Staying Power

Five veteran design creatives mark their 20-year milestone in a competitive industry.

CHRIS LEE \ ASYLUM

DESIGNING CD covers - that was what Chris Lee aspired to do as a student at Temasek Polytechnic's School of Design.

Twenty years on, Mr Lee has only designed one CD cover but has become the go-to designer for niche projects, including the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai, the Hublot pop up store at Paragon and more recently, The Warehouse Hotel in Singapore.

The award winning designer who headed the design division at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) Asia Pacific, and Ogilvy & Mather before starting Asylum, describes his career as a series of projects.

''Every new project that I do lasts from three months to a year. The last 20 years has been a series of so many projects that I've lost track of time,'' he says.

He struck out on his own because being in a large advertising firm didn't give him the opportunity to do more interesting projects. ''I wanted to do work that would make a difference to the community,'' says Mr Lee, 49.

His former boss at BBH was extremely supportive. ''He gave me all the design projects for Levi's, CNBC and Singtel. From Day One, it was about handling client briefs rather than finding clients,'' he recalls.

Asylum started with graphic design but shifted direction 15 years ago. ''Branding is about experience. Graphic design can only do so much,'' says Mr Lee. ''I felt that we should venture into spatial design for the holistic brand experience.''

Their big break came when Asylum did the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai in 2011. where he turned a three-storey house in into an interactive space highlighting the brand story. ''That gave us the legitimacy to design like an interior design firm,'' he says.

While Asylum's forte is spatial design and branding, Mr Lee says that the direction for the next decade lies in hospitality design.

The Warehouse Hotel won top awards and brought Asylum much international acclaim. It was the firm's first hotel project, and opened a new world for them. Asylum is now designing six more hotels worldwide. ''Suddenly, 20 years later, we feel like the new kid on the block,'' says Mr Lee.

Of clients who wonder how their lack of hospitality design experience could create The Warehouse Hotel, he explains it's precisely because of that. ''We are travellers first, and designers second. Certain comforts and complaints are addressed in our design, which sets us apart,'' says Mr Lee, whose pet peeve is a lack of sufficient luggage space in hotel rooms.

Great design should be ''simple, emotional, and original.'' That in itself is scary, because ''when design is simple, it is hard to be original. It could already have been done elsewhere, so it is important to know what's happening in the world, so your design doesn't come across as plagiarism.''

For that reason, Mr Lee is on the move a lot, as even the most random things that become an idea one day. ''You certainly don't get ideas from sitting down in the office and trying to brainstorm.''


LIM KOON PARK \ PARK + ASSOCIATES

FOR architect Lim Koon Park, 53, the last 20 years of his career can be summed up in four five-year stages of growth and change.

He started Park + Associates to focus on designing, which he felt he wasn't doing enough of at his previous company. He had no specific plan at the time but by luck, a contact asked him to design a bungalow. ''That could pay my salary for a year, so I started with that,'' he recalls.

For the first five years, projects grew slowly - mainly houses. One day, he was asked to finish a partially completed condominium job.

''Most clients will not give you a particular job if you've had no previous experience. They feel the scale may just be too big for you to handle. So the condo was a step up for us.''

Over the next five years, Mr Lim expanded, taking on more projects. But it wasn't a rosy period. In 2008, the financial crisis hit and projects were suspended. Mr Lim had also exhausted his savings and it seemed like the company could not pull through the crisis.

By sheer luck, they were appointed to do the coordinating and technical support for rides at Universal Studios Singapore. ''The job didn't fit into architecture, engineering or project management, but we decided to do it,'' says Mr Lim of the project that pulled them back from the brink.

He says that episode taught him that commercially driven architecture, where it is fee-driven and work is done fast, is not something he wants to pursue. ''I can't bring myself to bargain for more fees,'' he says.

Instead, he feels there are other ways to offer value-add. ''Clients come back to us because of the good job we did, and how we relate to them. I realised that I had more skill building a relationship than cutting cost,'' says Mr Lim.

The third five-year period saw the firm taking on bigger public projects, despite their inexperience in the field. They won a design competition, which called for alterations and additions to the existing alumni block at Hwa Chong Institution to house Hwa Chong International School, and a new extension block for the relocation of alumni facilities.

''We had no experience building schools, so had it not been for this competition, we wouldn't have had the chance to do so,'' says Mr Lim. They won a second competition, also for alterations and additions to Nanyang Girls' High School. They built a four-storey building, with two basement levels. A green slope on top of the building is a favourite spot for students and this project remains one of his fondest too.

''It is wonderful to see that the students have found creative ways to use the space,'' he says.

Five years ago, they moved into their current office - an expanse of column-free space crowned by a series of barrel vaults. Its design won local and international awards. ''It was good exposure, and we got our first break in hospitality, because a client saw the office and wanted us to design his Maldivian resort, despite us not having any experience,'' says Mr Lim. That one commission has since led to more hospitality jobs.

What about the next five years and beyond? ''We want to approach architecture on a more philosophical level. The projects will have more depth, beyond just visual aesthetics. There has to be an intangible quality to them,'' says Mr Lim.


ROBIN TAN & CECIL CHEE \ WALLFLOWER ARCHITECTURE + DESIGN

SOME architects get a kick out of designing skyscrapers and mega structures that mark a city skyline. But not Robin Tan, 55, and Cecil Chee, 51, who prefer creating smaller and more intimate buildings.

