As an accessories designer, I do frequently come across leather, but have always seen it as a commodity rather than the true form of art it can be. As a guy who tends to stay away from meat, I’m also conflicted when I realize that leather can also be viewed as a way to minimize the waste of our animal consumption. But when in Bangkok I met with Nauvarat Songsawaddichai, President of the Thailand Leather Association. She asked me about fish leather…fish leather?
Then I was asked if I had seen chicken shin leather…really? It’s also known as poulard.
But my imagination really took off when I was shown stingray leather. In fact I had to buy a wallet made out of it. The white eye shape is where the bony tail emerges from the top of the animal. It’s so tough you could sand wood with it.
Now I am determined to find out more about all of these resources and wrestle with the concepts of sustainability in harvesting and tanning the skins of these animals. Perhaps there really is a place for innovative and sustainable leather in our coming product line of shoes. Needless to say, the more I learn the less I know!
The public facility itself is stunning and well-suited to be the centerpiece of a significant design scene. Located in a vibrant shopping mall of the Emporium Shopping Complex, it is easily reached by skytrain and is comprised of these essential elements:
1. Design museum to highlight the best designs in ten different countries and explore “What is Design?” A centerpiece to the whole exhibit is a wall-sized timeline of design that could keep me occupied for hours. The collection itself is truly stunning and not small – an early Citroen in the French exhibit fits well within the scale of the space.
2. A design gallery which rotates exhibits every two months. The current exhibition, “The Databases” is designed to put designers in touch with resources of art, design, business and materials. The combined exhibit spaces comprise 1800 square meters (19,400 sqft) by themselves.
3. TCDC Resource Center which includes more than 25,000 books and 250 magazines and journals all dedicated to creativity and design.
4. The gold standard of materials libraries, they have a fully stocked Material Connexion Library within the facility.
5. The Shop@TCDC highlights design with a retail shop supporting the local scene.
8. TCDC Connect which is a designated virtual and physical meeting place to link designers, clients and suppliers.
What’s most amazing is not the fantastic design, nor the overwhelmingly comprehensive facilities, but instead the federal commitment to give home to the emerging design scene. Upon arrival you feel like design is a priority of the community. Then you meet the likes of the TCDC Executive Director, Apisit Laistrooglai, or the OKMD Executive Director, Pradit Rattanavijitrasilp, and you realize that Thailand has put brilliant minds and generous souls behind the whole effort.
Of course there is more to a great home than a nice house. After some truly enlightening discussions, I realized that TCDC’s work is not yet done. There is a real hunger to grow the inventive culture of Thailand. This is not done with facilities but by empowering grass roots creatives to question more and take the leadership to resolve those questions. Certainly there are a number of new educational programs aimed at opening up these skills in Thailand’s next generation, and I will talk more about these activities on this blog later. However my resounding impression is that a structural change is needed. OKMD and TCDC ran the first lap and got Thailand a great head start, but it appears the baton of design leadership needs to be handed off to Thailand’s creative minds to finish the race.
It appears that the American design scene is running this same race backwards, and it will be exhausting until we find more substantial support to pass the baton of design leadership.
Special thanks to OKMD President Pramode Vidtayasuk and all the OKMD and TCDC staff for supporting my visit.
Below is a slick video that gives an overview of the TCDC efforts. If I find the English subtitled version, I will repost it here.
The Eisenhower Network has proven itself again and again. Earlier this year I met 2012 EIsenhower Fellow Mean Luck Kwek, an incredibly smart and gracious leader in Singapore. He is currently the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. When he heard I was coming he promptly put me in touch with a host of interesting Singaporeans, including Jeffrey Ho Kiat, Executive Director of Design Singapore.
Jeffrey was energetic, forthcoming and gave Beth and I a great introduction to Singapore’s efforts supporting design:
1. Design Capability Development: Developing capability for a globally competitive design cluster
2. Design for Competitiveness: Enabling enterprises to leverage good design for economic growth, quality of life, and the environment
3. Design Innovation: Driving innovation and design IP creation to stay ahead of the curve
4. National Design Centre: Offering a one-stop integrated design hub for designers and businesses.
He also made me realize that the grass is always greener in design. While he mentioned Singapore being a bit behind other countries on certain design initiatives, I couldn’t help but admire the singular power of focus that his office at Design Singapore held and what they could achieve so quickly once empowered.
Jeffrey mentioned that design in Singapore represents a SGD 3.6 billion (US$2.9 bn) industry and that their goal is to grow it to 6+ bn (US$4.8 bn) in the next few years. Here is why this blew me away:
1. The government of Singapore actually tracks the economic impact of design (see detailed comment below).
2. Jeffrey says its “very easy” to get these numbers and track progress.
3. Design Singapore is a governmental institution charged with encouraging local creative talent to prosper.
4. Design Singapore is under MICA, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.
5. Fine Art is under a completely different ministry.
The most interesting goal to me was Jeffrey’s vision to convert their OEM factories (Original Equipment Manufacturers for other brands) into ODM factories (Original Design Manufacturer for their own brands). This is certainly not the easiest way to go. There is a lot more consistent work out there for contract factories than for dedicated brands, but Design Singapore sees this as a strategic opportunity to grow the importance of design in Singapaore. In fact this is part of an overall mission to create OSM (Original Strategic Manufacturers that can usher in the future wave of Singapore’s business.
