The Design Society Journal Issue No.10 – Emergence
Hands-on experimentation is a vital part of the design process, shares Pan Yi Cheng, the chief creative producer of PRODUCE. That belief is at the heart of the multidisciplinary design studio’s methodology, ideas and ambitions.
When I first met you two years ago, your main focus was to design a furniture collection. Now it appears that your interior design projects have taken over. What were your initial directions and goals, and how have they altered from then?
We first started making furniture because we wanted to test the capability of our prototyping processes and our CNC machinery, but the intention was always to work towards spatial design and buildings. Furniture is still something that we design, but in tandem with the space, not so much as a standalone. We are investigating the possibility of the manufacturing of furniture as an entity by itself in the future – to consolidate our prototyping capabilities with other trades such as carpentry and metal works, so that we can evolve our workshop into a facility for material experimentation and specialisation in computational design and fabrication.
Currently, we are also collaborating with TA.LE Architects to design two house attic extensions and a two-storey Good Class Bungalow. I am also in the process of preparing for my Architect’s Professional Practice Examination. Only when I become registered can the company move towards becoming a full-fledged architectural firm, though still working across all scales from objects to buildings.
When PRODUCE started out, you also envisioned that your workshop would be a nucleus for design discussions and events. How has that worked out?
I think the knowledge that we are creating now is more insular and not for sharing yet, but when we start the production unit as an independent entity and have collaborators, then I think it will be more suitable as an open platform. We only have one facility, and most of the time working on our own designs takes up the entire workshop. We started with a lot of ideals; they are not thrown out. What is still important is we have set certain goals, and we are now letting circumstances and also the projects shape them. Gradually, we are becoming clearer about how we can achieve these goals.
Your workshop and studio is set in an industrial area in Eunos, away from the city. Why house PRODUCE here?
Having a prototyping workshop with a design studio was our retaliation to the industry, which I felt was not conducive towards any design that is even marginally unconventional. We wanted to have ‘making’ as an important part of our design process, and to be able to demonstrate to builders and fabricators the viability of our ideas. More importantly, we wanted to create a studio environment that is like architecture school, where a workshop is always within reach. Being in an industrial area also allows us to learn from and collaborate with other trades and craftsmen. So far we have worked with a metal craftsman who was involved in the Royce Apartment project and the Monoform Living@Strata apartment.
Jianhao, the chief producer, and yourself both received your architectural education at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London. How has this influenced your approach to design?
I think one thing that has always been quite strong at the AA is the culture of experimentation—to really push the boundaries in terms of design and technology. We brought that into the company, together with the focus on prototyping processes. I have also been trying to integrate the theories of urbanism and material development.
Chris Lee from Serie Architects was my unit master. At that point of time in the AA, there were many new ideas brought into debates about architecture, such as looking at external, non-architectural structures (like animal habitats, the ecology of plant life, and mathematical algorithms) as a way of generating form. Chris started asking: why couldn’t architecture sources stem from more relevant and immediate design sources such as urban life and the city, circulation, or even politics?
That way of thinking changed the way I saw architecture. So in PRODUCE, one thing that is certain is that the source of our ideas must be grounded in real issues, such as client requirements, site or even how the site responds to the city. Following that, we look at how to breed new designs through variations or the modulation of some of the perimeters.
Can you give us an example how this approach has been applied?
Wild Rocket, a local restaurant, is a good example. It had just returned to its original location at Mt. Emily after a year of failed attempts by its chef and owner Willin Low at finding another location. Having returned to its old home, I wanted it to gain its own independence. We looked at how to create interesting new connections using very basic timber batons applied as modular joints so as to have only one kind of module to create a self-supporting structure. What I wanted to do was to break down the structural elements into fragments or particles.
Once we created that structural element, we asked, what kind of space should it be like? Willin had actually begun indulging in his love for cooking by hosting friends for meals when he was studying overseas, so we wanted to create a space that was very much like a Japanese teahouse, where he can continue to host. We used the structure we designed to create alcove areas, such as the mizuya, where the tea is prepared (in this case, where food is prepared). The garden path also adds to the sequence of arrival.
These are nuances that we bring to the design through the understanding of certain building types that are relevant to the client. When they come together as a narrative, the client starts on to take on the concept in his own way. The longevity of that idea and the concept helps with his marketing, and with the day-to-day running of the restaurant. For example, because spaces like the alcove are very defined, it makes it easy for customers to refer to if they want to book it. The design concept is anchored with the operational concept.