''Do we like designing big buildings? Sure, more people will see them but they don't stir anything inside us,'' says Mr Tan. The duo who first met as architectural students at NUS, designed flatted factories during their stint at JTC.

Mr Chee adds, ''there's the beauty of crafting when it comes to smaller projects.''

In 1999, they struck out on their own and set up Wallflower Architecture + Design, after working at Bedmar & Shi. ''It was cockiness, the thinking that ''hey, we can do better than that'' in terms of what we see in design and solutions,'' says Mr Chee.

Their first projects were simple renovation works, from a neighbour's conservation shophouse to their friends' apartments. ''It was a far cry from the mega projects from JTC and the good class bungalows from Bedmar & Shi, but we enjoyed it tremendously. There was the sense of gratitude of people placing their trust in us and the satisfaction of validating that trust,'' says Mr Tan.

Over time, projects grew in size, and they began to attract clients with bigger budgets and higher expectations. ''Clients are more sophisticated,'' says Mr Chee.

Their portfolio today is a balanced mix of private homes, and commercial interiors such as restaurants.

What kept them going for the last two decades was the ability to work with a dedicated group of people who share similar culture and values, getting validation from clients and recognition from fellow architects.

Of course, there are low points too. In their early years, they learnt that running a design firm involved more than just drawing and providing solutions. ''We were foolhardy, without knowing how hard it is to start a business,'' says Mr Tan. Three years in, they ran into cashflow difficulty but managed to pull the firm through.

The duo say that Wallflower has no set design style. ''Design styles usually carry with them certain principles, beliefs, opinions of what the goals of design are, and techniques for how to accomplish them,'' says Mr Tan. ''For our houses, we have to recognise all the opportunities presented by our tropical climate, our close urban living condition where each house can be as close as 4m from each other, and the yearning for individuality, open spaces and privacy.''

Mr Chee feels architectural language and interior expression should be aesthetically congruent. But it's a different story for commercial interiors. ''A lot of it is about creating a frontline image. For example, even before you've tasted its food, a restaurant's interior sets certain assumptions on quality, price, sophistication (or lack or it), and mood control. But the longevity of the aesthetic will determine if it's a classic or just a trend,'' he says.

Having known each other for over 20 years, they say they are able to make up for each other's weaknesses. ''We are on the same frequency and share the same critical eye,'' says Mr Chee.

So can Wallflower function with only one of them? ''Yes, but the end result will not be as good,'' says Mr Tan.


PANN LIM \ KINETIC SINGAPORE

AS the head of a company, Pann Lim has seen plenty of people come and go. ''I've become semi-numb to it. I've accepted it, but it is not something I'm used to,'' says the co-founder and creative director of branding and design agency, Kinetic Singapore.

The firm began in 1999 as Kinetic Interactive. Mr Lim, 46, joined in 2001, when it started a design and advertising entity. In 2009, it became known as Kinetic Singapore.

He says it is painful whenever anyone leaves the firm, not because he has to find a replacement, but because he reminisces about the good times they shared. He is now the last man standing, since Carolyn Teo, one of the original founders, left a year ago.

Having fun, and ''not having a normal office'' are just some of the things that Mr Lim is proud to share about Kinetic's 20-year journey. He talks about how he and his team can ''talk rubbish'' and he's even allowed a married couple to bring their baby to work, when they couldn't find help.

He treasures the moments when his staff invite him to join them for lunch. ''When you are at the top, it can be a very lonely place,'' he says.

The man is all about simple pleasures. To celebrate the firm's 20th year, the Kinetic team went kayaking, and at one point, they all had to hold onto each other's kayak to stay in line. ''That was a beautiful moment, the true meaning of working together as a team,'' says Mr Lim.

Teamwork, he adds, is something that money can't buy, and it is also why the firm has a low turnover rate. ''Twenty years of business has taught me that it is not just about the money, but about the heart. The heart will eventually prove that you are worthwhile,'' he says.

Perhaps it explains how the firm ha garnered almost 500 awards since Day One. ''We congratulate each other on a job well done, but we aren't the sort to polish our trophies. We have deadlines to meet, and also we aren't show-offs,'' he says.

Kinetic is known for building strong brands. One of their early works was to create branding for Maki-san, a takeaway sushi joint. The team came up with the idea of cute takeaway boxes that could have been easily thrown away after use, but instead, customers started collecting them.

More recently, they worked on an exhibition on sustainability for Temasek Shophouse. Instead of the usual route of putting up posters about excessive plastic wastage, they came up with the ''ridiculous'' idea of creating a store that is inconvenient, as opposed to the convenience store. Instead of food and drinks on-the-go, The (Not- So) Convenient Store displayed items such as bamboo toothbrushes, compost buckets and menstrual cups - all eco-friendly products that are sustainable alternatives to seemingly convenient everyday products.

The team created the ''store'', filled the shelves and designed posters that encouraged anti-buying. ''It was a fun project. We had a positive response as the people who came understood the message better,'' he says.

He says that since taking over the company about a year ago, nothing much has changed, except that he now has to meet clients as part of his business development role.

Is there extra pressure on him though? ''My responsibility has increased two-fold, but it is always at the back of my mind to do the best for my team,'' he says. ''There is pressure to fill the shoes of someone like Carolyn, but I will find my own way. I won't let go without a proper challenge.''