A New Chinoiserie
An internship in Shanghai has uncovered their love for the Chinese culture, which led to a journey in search of their own cultural roots through design. Jessica Wong and Pamela Ting of Scene Shang share their inspiration and journey in pursuit of a new chinoiserie, one with a small sprinkling of Singaporean-ness.
Kelley: Can you share how did Scene Shang start?
Jessica: Back in O7, we both found internships in Shanghai. Pam was with OCBC bank. and I was with a small graphic design outfit. We were both very inspired by Shanghai, where there is a strong Chinese culture but with a contemporary touch. When we returned, I went into interior design. Then we decided that we wanted to do something together, as we found that there were a lot of people looking to finish their homes with designs that have an Asian touch, but they didn’t want anything that looks too traditional, like those antique Chinese furniture. We found that there’s a niche for us to create contemporary Chinese designs, so we founded Scene Shang.
Kelley: What were the inspirations for the 1st series?
Jessica: Specifically, we looked at Chinese culture first because of our ethnicity and the inspirations from Shanghai, we saw the similarities between Singapore and Shanghai. We became really aware of our culture and how beautiful it is, and how that could be an inspiration for our design. With my background in architecture and interior design, and Pamela herself came from a very creative household whereby her father is an artist, we managed to establish a direction for Scene Shang.
Pamela: My father was inspired by Peranakan architecture, and he translated that into art pieces that you see in our shops. In his younger days, he did a lot of public art and sculpture. Growing up in the environment, it was quite natural to move into the creative field from banking.
Kelley: From banking to design – might not seem very natural to some.
Pamela: I was unnatural in banking. (laughs)
Kelley: Can you tell us about the philosophy of Scene Shang?
Pamela: It is largely about the way of living. Yes, it is furniture and homeware, but it’s larger than that. It’s more about good living, learning to appreciate the beauty in culture and tradition, and then translating that into something tangible within your space. The good living philosophy is in everything we do – whether it’s product or a marketing campaign.
Kelley: How would you describe the design direction of Scene Shang?
Jessica: Our designs are driven a lot by Asian sensibilities. We are inspired by traditional designs, but we try to make them more contemporary. It could be just simple things. The older traditional Chinese furniture is bigger in size and they usually have darker colours, and they just do not fit in the modern day apartment. We take their essence and translate them into smaller pieces, we also add a multifunctional aspect to it, so that you can easily fit them into a home of today. We want you to be able to have a piece of tradition in your house, because people want to express themselves through their history, their background, our designs give our consumers that ability to express that part of themselves in a way that is 2020, and not look like an antique piece of furniture that you inherited from your grandmother.
Kelley: A lot of your designs seem to be inspired by Art Deco. Why?
Jessica: Yes, that is true. We are very inspired by Art Deco, because we saw in Shanghai how it could be reinterpreted to suit one’s culture. Art Deco originated in the Western world, in Paris, but it was brought over to Shanghai and it took on a life of its own with Chinese influence. There is a beauty in the symmetry and the geometry, the balance and the harmony, and these are the same design qualities valued by Chinese culture. Art deco embodies a nice mix between the East and West, and its essence is still relevant for spaces today.
Kelley: Do you try to embody the spirit of Singapore in your designs?
Jessica: The Shang System, our very first design, it’s a very Singaporean design because you can stack up all the pieces into one component. Singaporeans love to stack things, so the idea is inspired by Singaporeans, although the look might be inspired by the traditional. There’s an efficiency in the stacking and the modularity of the system. So it’s designed by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, and we infuse the design with a touch of Asian flavour, but in a contemporary way. This is how we express our Singaporean-ness – rooted in Asia, but with a contemporary perspective.
Kelley: How about your other pieces? Do they have the same kind of spirit?
Jessica: There are quite a few other pieces that are like that, for example, the JIA JU rocking stool. We designed this piece at the start of our business, where we did this research project on family heirlooms. We went to 10 households, and asked people what is their definition of an heirloom, something that they want to keep forever and pass it down. It has to be specifically related to furniture and homeware. We were met with some very interesting answers, but the one answer that really struck us was from this girl, her name’s Audrey, she told us that her mother collects a lot of traditional Chinese furniture, and as a kid she saw them to be very big and scary. But there was this a piece that she wanted to keep and that was a wash basin stand, like those from the QIng dynasty when they still don’t have sinks or vanity tops, literally a stand that holds the porcelain basin. For her, as a kid, the stand was a bit high for her, so she made it into her dressing table, and she would hang the things on it, and imagine stories out of all the carvings. We really liked her story and wanted our furniture to embody some kind of history and yet not be scary, it needs to be very relatable and people are not afraid to interact with it. We wanted to encapsulate all that in the JIA JU rocking stool. While you can see the design to be inspired by traditional Chinese shapes and joinery, but the cane detail on the seat is a nostalgic Singaporean touch, referencing the old cane rocking chair that was very popular in the 60s and 70s here. When people see this detail, they actually tell us, “Oh my grandmother used to have a rocking chair made of this material.” So even the smallest touch has the power to trigger a memory.
