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.