With the door open to talking about new design and manufacturing initiatives, I shared with Jeffrey our new on-demand manufacturing effort called LYF Shoes. He immediately understood the concept, how it would affect manufacturing, and was quitre supportive. He then passed on some great people to talk with about our intentions. Then he turned to me and asked “how do you learn to think like you?” That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer! But it made me realize that during this fellowship that in good conversations, there is a constant exchange where both parties can learn from each other.
Overall I was really impressed that Singapore has in place a design vision with real teeth and a strategic thinker at the helm. I look forward to see their success unfold.
La Spina Collections exemplifies many of the things I am encouraged about in Indonesia – all coming together into a line of shoes.
Here’s my reasoning:
1. The shoes are beautiful and inventive.
2. The collection embraces Indonesian heritage.
3. The products uses batik fabrics from villages to promote and help its artisans (mostly in Java).
4. The shoes also use wood carving as we saw in Bali.
5. The business is a pure start-up, starting from a group of three highly skilled shoemakers.
6. La Spina received entrepreneurial coaching and international exposure by the Femina Group.
7. The collection is now growing rapidly with exposure at Tokyo Fashion Week and previews in Europe.
8. Established local companies who embrace the heritage batiks are now contracting La Spina for some special collections.
All of this is the product of the efforts by design entrepreneur, Lianna Gunawan. Lianna was gracious enough to give me a full tour of her operations – from back office and retail store in Jakarta to her factory in Bandung. Her operations are growing and her staff will need to expand to keep up. It was refreshing to see in Bandung how shoemaking really starts and the craft involved to make beautiful shoes. It will be an interesting challenge to see how Lianna can keep up with growing demand and maintain her vision to use heritage fabrics and techniques and fuse them with her flair for contemporary style. If anyone is up for it, it’s Lianna, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of her as an icon of new Indonesian fashion design.
Within 10 minutes of having arrived at Singgih Kartono’s studio in Desa Kandangan, I turned to Beth and said “This alone was worth the whole trip.” She responded, “this feels like you.”
Designers create their works for different agendas: to win awards, to innovate, to make money, etc. But Singgih designs to empower his village in Temanggung and thereby sustainably advance Indonesia. His plan is really that big, and he plans on doing it with some simple and small items, starting with the Wooden Radio. These products are sold in fine design establishments around the world.
Singgih originally conceived the idea while in design school in Bandung. After some refinement and mentorship for the acclaimed concept he decided to not only bring his design to market, but to create the factory that would make it in his hometown. So starting from very meager beginnings (he rented a desk in a neighbor’s apartment), he began the enterprise with stunning focus.
Now when you come into his compound you are greeted with two well designed modern structures – his house and his factory. His factory is a split level structure filled with open space and glass walls to the outside. “People spend a lot of time in here, and I wanted it to feel like home to them.”
Likewise his house doubles as an office and his living room a conference room with moving glass walls that brings the outside in. When fully opened up he can have large gatherings there – whether for design workshops or celebrations.
The wooden radio is of course not 100% wooden. It uses electronics from abroad to make the sound. These are simply assembled into the beautiful wooden cases. Singgih explains that he always prefers the back of his designs than the front. A tour of his delightfully lit and airy split-level factory gives the air of people doing projects rather than a factory. It felt like a factory i wanted to work in.
The heart of Singgih’s method is “New Craft,” a system that mentor Surya Pernawa encouraged him to develop. But this name is misleading. The goal is to transform design from a tool for commerce into a means for empowering a village. New Craft combines the benefits of skilled workmanship of traditional craft industries in rural villages with the modern perspective that results from a design and manufacturing process. Social responsibility and sustainability can then become key differentiators.
Outside of Singgih’s multipurpose room is a hydroponic system growing vegetables which circulates through a fish pond. But this is just a clue to his efforts. Behind the workshop he has a courtyard filled with composts and saplings. He explained “we pay employees but we never think to pay nature.” He went on to explain that Magno could make products because someone planted trees years ago. “So we have to pay nature back too.” His website adds “The amount of wood replanted and selected is based on our yearly wood consumption, suitable age for wood to be grown and cut, and the requirement of land per tree.”
This plan for sustainable design goes much further. In addition to planting to replace the trees he uses, he also has an organic farm in the works that further synergizes fish, fruit trees and vegetables. He was not planning to do this but when the new tract of land was being opened up to housing he decided to buy it to preserve it and do something more sustainable. This farm now produces income that provides jobs and sustains expansion. Ultimately he hopes to re-inspire a new generation of agricultural workers in his village who have been fleeing farming for years. Now Singgih is turning his attention to moving his factory closer to the new farm. That would allow his existing factory to become a community center.
What results from all of this is perhaps the best living example of “think global, act local.” He has drawn a circle around his community and used design as a path to address the needs of that community. The many layers of happiness and beauty that has resulted is unmistakable. But Singgih’s work is not done. Exciting new products are forthcoming, and he is also thinking a lot about education.
As if on cue, neighborhood children came to say hi while we took our parting photo with he and his wife.