruption—but at a recent exhibition in Singapore, the conversation ran much deeper. Visions of the Future brought a group of recent design school graduates together to speculate not just on sustainable manufacturing or circular economies, but on culture, wellness, and the human condition. Commissioned by DesignSingapore Council and curated by design firm Forest & Whale, the exhibition is a collection of objects created in response to the global issues of the day, that present a more mindful alternative for the future. The exhibition was originally intended to open at Milan Design Week in 2020, but was then reconceptualised as a more local showcase due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had an open call, and we curated from that open call,” explains Forest & Whale co-founder Wendy Chua. “What we got were a lot of works that young designers did for their graduation thesis, work that has at least a year of rigorous research,” she adds.
For instance, Kevin Chiam’s Echo is a fire alarm system in which the burst of a red balloon startles building occupants into taking action and heading to safety. The system was developed through conversations with firefighters and engineers, who revealed that many people dismiss traditional fire alarms as false warnings or drills. In response to the pandemic, Chiam also designed an Odour Ring to dissuade wearers from touching their face, and collaborated with Nacho Vilanova to create soap stickers that encourage children to wash their hands by leaving behind surprising temporary tattoos.
“When the pandemic happened, there was this great air of altruism,” explains Chua. “A lot of designers were out there, saying ‘how can I help?’ Craftsmen were sowing masks when there weren’t enough being produced yet, there was 3D printing of mask extenders, so you don't get that abrasion at the ear. The air of innovation was really beautiful, but these were very quick solutions for the moment. What we really wanted to say with this collection, is how can we tackle some of the longer-term problems?," she mentions.
Poh Yun Ru’s Rewind is a work that was conceived outside of the context of the pandemic, but that became startlingly more relevant during the lockdown. Developed with elder care facilities and physiotherapists, Rewind is a digital tool that encourages memory in dementia patients by prompting them to perform simple hand actions. “It was always done with an altruistic goal, not for profit,” explains Chua, and adds that “Yun Ru just wants to proliferate the idea as much as possible. There’s instructions on how to build your own device, so you don't have to purchase it from her. That idea is really open source”.
Many of the designs on display engage in what Chua calls “design nudging”—they are concepts, more than products in their own right, that raise questions about alternative means of production, consumption, and essentially, of living. Yingxuan Teo’s Mass Production of Happiness is a wood-and-glass apparatus that calls back to a time when soap—a commodity that has gained critical relevance during the pandemic—was produced with all natural materials. “We do need a rejuvenation of our retail landscape,” says Chua. “Yingxuan’s project is about reconnecting to an ancient practice”. Although the project was never meant to be scalable, it has caught the attention of collectors looking to order them as editions.
In a similar vein, Ng Luowei and Mervyn Chen’s Canvas, a rubberised paint set that can be used to repair torn shoes, rebels against the culture of use-and-throw fashion, albeit with the added impetus of self-expression. Sheryl Teng’s Pneumatics’ Touch is an inflatable jacket that employs air, rather than down, to provide warmth. “Repairing culture and the circular economy somehow became more relevant now that we saw the fall of fast fashion during the pandemic,” offers Chua. “In Singapore many of the big international brands closed down, and so we started to question, why do we even need fashion brands that are churning out new collections every other month? But when we talk about circular economy, it means we need to acknowledge all the different stakeholders. It is very much about addressing the production system,” she observes.
The other side of the consumerism coin, of course, is culture itself—some of which is rooted deep in our heritage, and some of which comes from the manner in which we go about our day to day lives. Jasmine Quek’s Phenomenal Wood, a hand-crafted tea set, revives the traditional Chinese tea ceremony with meticulously crafted wood objects. Both the tea drinking and the wood working process are deeply meditative, mindful actions—they are, in essence, an occasion for self-care. Finally, Lin Qiuxia’s minimalist Feng Shui collection, Ji Jian Wu, gives ancient Chinese beliefs a contemporary aesthetic, and offers them a place in the present day. “Qiuxia's work is interesting because it plays on the idea that when you are fearing something that you cannot see, like the virus, an invisible threat, and you tend to count on these ancient beliefs. What she has done is to create a contemporary metaphor of it,” says Chua.
While Ji Jian Wu is already being retailed on a small scale, DesignSingapore Council’s Executive Director, Mark Wee, believes all the works could be scalable in the future—especially Chiam’s Echo and Yun Ru’s Rewind. “Even projects that are less likely to be scalable, such as Teo Yingxuan’s Mass Production of Happiness, can have a long-term impact in the way that they explore pressing global issues such as sustainability and our relationship with everyday objects such as soap and plastic,” he says. “These projects can stir the imagination and potentially cause a change in behaviour amongst visitors as well,” adds Wee.
As is being witnessed in many countries in the world, the people of Singapore have been prompted to action by the COVID-19 pandemic—mainly because it has spotlighted issues that have been brewing for a long time. “The youth and their vision of our future is responding to some very urgent needs,” offers Chua. “What the pandemic does is make the content of the work much more relevant. Some of the ideas that you come up with before the pandemic would have met with greater resistance, but I think now, people are more willing to consider them. We are at the tipping point of change,” concludes Chua.
Visions of the Future can be seen virtually at https://visionsofthefuture.sg/.