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”.
Canopy, a shelter by FARM, Singapore
Going forward and thinking ahead, should all public art be functional and meaningful instead?
In an article by Penny Balkin Bach titled ‘Public Art in Philadelphia’: Public art is not an art “art”. Its size can be huge or small. It can tower fifty feet high or call attention to the paving beneath your feet. Its shape can be abstract or realistic (or both), and it may be cast, carved, built, assembled, or painted. It can be site-specific or stand in contrast to its surroundings.
In our context in Singapore, we could find Public Art in form of sculptures in the atrium of the shopping malls, bridges or pavement, or paintings, photography installation in platform of train stations. These might have serve its purpose to rejuvenate the surrounding landscape but to some, they are a form of healing and feeling, to some, they could be just a decoration and serves no other function.
TOP: Christopher Fennel‘s Bus Stop (2007), Athens, GA. Source: http://cfennell.org.
BOTTOM: An installation by Vertical Submarine, Singapore
Bus Stop (2014), Baltimore, USA. Source: http://mmmm.tv
Bus stops in the earlier years in Singapore
Sculpture by Lim Soo Ngee, Singapore
What if you put the same kind of art into design? Will it redefine how function these kind of art could be? Could our bus stop shelter designed like Lim Soo Ngee’s Bird? Or instead of having ads on the roof of the bus stop shelters, could we say, let’s see what if Jeff Koon’s floral art is up there instead? Or could Vertical Submarine’s chainsaw-ed be applied to a bus stop or a bench? Or could the big stone of Eng Tow be a bench in the park? One of an recent good example is Canopy by FARM, a shelter walkway in the fringe of the Civil District in Singapore.
The question of how to improve everyday life in an urban environment is closely connected to the transformation of public spaces into public places. To quote Marc Auge in his ‘From Places to Non-Places’, he defines a place as meaningful for people but a space, a non-place, is meaningless.
Maybe we should redefine what Public art could be we could do so much with bus stops, shelters, lamp posts to even rubbish bins. We ought to review and rethink and also encourage art to be in the public spaces instead of being enclosed in museums and galleries.
Killiney’s Laksa, Lonton, Curry, Mee Siam, Mee Rebus Paste. Image courtesy of &Larry
To most, the term ‘London’ means Fish & Chips, Big Ben tower, the red double-decker buses and the tube. And ‘New York’ means Times Square, Helvetica, the Metro, its yellow cab, ‘I Love NY’ logo across mugs and t-shirts. Hong Kong with its bamboo scaffolding, the neon signs, the bi-lingual white painted road signs. Or Taipei and we would have thought of their night market, the smelly beancurd, the bubble milk tea, chicken cutlet and the hot springs.
And when it comes to Singapore, from the telling of the souvenirs as objects that we can find in the shops in the airport, museums or the tourism trap shops in Lucky Plaza, Mustafa, Chinatown or Bugis Street, they include postcards that is picturing Changi Airport, Esplanade or Marina Bay Sands, miniature figures of Merlion on everything from keychains, tote bags, t-shirts, caps, umbrellas, figurings, chocolates and refrigerator magnets or Chilli Crab or Laksa paste, Kaya, Good Morning towels, Bah Kua.
Can those souvenir represent Singapore?
Souvenir, a french word for remembrance or memory, is an object that can be collected or purchased and transported home by the traveler as a memento of a visit. A keepsake, a memento or a token of remembrance to many, serves another purpose to the respective tourism industry—to promote as a form of word-to-word marketing where it might seems crucial as there are people in the other part of the world thinks we are from China. Some don’t know even where Singapore is located or have heard of that word.
Images courtesy of Supermama
And in our society that doesn’t cultivate or inbreds artisan handicrafts or folk art. What makes Singapore, Singapore? Thanks to Supermama, who has started to revolutionised the merchandise market, we have better souvenirs to own—using iconic visuals of Singapore into their products. We can now find Merlion plush toy, miniature Jerry Can that we would be using in our conscripted national service, the locally designed and produced plastic red chair that we can find in most coffee shops, or Jiu Ceng Gao doorstopper, or Jalan Besar Fortune Cat plates in collaboration with Somewhere Else.
Images courtesy of FARM Store
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