Ply House. All images courtesy of UPSTAIRS_.
Today we have a conversation with Dennis, an architectural and interior designer from Singapore, on design, spaces and ideals.
Yanda: Congrats on your new website and it’s been a while since we last met and chat. Are you still at the same place?
Dennis Cheok: Thanks Yanda, I’m glad too. The old website was in a sad state of limbo for 2 years, and I was dying to give it an update. Nothing much happened until my dear friend Danis (of Sciencewerk) rang me up one day to design his new house in Surabaya, Indonesia on an empty plot of land. We’re really friends, and so pretty much couldn’t talk about fees. So the sneaky fella proposed that we barter instead. A house, designed from the ground up, in exchange for a website. I had a good laugh about it, but by the following day, thought: “What the heck, let’s go for it!”
Oh, and yes. The studio is still at Beach Road, but not for long. Let’s hold this thought for a bit first.
[I don’t mind trading a website for a interior]
What were your thoughts on the recent Singaplural or Singapore Design Week?
SingaPlural was a pleasant surprise this year, because we were roped in at the very last minute to design the exhibition space for Project X, the flagship event.
UPSTAIRS_ has been under the radar for a while, and it was mind-blowing to suddenly find ourselves collaborating with the likes of Studio Juju, Weekend Worker and of course Bacus Boo, SFIC and Plus Collaboratives. The time crunch was intense, and at some points we literally went directly from the drawing board to production within a matter of hours. But it’s moments like these, when you see fellow local creatives and manufacturers coming together and supporting each other to make things happen, that makes me feel really, for lack of a better word, hopeful.
Personally I think we should be fighting for creatives even more. We would always yearn for a space to make things happen but everywhere seems commercialised and exclusive. Our government agencies are spending a lot of money on Biennale and their own projects like Gillman Barrack and even SG50 but seems not much for local festivals of art, design or furniture in comparison. And it’s not entirely about the fundings but also about having a space to do something.
In a very huge way, it’s always about fundings. But you’re absolutely right in saying that local festivals seem to take a back seat in terms of direct, full-on government support. Specifically; space, and the lack of dedicated, well-catered and conducive venues for our own events. I’m not even talking about state-of-the-arts, high-tech spaces.
Take SingaPlural, for example. It’s the anchor event for Singapore Design Week, and this is the fifth year that it has been running. This year alone, over 100 creatives were involved in the event. There were loads of outstanding work produced, all of which had creative AND commercial potential. Designers and artists were exploring new ideas for material application, technologies were being reinvented, and ideas were being celebrated.
Now, let’s look at the venue, at 99 Beach Road. Don’t get me wrong – I love that space, there is so much charm about this site that was a former police station. But let’s get real here, the paint was decrepit, the floorboards were broken, ventilation was poor, the event venue barely has the basic infrastructure for human inhabitation. I mean, the entire seven-day event had to be sustained on portaloos and temporary power generators, which to my knowledge, broke down on the opening day itself. Perhaps I’m coming from the perspective of someone who cares a lot about space, but for an event which is meant to showcase and celebrate the creative output of a “Creative City,” a little more dignity would have been real nice.
N Tyler, Marina Bay Sands. All images courtesy of UPSTAIRS_.
Ah I get your point. It’s an interesting take coming from someone who has architectural or interior background. I think most of the time, we will just need an empty big space and leave it out to the organizers to sort it out perhaps? It’s funny but we want to be an arts hub but we aren’t never able to do a Venice Biennale here with that kind of mindset. Or a space to do Design Fiesta or even hold D&AD Award shows exhibition. And to go on more, the most successful show for everyone seems to be Singapore Design Festival 2009 where they got a lot of international creatives participating. And so is the very first year’s Singapore Biennale.
Not sure if I’m coming across as too cynical actually. My pain is this – the work/content is great, but the spaces where these are presented within just felt so temporary. It’s almost as if you’ve to squint and ignore the surrounding, and focus purely on the work to get something out of it. I just found it so distracting.
A shame, cause we’re all designers and these things should matter, and we could have made it better.
About the big empty space thing. My thought is this: if SingaPlural is going to be a recurring event, why didn’t anyone think of just making a real effort to fix it up once and for all? It’s actually more cost effective than to cover it up temporarily each year, and then dismantle it after each event. It just seems so wasteful.
Or perhaps someone already did try to do something about it and failed, I’m not sure.
Oh well. Okay say budget aside, if you could do something for Singapore or even the public spaces, what would you do?
Nice. I have an enduring soft spot for aged, disused and forgotten buildings, and would jump at any opportunity to convert any of these buildings, especially into places for public usage. It makes so much more economical and cultural sense than to build something entirely brand new.