It’s very interesting, people will come and sit on it naturally. And you don’t need to tell them how to use it – they’ll either sit down normally on a stool with both legs on one side, or they would staddle it like a horse. Once we had this grandfather who came into our shop with his grandson, the little boy ran to the stool and lied on it with his stomach, while balancing his outstretched body, he exclaimed, “This is how you fly like Superman!” That’s what we want to do – whatever we create, we want it to have a sense of tradition, feels approachable and friendly, so that people want it as a part of their lives.
Kelley: Sounds like it’s the nostalgia that is the Singaporean part, because the expressions still do look inspired by traditional Chinese furniture.
Pamela: I also feel that the Singaporean-ness in our pieces is the fact that they are made for smaller homes, because in designing, we bear in mind that homes are just smaller these days. We want people to pick a piece and feel that it will not intrude into their overall space; but yet still adds a very nice accent, a nice story that they can still talk about. That bit is the Singaporean modernity of it all.
Kelley: On that note, I also noticed Scene Shang produced quite a lot of accent pieces. Will you consider making a full sofa set, full dining set, big bed, things like that in the near future?
Pamela: We noticed that accent pieces are lacking in the market, but it is important as they allow people to indulge in a kind of luxury, because to buy something that is not actually a necessity—unlike your bed and sofa—it is a luxury. We feel that the element of storytelling is best expressed in standalone accent pieces. We do have dining tables and sofas—not a lot—but in any case, bigger pieces might not be able to carry a tale so succinctly. We find that in those things, people prefer them to be more minimal and functional, not too loud or not too much details, but they can embellish with more unique pieces in the smaller areas. That is a space that we hope to fill, that we can add this element of culture and richness to people’s homes.
Kelley: Is it also a business strategy?
Pamela: Yes, it is. We feel that as a new company, it is tough to compete against the established furniture players who are experienced and good at producing all the key furniture pieces. Scene Shang is a new entrant to the market, our products can come in bitesize for a start, we don’t need to be too aggressive. It also allows us to get our feet wet and have an understanding of the industry. In this way, we can slowly build our contacts and learn things along the way. More importantly, these pieces allow us to create our own unique selling point.
Kelley: Do you export or distribute outside of Singapore?
Pamela: Yes B2C, because we have an e-commerce platform. We have not actively pursued any distributors abroad yet, but we do have plans to expand overseas.
Kelley: Which countries will you be looking at for a start?
Jessica: We were planning something in China and France, but then COVID-19 came, so things slowed down.
Kelley: Have you collaborated with other brands before?
Jessica: Yes, Scene Shang being a lifestyle, it is interesting to find out the perspectives of other designers and other brands on what Asian contemporary design means to them. We had collaborated with IGC (In Good Company), Wendy Chua from Forest and Whale, Larry Peh from &Larry, and also a Tattoo artist, Joseph from Visual Orgasm for Singaplural during the Singapore Design Festival.
Pamela: And in fact, just a few days ago, we launched a collaboration with Singapore fabric-print designers – Onlewo, Binary Style and Minor Miracle, we procured their fabrics to upholster our latest cane chair collections. They added quite a nice splash of colours to our offering, and it is also quite meaningful as their prints are inspired by the local culture.
Jessica: The fabric came with their own stories, for example, we used Onlewo’s Chinatown print on one of our chairs, called the Gentlemen Cane Chair. It gave a very different look. Both our brands are aligned, we’re inspired by culture. Although both our expressions could be quite different, but when you put the two together, it created something quite different and fresh.
Jessica: Binary Style and Minor Miracle are fashion brands and are fairly new, with them, we wanted to reach a different audience with a different taste. They are not so much inspired by history and culture as Onlewo, but they have a very nice contemporary take on print. So we thought that it would be nice to include something different.
Kelley: Do you think that by using local designers’ fabric, it enhanced the Singapore narrative? Do you think these products have a global appeal?
