Crafting a new beginning

James Quan, Bynd Artisan

I started Bynd Artisan with my wife, Winnie Chan, in 2014. We had a total of eight people then, including a fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore and five production workers whom we upskilled to craftsmen. They were between 50 and 70 years old.

Winnie's grandfather was Singapore's oldest book binder and he started honing his skills in 1942 before opening the Republic's oldest book bindery in a small shophouse in Mohamed Sultan Road in 1947.

The founding of Bynd Artisan is a tribute to this legacy and what we know bindery to be in the 1940s. As a local brand, Bynd Artisan has since grown to be recognised for our penchant for craftsmanship and creativity among Singaporeans, expatriates and tourists alike.

In the last four years, we have established five well-situated stores in Singapore at Holland Village, ION Orchard, Takashimaya, Raffles City, and Pedder@Scotts Square.

Just last week, we ventured into Shanghai, in partnership with Kerry Properties, to open our first outlet in the heart of a bustling shopping district at Jing An Kerry Centre. The response has been overwhelming and we are most grateful for the warm reception.

Over the years, we realised that many of our customers are tourists from China and we are pleased to have Shanghai as our first stop overseas. It is a vibrant place where modernity meets heritage. I truly feel that it is the perfect place for Bynd Artisan to kickstart our journey into the global market.

With the craftsmen station being the key highlight of every Bynd Artisan atelier, our customers are invited to engage with the craftsmen and be involved in curating a meaningful bespoke gift of their own.

While we also run our own e-commerce site, where everyone from all around the world can customise or personalise our goods online, we want to bring our customers into our brick-and-mortar stores.

Customers can learn about our story and heritage from the craftsmen who experienced the transformation of the Bynd Artisan story first-hand. They can watch their products being made right in front of them - an experience that can't be replicated online.

Winning Singapore Tourism Board's Best Shopping Experience Award in 2017 gave us affirmation that we have a unique retail experience for our customers to cherish. We also understand that building a strong recognisable brand is imminent for long-term sustainability.

This remains our focus and through continual efforts, staying true to our vision of total design that comprises brand, people, product, experience, collaborative designs, we were awarded the President's Design Award - Design of the Year in recognition of our branding and concept.

Our well-loved artisanal goods such as our iconic customised notebooks and exquisite leather collections are our pride and joy. Working with local talents, we introduced at least 10 creative designer collaborations and they have all proven to be popular.

Our latest collaboration "Wish You Were Here" with Ng King Kang, a local artist with a significant presence in Asia's mando-pop music scene, is one example.

Presented in Chinese, this beautiful collection of short stories, photography and music has become quite a hit in Shanghai. We eagerly look forward to our first overseas collaboration, which will surely pique the interest of our Shanghai friends to learn more about Bynd Artisan and Singapore.

As newly appointed VisitSingapore Passion Made Possible ambassadors, it is also our national duty to promote the Garden City and shout about our beautiful homeland.

James Quan with his wife, Winnie Chan

This exciting foray into the Shanghai market marks a new beginning for Bynd Artisan. Keeping to our vision of shaping Bynd Artisan into an iconic Singapore brand, we hope to make waves overseas too.

For many of us in Bynd Artisan, our whole lifetimes are spent in one specific industry. For our craftsmen, it is learning and honing traditional craftsmanship and artisanal skills - skills that will be lost to the digital age if we do not rekindle interest in them.

Through the years, the business of bookbinding and leather crafting has moved progressively with technology.

However, each product we make now is still very much like in the old days, where it was designed and handmade by craftsmen who grew up in, and with, the trade.

All five pioneer production workers, whom we call our founding craftsmen, have worked on the paper and leather production floors for decades. They were initially apprehensive about moving from the confines of the factory to the retail frontline. Many were afraid of speaking to customers and handling computers.

Nevertheless, they all knew we were on the same mission - to breathe new life into what was commonly perceived as a "sunset business", to rekindle the love for paper and leather, and most importantly, to survive in a highly competitive retail business environment.

Training and encouragement helped them re-learn a language, embrace modern computer skills, improve their customer service, and ultimately become ambassadors of the brand. They are now trainers to new colleagues, both young and old, as I have a soft spot for fresh graduates and retirees.

At Bynd Artisan, our older employees share their knowledge of bookbinding and leather crafting with our younger employees, while our younger employees teach them social media and tech skills. The senior craftsmen learn about social media like Instagram so that they can stay relevant, allowing them to better interact and communicate with our customers by sharing Instagram pictures. This exchange of knowledge and skills is something that we cherish and are very proud of.

We are now a preferred design and crafting partner to various banks, multinational corporations and government ministries. Early this year, our bespoke unit was kept busy preparing gifts for visiting ASEAN delegates, and state gifts commissioned by President Halimah Yacob that were meant for foreign dignitaries.

I particularly enjoyed designing the state gifts, not just because it was a great honour to produce them, but also the meaningful concept behind them.

We collaborated with the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore (CPAS) and Club HEAL, and included the creations of their talented, aspiring artists - Ang Wei Lun (GROW trainee, CPAS), Nirwana bte Juami and Elfa Adelyna bte Adenan (Club HEAL) - in the three-item set consisting a leather hand stitched book, valet trays and a pouch.

Crafting is definitely here to stay as consumers start to recognise and appreciate the beauty of handmade goods. My 75-year-old father always tells me that if the mountains don't come to me, I have to go to the mountains. Seek, my old man says, and I shall find.

At Bynd Artisan, we continually seek to inspire and share the skills of an almost forsaken trade, impart new skill sets through our sharing, and create an omnichannel retail experience through our brick and mortar stores, as well as on the Internet.