In half-jest, 99 Beach Road is a fantastic, prime example. There’s also a little Art Deco-styled building off Serangoon Road which I’ve been eyeing for years, it reads “National Aerated Water Co. Ltd.” on the façade. In all ernestness, it’s really unlike any other building you’d find in Singapore, and something about it just captivates me.
“Everyone thinks that they have good taste. Also, more and more people think that they can be designers without any design training. We’re kind of screwed by this.”
Yes, I know about that building too. It’s just sad when most buildings in the future will get torn down—flats or shophouses and be replaced with condos or commercialized buildings that is often glass cladded which is cold and ugly.
The good news is – the National Aerated Water Co. building has been awarded conservation status. And so is 99 Beach Road, by the way.
Difference is, the former belongs to a private corporation. So unless a major stakeholder in there is enlightened/foolish enough to say: “Hey, we have this building. And we’re not even using it. So instead of letting it sit there and rot away, let’s clean it up and let it serve a purpose for the common good.”
About the condos and all, it’s an economic reality that we cannot avoid. In fact, part of my trade depends on it, and a commission like this would be one of the better paying gigs. So it will be hypocritical for me to condemn it outright.
Perhaps a better approach would be to expand and redefine our criteria for buildings with conservation status. Sometimes it’s not only the built form itself, but also the social and cultural values, or meaning of places and spaces. Perhaps that’s a little too intangible to quantify, especially since public memories can shift, unless brick and mortar.
Crocodile Concept Store. All images courtesy of UPSTAIRS_.
Tell us something about yourself I won’t know?
My early childhood memories are mostly vague, but there’s one incident that I can still remember so clearly till this day. I was in kindergarten, so I must have been five or so. The class was given a colouring exercise, and it was a picture of an old peasant lady in a little straw hut, and there was grass or hay on the floor. I took a colour pencil, and for some reason, coloured the grass blue. BLUE. The teacher called my parents in for a talk, because she must have thought that I was really stupid, or something was seriously abnormal with me.
Thirty years later, I’ve yet to figure out how this incident has impacted me. Contempt for institutionalized learning, maybe?
How it is like juggling your new startup with a new-born?
Well you could say that I had not one, but two new-borns at the same time. A week after I moved into my Beach Road studio, my little girl, Trevi, was borned. I don’t think I fully grasped the weight and responsibility of what I was doing, until I was already in the thick of it.
A good friend of mine succinctly said that the foundation of parenthood is paved with guilt. Over the first year, I fluctuated between wanting to dedicate as much of my time to being a hands-on dad, and on the other extreme; fuelling myself to work non-stop both at the studio and at home, without getting any real sleep. The feeling of guilt plagued me massively no matter which way I chose, I constantly felt like I could have done more for one, and then the other. I’ve now learnt to channel that guilt into something more positive.
I unplug during down time with the family, it nourishes me to keep on going at work; and at work, I give my all because it feeds my family.
But the greatest sense of guilt I have is for my wife, Maggie. She is the one who has to hold the fort at home, and still be my rock for all that I go through on the work front. Thinking about it, there’s no major business decision that I make, without running my thoughts through with her first, even if I may disagree at times. A woman’s insight is a very powerful thing.
How old is your kid now?
Trevi is four, going on five this year. It’s a nice age when she already has her own mind about things, and she’s always curious about what I do. I make it a point to keep her as involved as possible with my work. In fact, she has first dibs to all of the projects that I work on, and she loves tagging along with me to the studio, project sites and design events.
People tell me that she’s a designer-in-training, but I wonder at times if she’ll grow to resent design from the overkill. But oh well, she’s entitled to her own life choices, right?
So, being a designer, how well do you trust our education system and its pragmatic mindset here? It’s sad that we are all about grades and paper and about surviving. Occupations like sportsman, musicians, hawkers, farmers have been discouraged by the general society. And it will be worse when all the traditional authentic trades be gone and replaced in decades to come. Soon, we won’t find any traditional non-airconditioned kopitiams or bread maker.
I like how you used the word “trust.”
Do I trust our education system to be competent? Indefinitely, yes. Do I trust that it cultivates the kind of values that I agreed with? I am not certain, but isn’t that the parents’ job to begin with?
I also trust that we are now recognizing that the current curriculum is showing signs of imbalance, and there already are measures being taken to pull back a little. I’ll give it a bit more time to mature.
At the same time, I know of many parents who have plans to relocate, due to our rising, and some might say insanely unrealistic, academic pressures. Most of these parents happen to be those the arts and design fields, for some reason. It actually takes a lot of guts and aspirations to make a decision like that. It’s sad that we’re driving creatively-inclined Singaporeans out of the country, due to reasons like this.