Pamela: It can be quite global, it’s a bit like Liberty in London, it is very English in the way that it is designed but yet, it has a global appeal, things like colourway and patterns are things that people can appreciate whether or not you understand the culture. So I feel yes, it does have a global appeal.
Kelley: Is it difficult to run a furniture business or be a furniture designer in Singapore?
Pamela: I think it is not particular to furniture, it is just difficult to run any business per se.
Jessica: The challenge for Singapore designers to start a furniture company from scratch, is really about finding the right makers, because we know that Singapore has very good technology, and we have all the access to CNC (computer numerical control) machines, very high tech stuff. So while we might be able to do the CNC here, we can’t make our wood furniture here due to the lack of the resources, or space, and also the scale. For example, our recent cane and rattan range, we can’t do it here as we don’t have craft people here to help us to produce the designs. The reason we dared to start Scene Shang is because we actually left Singapore in 2013, we went to Shanghai and found a lot of production possibilities.
At that point of time we didn’t know that we would set up Scene Shang yet, but we were just very inspired, and we wanted to do something in Shanghai. Because China is so big, there’s a huge range of local workshops that you can work with. From small to big scale, whereas in Singapore, the choices are quite limited. We also need to consider the production quantity, everything is very hard to scale when you are small. To overcome this challenge, we have to constantly search for new makers whom we can work and partner with in order to expand our product range and offering.
Kelley: On the issue of scale, a lot of product or furniture designers, even fashion designers, often complained that our market is simple to small, and there are no economies of scale in production. If you produce too many, you can’t sell; if you produce too few, the cost is too high. How do you tackle that problem?
Pamela: At this point, we are working with makers who are not really your commercial factory types where they have a MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity) of thousands that you need to commit to, we are in between a bespoke and completely mass production space. It is still manageable for us to cater to the local market from a production perspective, but from scalability and business perspective, the only way to do this is perhaps buffing up on our e-commerce. It is really to our advantage in this time and age to be able to leverage on e-commerce to reach a wider audience. At the same time, back to your question on distributorship, that’s necessary, and there’s definitely a next step that has always been on our minds, to be able to go beyond Singapore, and see how we can expand into the rest of the world. But definitely, the market here is just too small.
Kelley: When you design a piece, on the average, how many pieces do you produce at a time?
Jessica: It depends…but we do have a strategy. We have homeware that we have produced in the hundreds to thousands before, but we have stopped doing the thousand-kind-of-quantities. Furniture pieces could be as little as a dozen. As I mentioned, because the pieces are mostly accent pieces, so it is not feasible to make them in huge quantities, as there’s a level of customisation to it. At this point, we’re not playing the quantity-game for furniture. But for homeware, you do need to produce a certain minimum quantity to be profitable and also distributable. The homeware are quite easy also to sell B2B for gifting, and they are popular as corporate gifts or for events. So there is that sort of balance in the product range for us to be able to hit different kinds of revenue streams.
Kelley: Do you sell more online or in the physical shops?
Jessica: That is a very good question. They’re both necessary for each other.
Pamela: Pre-COVID, definitely the physical shop. People prefer to go and try, see, and touch. But online really saved us during circuit breaker. People shifted their attention there. Even with the COVID subsiding now, I feel that people are doing a lot more of their shopping online. Before, they go to the shop and just want to pay and leave, nobody really lingers around anymore. It’s necessary to have both.
Jessica: You’d be surprised, there are actually these people from the most unexpected places who are buying our higher end furniture online, we really don’t know how they know about us, especially if it is an overseas order. We wondered how these people found us, and are willing to part with quite a bit of money without seeing the actual thing, the whole transaction is completed online and we simply ship them the piece. So online is becoming really important. At the end of the day, the consumers nowadays will want both platforms. They will definitely see the website. I would not say that there’s a customer who actually doesn’t see the website, unless it’s very small postcards. But generally, they do go to the website to see more information or just check the prices.
Kelley: Do you think there’s such a thing as a Singapore identity? Not just referring to your own works, I meant Singapore designers in general.
Jessica: There’s a spirit of wanting to excel… but generally, as a design community, Singapore is quite young. Generally, the designers that I’ve met—we all have a positive spirit towards wanting to build and to continually be better and to design better. Generally, there is a positive attitude. We are not stuck in specific ways of doing things, there is a willingness to try new things. Singaporeans are generally quite sensible in that we will follow the rules, but we are also not so stuck in tradition, in a way that we are rigid for things to be done in a certain way, as compared to more established design countries. I do see a positive energy in trying to build a voice, I don’t think there’s a specific identifiable voice, but generally, Singaporean designers have that positivity to try to create something that is meaningful.
