All images courtesy of Supermama.
We spoke with Edwin Low of Supermama who I think is more than a product designer, educator and an entrepreneur. To me, he’s an activist who champions ‘Don’t complain, just do it.’ where the things he is doing is more than just a design or a shop—reviving the landscape here in Singapore that I have decided to rename his shop to my own liking, SuperingaporeMama.
Yanda: Supermama was started because of your wife and family? What has changed and how different is it now from the beginning?
Edwin Low: Yes. Nothing has changed. The day any one of my kids tell me “Papa you are not spending enough time with me” will be the day I shut Supermama – no hesitation.
I didn’t expect Supermama to survive more than a year because I totally disregard the business aspects of things. To me, good design matters and I want it to come first. Now that I managed to survived and be celebrating our 5th birthday in March, I felt a lot more responsibility to “represent” the design community and represent the Singapore identity well (and accurately) to the world outside.
I have also grown deeper in my relationship with the Singapore designers and Japanese craftsmen I work with and it is something I never take for granted. At the end of the day, if we were can add value to the lives of others, why not just do it?
What makes you want to start your souvenir project?
I wanted to do this long time ago. I think it is the dream of every industrial or product designer to want to do something for their own city. This is especially so in Singapore – we are known for shopping, food, etc but ask someone to name an “iconic” object or product that represents the Singapore identity, he/she will probably give you a blank stare. I am always jealous that Japanese can have their bento boxes, Koreans metal chopsticks… what about Singapore? That’s how I started the Singapore Icons project few years back.
What do you think of the Merlion chocolate packaging or the I LOVE SG t-shirts?
I think they are effective designs that served their purpose in their time. Am I proud of them? No. Do I think they can be improved? Yes. Then what am I doing about it? Complain? No. Just take in your own hands. If I don’t change it, who will? In fact one of my future plans is to set up a Merlion shop – well design and well thought through kind.
Say how much percentage is of the souvenirs as compared to the other products (like furniture or usable items) in the products you produce now?
Everything in Supermama are souvenirs. There are good home ware shops around (like Muji), good furniture shops around (like Grafunkt), but souvenir shop? Not really. So I hope to be one. I’m also very inspired by the Japanese way of giving gifts, it is a way of life. Giving is a thoughtful and considerable act that makes people happy – both the giver and receiver – I wanted to encourage people to give.
What do you wish to champion and advocate in this?
I think if designers don’t bring design to the public, then non-designers will bring design to the public. So if we think the design standards in Singapore is screwed up, we as designers only have ourselves to blame. My wish is for designers to take up more initiative and do what we believe in – too many are complaining about everything other than themselves. Will I still do supermama without support/grant? Yes. Really? I sold my home to do so.
Though seems to be collection’s edition, the souvenirs are not highly priced. Why and how did you manage that?
Traditional gift shop focuses a lot on packaging or to create a nice interior space (often designed for impulse buying) and it seemed like the actual gift itself is a second rated by product. I wanted to be a gift shop that sells great gifts. That’s why in Supermama we demand excellence in our product quality – not so much on packaging or the shop experience actually. We merely spend money on what we think matters and save on those that don’t.
When you chase after packaging and trends you end up spending money refreshing every season but if you invest on the product itself, you don’t need anything else actually.
At the end of day it is also about selecting the price model. We can choose high pricing low sales volume or low pricing high sales volume. And because I am a designer, I want as many people to have access to my designs as possible. So how did I manage to do that? Earn less profit per unit.
You shared before how you work out a deal with your contractor or was it collaborator over giving them a share on each item that is being manufactured to maintain the quality and reduce wastage and rejects. Is this sharable to the public? And do you do that to all the products?
Yes can share with the public but a clearer picture is this – I got the designers and makers on board as partners. I.e. for this project I got Stuck as the design partner and Meykrs as the production partner. I came out with the project and business direction. We split the profit equally. And because everybody owns the project, everyone takes ownership. Die die have to do good works. In fact the project is so successful that we spin a new company off just to manage this project. The company is called “Souvenirs from Singapore”.
Was there any investors or government support in doing this? From the beginning? And now?
For the Souvenirs collection, SG50 fund doesn’t allow us to do commercial stuff so we didn’t take the grant. But for other Supermama collection such as the Singapore Icons we took a grant from the DesignSingapore Council.
Apart from your stores, online, Visitor’s Centre, where else can we find them at?
Departmental stores like Isetan, Takashimaya, online stores like Hipvan, Naiise, and selected independent shops!
Any interesting stories from your customers to share?
I got complained on lousy packaging and a certain adhoc-ness in my shop alot. Hahaha. Sibeh jialat…
Last question to end off. What are your future plans currently?
Apart from the shop at SAM, there are the stuff we will be doing –
1. I’m gonna set up a SG design store in Esplanade from March onwards (100% SG content), right now it is presented as a pop up store for me to test the crowd.
2. My new flagship store will open 11th March at 265 Beach Rd.
3. I will shift the studio to Gillman Barracks and we will be setting up a mini design museum there + a new fair we are creating called Shizuka Fair which is kind of an introverts market. By introverts for introverts. In the fairground I will bring in many Japanese labels which I thought is nice but severely understated and underrated. You can get a glimpse at our opening.
4. I’m also starting a Supermama Trunk Show which is a exhibition + sessions where I selected and present zai products to the Singapore market. I will also invite a few craftsman in to do workshops and sharing session.
Thank you for time. You can find out more of Supermama at here.