But on the other hand, being someone who has created a career out of doing something that I love, I don’t feel the need for Trevi to conform unconditionally to our education system. I believe that if she can find the one thing that she is passionate about, she will find a way to make it work. At this point in time, I’m more concerned that she develops the softer skills, and grows up into a well rounded person.
My wife might disagree with me on this, by the way. She still gets a little unnerved by her mom friends who send their 4 year olds to Chinese supplementary classes on the weekends.
About the issue of dying trades, it seems more like an repercussion of economic inflation than the education system per se. Well they do go hand in hand. Plus, that the young seem to lack the patience and tenacity in honing their craft.
It’s a lot of generalization here, and too many complex issues for us to really comprehend and do justice with in this conversation. So let’s move on.
Ply House. All images courtesy of UPSTAIRS_.
Empty Vessels. All images courtesy of UPSTAIRS_.
Clothing for kids are really expensive. Ever crossed your mind that you would do kidswear one day?
Of course it did, parents can be real suckers for things like that. I am one of them, for sure. But I have a few friends in the fashion industry, and from them I know that independent labels are not the most profitable nor rewarding ventures, unless you really put in all that you’ve got, and have a real knack for running a business. But maybe when the right opportunity to collaborate happens, I’d give it a real good shot.
What have you been busy with?
The types of projects come in waves. For the first two years, we were focused primarily on retail and commercial F&B. We had N.Tyler, Crocodile, a retail masterplan for Metro Paragon, and a smattering of bars and cafes. Thereafter, along with the retail market decline, retail projects slowed down, and private residences, including our first architectural commission came into the picture. Things went dead quiet towards the end of 2015, and honestly, we didn’t turn any real profits for a good six months. To say that I was worried sick would be an understatement, but that did give me space to regroup and focus on the backlog, like a very long overdue website.
2016 has been kind so far; we’ve received a good balance of residential and commercial projects, and of varied scales. At this current moment, we’ve wrapped up Project X for Singapore Design Festival, developing a high-rise studio apartment tower in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, collaborating with Sciencewerk and indie retailer Bashamarket on a 4-storey food-retail-art space in Surabaya, Indonesia, and branding for a series of organic Thai produce. I feel thankful, especially given the turbulent months right before this, but past experience has taught me never to be complacent – you’d never know when life throws you a curveball.
I am curious. Most of your jobs take up very long. If the payment gets stalled or the project gets delayed. Won’t it takes a toll out of your end?
It does, and I paid the price for it just last year when a few projects all ran into issues. Long and short of it, design contracts are business agreements, and it is essential to constantly revise the contractual terms to ensure fairness. That’s actually the easier part. It gets a lot crazier when you try to pursue these terms with clients when things happen. I’ve grown quite thick-skinned from doing this for 5 years.
How big is your team?
The core design team at the studio now consists of 4, myself included. We handle design concepts, design development, 3D visualization, and in most instances, construction documentation. I also have a team of trusted freelancers whom I’ve been working with for years, and I rope them in to boost the team for larger, more complex architectural or commercial projects. There are also design interns from time to time, these are my ex-students from NUS looking for a jolt of working experience.
At the same time, I tend to think that the creative output can be exponentially richer and surprising if we conceive of the design team beyond UPSTAIRS_ alone, and I’m constantly looking for opportunities to collaborate with other creatives and artists for our projects.
What do you look for when you hire?
Off the bat – the right attitude, and a hunger to learn. Other skills, like design sensibility, technical proficiency, and communication skill are also important, but these can be nurtured along the way if the attitude is right. This was one of my biggest take away from my 2 years teaching design at NUS.
Was hiring hard though? Seems like most kids would want to “retire” once they graduate or worked for one or two years.
I’m actually quite lucky in this department, cause I tend to work with those whom I already trust from past experience, and haven’t had to hire junior positions that often.
The interns who work with me are also ex-students, so I already have a good idea of their calibre and working styles.
There was a bad hire once last year though, it was a total misjudgment on my part. It became toxic at the studio when the fit just wasn’t right. It was awfully difficult when I had to bring up the matter of terminating the working relationship, and I felt massive guilt for a few weeks after. But I realize that it’s still the best thing to do for everyone. This sounds like any other kind of relationship, doesn’t it?
You started out working with Colin from the start and “build” the company together, sort of. Is it easier when you started out on your own too?
I think there’s a misconception there, and I feel this need to set the record straight. When I first started out and joined MOD, there already was a well-oiled team in place. In fact it was astonishing. MOD was a small, boutique-sized firm, but everyone knew their role and the team was exceptionally tight. Almost like family, in many ways.