Kelley: What are some of the unforgettable challenges that you have faced in your journey building a business?
Pamela: Is this candid one? (laughs)
Kelley: Of course, it can be candid!
Kelley: No problems in your business at all?
Jessica: No lah, of course we have!
Jessica: For me, the supply chain has always been a challenge. End of last year, veteran designer Nathan Yong—who is mentoring us—encouraged us to go to Indonesia or somewhere closer to look for new makers, and not to over-rely on China. So we went to Indonesia, and we actually did find a partner! So they are the ones who are making our Cane Collection right now. It’s always been a challenge to secure good partners for the supply chain and interestingly at that point of time, China was going through the whole lockdown, so our supply chain there was stuck, we didn’t know what’s going to happen because if everything in China comes to a halt, then what are we going to sell? Of course, we have other things made in Malaysia, Vietnam, but China is a crucial maker for us. So of course, there’s all these uncertainties. So we were really lucky to have the Indonesian alternative now, because if China is cut off due to COVID or trade war, at least we have a new supplier in Indonesia that could also help to keep things going. Interestingly, China bounced back from the COVID really fast and then suddenly Indonesia was affected. So there are all these challenges, and we learnt that whatever it is, we must always have a backup plan.
Kelley: What are the highlights for the company so far?
Pamela: It’s very encouraging to see the company grow. Up til today, we still ask each other if we are crazy to start this? Sometimes we still have our doubts. When we produce something we both like very much, we start worrying if other people will see it the same way as we do. And will people pay money for it? It is like a daily internal struggle for us.
Jessica: Some people have asked us, why do you dare to do this? It’s so niche, don’t you feel that you will be stuck in a specific style? Maybe we felt a little that way in the beginning, but as we moved on, what is really very beautiful for me is that … we have this yearly Shang Yue (赏月) event to celebrate Mid-Autumn, which we started since the 1st year, and the 1st time, we had only like 10 people, and some even left early to go home, it was really sad. We didn’t publicise it well because we didn’t know who would want to come. But over the years, we see the following building up and a lot of the customers become our friends, and I genuinely look forward to seeing them every year at Shang Yue. It’s a spirit of kinship and warmth. It’s really very special – people feeling this ownership and wanting to be part of this Scene Shang good living. People come to our event because they really want to, and not just to be seen, like those influencer events. Those are the high points – to know that people are really buying the brand and they really feel for the brand and want to be part of it. For example, this year we didn’t get to do it due to COVID, so a lot of people asked us, what’s going to happen? Will there be anything this year? Which is why we decided to send a Shang Yue gift box to all our friends and customers, we hope that they will still feel that same warmth and kinship.
Kelley: For both of you—it can be different—which is your favorite collection of Scene Shang so far?
Pamela: I like them all. But if I have to choose, it will not be a collection, it’s just a piece. It’s still the Shang System. That’s our starting point, and it epitomises the brand. And I still remember the initial excitement of this brand actually becoming real. For me, it’s very close to my heart.
Jessica: That piece, she scolded me …and scolded me, so I had to work very hard. (Laughs) The Shang System has a special place in my heart too, but I would say at this point in time now, my favorite collection would be the Cane Collection. For me, it signifies a progression because we are able to work with a very different material. At first, we started the Shang system with solid wood, but now we have come to be able to work with the Rattan-makers. Although rattan is a material indigenous to Indonesia, we managed to create a unique design that has a Chinese touch. I find that it is an interesting creative growth, that we are able to use the local materials and create something new, create a new silhouette.
There’s just a beauty in seeing the rattan being woven and made together just by hands, because Shang System was initially not so high-tech, but we improved it and it was made using CNC later, and with CNC, there’s a certain precision to everything; but this Cane Collection brought us back to a primitive way of making, it’s really just this one guy, he’s like doing tai chi with the whole bending of the rattan piece. There’s a certain beauty of that humaneness to create these shapes, and not depending on the machine. That was pulling me back to the initial starting point, and there’s a beauty there. At this point of time, it’s my favorite collection, but I will have a new favorite the next time we do something new again. It always has to be better.
Kelley: What materials do you like to work with? Have you experimented with any new unusual materials recently?
Jessica: Other than the Cane Collection, we have recently launched a new collection of furniture that is made out of this synthetic woven fibre. Basically, it’s a collection of outdoor furniture. Most outdoor furniture usually have fibres that look very artificial, but our maker has this proprietary material, which is actually made of HDPE (High Density Polyethylene), so it’s actually plastic, but he blends them together through a process and the result looks like a natural fibre and the effect is quite good. This can be put outdoors as it is weather-resistant and it even comes with a warranty. I would say they are not the traditional outdoor furniture, they would look good even if you use them as indoor furniture.
