Beyond nostalgia – Studio Juju ponders the future of Singaporean design

In a little over a decade, husband-and-wife duo Timo Wong and Priscilla Lui have garnered awards and international recognition for their progressive design thinking. Timo looks back on the highlights of their journey thus far and contemplates the possibility of Singaporean designers developing a collective identity.

By SGN | 14 Dec 2021

Timo Wong and Priscilla Lui are the founders of Studio Juju.

What defines Singaporean design?

Is it a spirit or an aesthetic? Does it look forwards or backwards? Must it include cultural elements, pay tribute to objects of nostalgia? Should it have a sense of pragmatism and efficiency, or can it veer towards decorative excess?

Studio Juju’s designs are unmistakably modern – marked by fresh simplicity and easy fluidity – but they are, admittedly, not always recognisably Singaporean.

“We don’t think so much about what the Singaporean identity is when we design,” Timo shares. Rather, their design thinking prioritises human experience, and their aesthetic takes inspiration from varied sources – anything from favourite artists to everyday encounters.

Global Recognition

Not long after setting up Studio Juju in 2009, Timo and Priscilla’s work started to go global.

In 2011, they were named Designers of the Future by Design Miami in 2011. As a result, they were given the opportunity to create a work to be placed at W Hotels in Miami, Istanbul, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Based on the given theme of ‘conversation’, Timo says they “imagined a space where people could convene and have the freedom to move in and out of the space”. The result was A Tent – a lightweight, easily disassembled metal structure that encloses a seating area without closing it off altogether.

Studio Juju’s A Tent was placed at W Hotels around the world.

The following year, one of their most enduring designs was propelled onto the world stage.

After being exhibited in Milan, the Rabbit & the Tortoise Collection was selected for production by luxury furniture company Living Divani. The same work went on to win Studio Juju a President’s Design Award in 2014.

Also made of powder-coated steel, the collection comprises a set of seven low tables that may be nested and configured in endless ways. Their deceptively simple shapes were whittled down from hundreds of small models and underwent functional feasibility studies, in an exercise to reimagine the archetype of the table.

The Rabbit & the Tortoise collection challenges the archetype of the table.

Closer to Home

Several Studio Juju creations have taken up permanent residence in Singapore, including a series of benches that respond to their immediate surroundings at Gardens by the Bay.

In 2017, a pair of artworks titled Big Round and Tall Long were put up at the new Tampines Downtown Line MRT station. Placed at either end of the platform, the colossal shapes play with the double-height walls and the various vantages of commuters within the space.

“We wanted to reflect the size and polarity of the station,” Timo explains. He hopes that kids and families in the heartland will delight in viewing and freely interpreting the shapes, which epitomise how Studio Juju designs can be minimal yet whimsical.

More recently, the pair participated in a Singaporean showcase at Milan Design Week led by Supermama, featuring brands such as Biro (menswear), Shales (accessories) and Journey (a platform for artists with intellectual disabilities).

Studio Juju designed the exhibit and contributed a set of ceramic ware called Tingkat – which was inspired by the tiffin carrier, an item that figures prominently in Timo’s childhood memories.

“Tingkat represents a certain kinship to me,” he says. “When I was young, the stacked tiffin containers were where I sometimes found my lunch when I came back from school.” This sentimentality is expressed subtly through the gentle bulge of each layer, suggesting an abundance of food and the fullness of familial ties.

Studio Juju designed the Singaporean showcase at Milan Design Week 2021 and contributed a set of ceramic ware called Tingkat.

A Collective Identity

“The pre-COVID world was so connected by events and showcases,” Timo notes, recalling a time when it was relatively easy to gain international exposure.

But as travel was stalled by the pandemic, he and Priscilla were inspired to look inward, collaborate more with local designers, and focus on developing the Singapore design industry.

The experimental installation Rope Chandelier was a recent collaboration with veteran artist Theseus Chan at the National Design Centre.

“Having international eyes look at Singapore’s design culture is much more important now,” Timo observes. On top of the individual achievements of local designers, he says Singaporean design needs to be represented as a whole.

With this in mind, Studio Juju has embarked on a new project that will culminate in a showcase sometime in 2022. Working with a handful of designers, they are studying the potential of designing and manufacturing entirely in Singapore while exploring the possibilities of a Singaporean design identity.

“Singapore may not be as sophisticated in terms of manufacturing lifestyle objects and furniture,” Timo says, “but I believe creativity can overcome these challenges, and that we may be able to find fresh approaches in design.”

And what might define a Singaporean design identity? Perhaps it eludes clear definitions, given the country’s openness to global influences and the infinite range of designers’ memories, experiences and motivations. To Timo, however, the answer lies in looking to the future.

“I think Singapore designers are progressive,” he says. “We can be informed by our past and culture, yet progress beyond nostalgia and push our boundaries.”

About Studio Juju

Founded in 2009 by Timo Wong and Priscilla Lui, Studio Juju is a Singapore-based design practice that works across industrial design, spatial design and art intervention. The studio was honoured as Designers of the Future by Design Miami in 2011 and awarded a President’s Design Award in 2014.

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