I knew Colin as an undergrad (he was a design tutor there at some point) and had been following MOD’s work from the beginning. One of the qualities that I had noticed and appreciated in MOD’s work is that the vision and design approach tends to stretch beyond space, and encapsulated everything in between – from furniture design to branding to uniform design to art installation – and that excited me tremendously. So I went to Colin and told him that I want to be a part of that, and I want to contribute not only as an architect or an interior designer, but plainly as a designer who’s willing to take on anything and everything that comes along with a project. That sort of hybridized design role would have been the natural progression for MOD regardless, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. In fact there were many after me, and some of the roles, like graphic designers, became more specialized as the work volume grew.
Now, about starting out on my own, the varied nature of projects was something that I carried along with me. Colin had given me a lot of creative space when I was working with him, but ultimately, he was the Design Director, and all final design decision were his. For UPSTAIRS_, I have to call the final shots, creatively. I wouldn’t say if this was easier or otherwise, because whilst I enjoy the creative freedom, there is also the gravitas that comes along with the responsibility.
The most challenging part for me though, was in the business running of things. I started out the business with absolutely no experience nor clue about how to run a design business, and had to learn anything and everything from scratch, mostly through terrible, terrible mistakes.
Project X. All images courtesy of UPSTAIRS_.
Sometimes I wonder whose fault was it. The clients that fail to see a greater hope in choosing the more creative options? Or that simply they just have no taste and think that the bad is actually nice.
I’ve actually had a proposal termed by a client as “diabolical”. The same client also refused to signoff on the design, unless we recreated stuff that she has scrapbooked from pages of design magazines. The entire project was so dumbed down in the end, that my mind could only see what it should have been, there was so much design potential which made it so painful for me.
The thing is: everyone thinks that they have good taste. Also, more and more people think that they can be designers without any design training. We’re kind of screwed by this.
What would you want to be recognised for, now?
This question makes me feel quite presumptuous – the sheer thought of being recognized for my work, and that the work is all mine.
I’ve had numerous people telling me that I have to put myself out there and sell myself as a recognizable brand, but I’m a maker and a do-er, so design always comes first, and I’m most comfortable sitting at my desk at work, doing. And most certainly, none of the projects that we do would have been possible without the entire team’s effort.
What has been consistent in the studio’s design approach is to first search for the essence of a brief, abstract and distill it, and then using form, material and space to tell that particular story in a bespoke, unexpected and meaningful way.
This process takes an enormous amount of time, effort and energy, much more so than if we design in a derivative or decorative way. To be recognized for our work would be a huge validation of all that we’ve put into each project, but it will be placing the cart before the horse, if we were to dwell on matters like recognition and wealth. There’s a long way to go, and we’ve still a lot to prove.
How did the projects for Crocodile and N. Tyler come about?
N.Tyler was the very first commission for UPSTAIRS_, I was introduced to the Chief Designer and Marketing Director for the label through a very good friend, and had virtually no portfolio to show then. But we met, we chatted, and within a day, they decided to take a leap of faith and go ahead with the project.
It was almost unbelievable – the budget was good, the client was open, we were given a total clean slate to envision a retail experience for the brand’s flagship from scratch, right down to the retail packaging and collaterals. I don’t think that a fresh-eyed design startup could have asked for more, and I remain thankful to this day for that kind of opportunity.
In fact, Crocodile came through because of this project; the client loved what we did for N.Tyler and appointed us to refresh and reinvent the 40-year-old brand through a new retail concept store.
I always lament that most of the work we can see here lack of imaginative but I like what you have been doing so far. Are convincing clients tough?
First-off, Yanda, I’ve huge respect for you as a design critic, so to hear this from you is a real compliment, thank you.
For us, the clients are an integral part of the creative process, and we always kick off each project with long chats and conversations with the clients. We listen, we digest, and then we edit and translate those conversations into design concepts and ideas. And so, it really doesn’t take a lot of convincing – the ideas are as much the clients’ as they are ours, and they tend to get really excited when we are able to turn their thoughts and ideas into something tangible.
At the same time, the design process must always start off with space planning; we need to ensure that the ideas can work within the limitation of space, and that any operational and functional requirements are effectively catered for. We also tend to over-share – instead of only showing what works, we also share the tests and studies that didn’t quite make the cut. This way, the clients can understand why we make certain design decisions in a very pragmatic way.