We launched the collection, Weatherproof, earlier this year quietly because you can’t do anything during the COVID. Other than that, the standard favorites for us are wood, and rattan now, and we always like to add touches of brass to our pieces, we will even design the hardware to just have that touch. The Cane Collection and Weatherproof both featured brass details as well, the brass details are the Scene Shang touch.
Kelley: What’s your take on sustainability in design? Do you ensure some kind of sustainability practice when you design?
Jessica: Sustainability is the motivation to create the Cane Collection and Weatherproof, as cane is a fast-growing material, which makes it sustainable and the fibres are all recyclable. Cane—as we understand—grows along the forest. So you need the forest to survive for the cane to grow, so it helps with the environment. Other than using sustainable materials, it is also about managing our processes and resources. I always feel that if there are things that people can do better, let them do it. If someone can produce a cheaper table, let them do it, because we don’t want to go into a mass production of 1000 tables that we cannot sell, and they end up rotting in the warehouse, that is not sustainable. Managing processes and resources is a way to be quietly sustainable. Does that make sense?
Pamela: A lot of people think that sustainability is in using recyclable material alone, but it is more about reducing wastage. For example, if the MOQ is 1000, and I order 1000 simply to bring the cost down, this is foolish as you are not taking into account the costs needed for the storage space, and maybe if you don’t sell, they will go to waste. So we try to streamline and optimise our demand and supply, I feel that is a way of sustainability as well.
Jessica: In fact, there are a lot of new technologies these days that allow you to do customised, on-demand stuff without having to make a mould. That’s the way to go forward.
Kelley: If IKEA commissions you to design a piece, what would you design?
Jessica: Off the top of my head, I want to design a better dining table. There are probably a lot of existing IKEA tables that work well, but I’m imagining a piece that is suited to the IKEA style and one that can be mass-produced and flat-packed. I want to design a nice round dining table that can fit into most houses properly, maybe one that is transformable to be a long table. And I’m sure that IKEA has the resources to produce it at a price that can be palatable. Round tables are very Chinese as all Chinese families share their dishes, so it is best to be round as everybody can reach all the dishes.
Kelley: Do you attend international furniture fairs regularly? Do you think that these fairs are still relevant in this digital age, where actually you can do almost everything online?
Jessica: They’re still relevant because you still need to see the things in the flesh and meeting people is important too. It is quite different from getting acquainted online.
Pamela: We have visited quite a number but we have not taken part yet, as in, have our own booth space. We were planning to do so this year, but then COVID happened. Fairs are quite necessary in our industry.
Kelley: What are your ambitions for Scene Shang?
Pamela: It’s ever evolving. Our vision—right from the start—is to have this all-encompassing lifestyle space in the form of a hospitality environment. In our shops, we try to create the feel that you are visiting someone’s house, giving people the very warm, non-intrusive, non-pushy retail environment. That is what our direction has always been, to just create a hospitable vibe for people. It will be nice if we can create a Scene Shang hotel one day, which will have the same spirit as our shop. That is the dream, the goal.
Kelley: In terms of physical shops, do you have ambitions of opening it in more cities or you are looking more at finding suitable distributors? Where do you see Scene Shang in five years?
Pamela: That is not about how many shops or how many countries we will be in. It’s more about being able to attract more people into this lifestyle and embrace it as a modern Asian lifestyle and to be appreciative of Asian contemporary design. If it is going to be in the form of another shop in Japan, Australia or wherever, so be it, but it doesn’t have to be, it’s not limited that way.
Kelley: Last question, what advice do you have to share with aspiring young furniture designers?
Pamela: Don’t do it. (Laughs)
Jessica: Just do it. (Laughs) I always believe that if you want to do something, you just have to try. Sometimes you don’t really know why you do something at a given point of time, but later in life, you will realise that there is a reason for that. It’s important to just go out there and do things. Through it, you get inspired by certain things, certain people. Then, all these encounters will help you to form your story, and you find your voice as a designer. That was my process. For example, I started in interior design, and after I tried it, I knew that it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue for life. But it is because I have tried it, that I know for sure that I don’t want it any more. I want to create things that people actually want, or that people actually want me to do it. Everything you do, it’s about having the positive spirit. In the end, everything you do—whether it works or not—will be a valuable lesson.
15 November 2020
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