How about the design of the KKI + DROM project set within the School of the Arts (SOTA) building, which has a strong existing visual and spatial presence?
The approach was to consciously engage with the SOTA building. The design of the shop space for KKI + DROM is the distillation of the SOTA building’s design into its most essential diagram – a datum plane and the volumes that it segregates. The plane is designed as a porous trellis so that the entire diagram can be observed and experienced from within. Volumes above the plane hint at the imaginary, while the volumes below are adapted to more practical requirements of eating and merchandising, forming tables and shelves, intimate interiors and close-knit exteriors.
The datum plane continues into the Little Drom Store inversely; instead of forming voids, the plane occupies a volume, which forms the ‘floor’ of a ‘treehouse’. With the idea of the plane linking the two shops at a higher level, the shops are actually conceived as separate and independent entities on the ground. They are separated by a ‘street’ leading in from the main door, which the two shops have their frontage and signage orientated towards. This street-like space extends into KKI, meandering between the volumes.
This integration of furniture and interior architecture, where a single design element provides for a multiplicity of functions, is very characteristic of PRODUCE’s work. Can you further explain the idea behind this?
In the AA, the western way of studying architecture trained us to objectify something. So most of the time when I look at buildings I look at it as a physical object, a thing that is being grounded into the space rather than something that emerges out of nature. In contrast, in eastern philosophy such as in Japan, things evolve more naturally. So for instance, in the Monoform Living@Strata project, you can blot the whole space out and the structure itself still stands out. It’s a small space, so I only wanted to use one element, thus it needed to take on multiple functions.
I don’t like too many veils – like, the material is doing one thing, the structure is doing another, and the spatial configuration is doing something else. Most of the time I’m looking at one solution, and although it looks simple, the complexity arises when you look into the specific functions or how it interacts with the narrative.
PRODUCE was established as a partnership between friends. How has this relationship worked for the company?
We are very professional when we need to talk about the business. Of course when we are not talking about business, it’s something else! We fill in each other’s gaps. For example, I’m really bad with administration and making a company profitable; I don’t keep it at the top of my priority list so that I can fully focus on the design. Having financial planners like Stanley Tan and Don Yap helps us to keep the goals in mind while addressing a lot of the issues that might steer the company astray.
Are you careful to pick only projects you think you will enjoy and can experiment with?
Yes. To be honest, we have already rejected a lot of projects. It’s not something a lot of companies can do when they are so young, but we decided to bear the pain, even if we had to pump in more money to tide over a few months. We would rather do that, as the clients you have now determines the profile of the next client. That has been a kind of rule that we keep to – better to suffer a short pain than to endure a long one.
Architectural design is often seen as a luxury good; yet it is also something that has great power in influencing social and urban behaviours in everyday situations. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that architecture and design are necessities. Since they are concrete manifestations and representations of true value – both materially and philosophically – they are essential. What led me to architecture was the belief that it is the highest form of art that combines most of the other fields of arts. I still think so today, all the more so because so many different dimensions have been added to my understanding of the discipline over the years.
How do your projects address your ideas about architecture?
An example is the modular shelves at Royce Apartment. We feel the economic climate has fuelled the creation of ‘shoebox’ apartments that evolved purely out of maximising square footage yield, and that these apartments were seemingly unconcerned with the immanent criterion of ‘housing’. Our proposal attempted to confront the limitations of space by organising and framing the owner’s essential praxis of reading. 3mm steel sheets were folded to form modular shelves, benches and storage that define the hallway, doorway and living space. The thinness of the shelves disappears as it is loaded with books, allowing the array of book spines and categories to form the final image of the house. These shelves, which embody the idea of ‘home’ for the book-lover, can be reused in a new house if one day the ‘shoebox’ is sold. In this case, we have designed something of material value for his future house, and at the same time, hopefully, created a sense of home for him in this temporary abode.
It is admirable how far PRODUCE have come in such a short time. On that note, do you have any design inspirations you can share with us?
Isay Weinfeld’s works appeal to me because formally and spatially, there is a strong focus and representation of the self and the individual over the collective. Too often buildings lack the emphasis on the subject. Ayn Rand, because she established the philosophy of Objectivism, which has guided my analysis on situations and judgment of our design process. Finally, Elon Musk, as he is the quintessential Producer – someone who actually offers something new and relevant to the material world. We named ourselves PRODUCE because we aspire to produce things that are inventive spatially, architecturally and technologically.