Usually, once we have a buy-in on the concept and planning, the clients will give us space to take the project and run with it. Nonetheless, we keep our relationship collaborative, and commit time to initiate reviews and discussions with the clients at critical milestones, so this minimizes last-minute surprises. That being said, we’ve also had our fair share of client woes, but I’ll save these stories for another day.
What about convincing contractors?
From personal experience, there are 2 broad types of contractors, and it’s easy to suss them out from the very first meeting.
The first would immediately say “bu ke yi, bu ke yi” to any construction detail that is out of the norm, so that their work can be quick and easy. These offer the cheapest prices, but the work tends to be sloppy, so it’s not difficult to convince clients not to proceed with them.
The second take a lot more pride in their craft, and actually enjoy a good challenge, because the construction trade tends to be repetitive really quickly. These are the ones who would work with you, understand design intentions, and spend time trying to work technicalities out with the designers. Personally, I also prefer to interact directly in-situ with the persons who carry out the actual work with their hands, so that we can troubleshoot on a more immediate basis. It’s also always helpful to keep in mind that there’s a lot to learn from their experience, and that a little respect goes a long way.
Who do you look up to now?
There are many. But of late, Malaysian architects Ng Seksan and WHBC Architects, and Chinese architects Wang Shu and Li Xiaodong. Their works are a rare combination of modernity, integrity, poetics and soul. Also, I admire Thai-based design studio, onion, for their sheer fearlessness.
Any dream project?
I’ve been waiting so long for a boutique hotel commission, I might just keel over if the opportunity really happens one day. But being thrown so many lemons in the 5 years of running UPSTAIRS_, I’ve become pretty good at turning any project into a design opportunity.
So if you’d ask me, any project with an open client and a reasonable budget has the potential to be a dream project.
If you can have a dream team to work with, who will be in your team?
Well, let’s just say I’m still working on it.
Last one. Any future plans?
Here’s a big one: we’ve been in talk with a Singapore-based carpenter and builder, IN-EXPAT, about partnering up and collaborating for 2 years now, and plans are finally about to take off.
First would be the new space, IN-EXPAT has acquired a sprawling factory building in Changi South, with an amazing hangar-style steel truss roof. It’s a 7-minute walk from the Expo, you can actually gaze at the underbellies of commercial airplanes in the sky every 10 minutes from where we are.
Apart from the striking roof structure, the building in itself is utilitarian and generic – as we would expect an industrial building from the 90’s to be – but the design team is now working on a complete redesign of the façade, exterior landscape and interior spaces.
Architecturally, we’re puncturing through the roof to insert two separate landscaped light-wells, and creating a new mezzanine level that spans the entire floor plate.
Programmatically, the lower level encompasses the essential technical support that we need, and will be dedicated to woodworks and production; we are looking at high-precision, semi-automated woodworking machines by the end of this year as an addition to the team of carpenters.
Above, the mezzanine level is an expansive 10,000 square-feet open plan office, with the workspaces arranged like a sequence of levitating planes around the light-wells; UPSTAIRS_ is nestled right in the middle of this space. Apart from the workspaces, an elevated platform serves as an informal space for talks, events, and cook-offs – we’re in talk at the moment with a few brands about equipping the event space with kitchen and bar facilities.
To uproot from our Beach Road studio was a very emotional decision for me personally, massive change is always uncomfortable and terrifying. But rationally, it’s a necessary decision in terms of the scale of space that we need. So I’ve slopped around for a bit, made my peace, and now it’s time to look ahead and move on. Demolition work for the new office has already started this week, as we speak, so it’s all very exciting!
And just to put it out here, we welcome The Design Society over, anytime!
Okay maybe not. One more. What were some of the rejected or second choices apart from UPSTAIRS_?
Haha this cracked me up! But honestly? There were none.
The name UPSTAIRS_ came about 5 years ago, when me, my wife Mags, and two other friends (who were then a couple), got together and wanted to start something. The plan was this: the guys will run the design studio, and the girls will run the retail and café extension of the studio. We didn’t start thinking about the name for a long while, but what we were certain about was that shop would be located on ground level, and the studio above it. Being lazy, we started simply referring to the studio as “upstairs,” and the shop “downstairs.”
The name kind of stuck, and we liked it because it sounds universal yet colloquial, and implied a physical space without actually defining what it is exactly.
So, UPSTAIRS for the loftier, upstream, design think tank, and DOWNSTAIRS for the downstream implementations of the studio and a more social end of things. At the same time, we wanted to create a logo that could be used in tandem or in isolation, and so the underscore was introduced to separate the two.
As we now know five years on, DOWNSTAIRS never did quite see the light of day, but well, you’d never know.
Thank you for time. You can find out more of UPSTAIRS_ and their works here.