WHAT does Malaysian design look like? While we certainly have identifiable elements that are recognised as being Malaysian, a collective modern design language has not been defined. Our cultural melting pot has resulted in wide and varied perspectives of beauty and design among us, and we as a society are growing more aware and discerning on matters of art and design coming out of Scandinavia, Japan and Europe, yet we still lack a definitive design identity of our own.
DESIGNation.co sets out to answer the question. Created as a platform to showcase and celebrate emerging designers based in Malaysia, DESIGNation (pronounced “Design Nation”) is driving a design revolution. Its mission statement is simple yet highly assertive: “Malaysia has talent. It is time to show the world.”
In essence, it is the go-to portal for quality, locally designed products by independent designers across various disciplines, from furniture to product and graphic design — promoting local design talents through retail. In the long run, it aims to boost Malaysia’s creative economy and become an incubator of Malaysian design talent.
The young woman behind this initiative is Michelle Alice Tan, a passionate disciple of design with the dream of helping to push and elevate the Malaysian design scene to the global mainstream.
The site was launched in Sept 16 last year with a mere three designers within its stable. Malaysia Day was specifically chosen by Tan to make the event all the more significant. “If I’m doing this for my country, launching it on such a special date would make it extra special personally, and hopefully to the designers and community as well,” says the founder.
Today there are 11 brands, and Tan assures us that the figure will grow further. As curator of the site, she leads the careful selection of talent that would fit the DESIGNation collective — they are designers born and/or raised in Malaysia, their work is original and should not be a copy of another designer’s work, and it should be of high quality. These criteria are adhered to strictly because the collective is meant to represent the best of Malaysian design.
Each brand has its own page, with a brief description of the designer behind it and an overview of his or her style. These talents come from various disciplines of design, including industrial, architecture, furniture, interior and graphic. At the moment, the categories available are home décor, furniture, stationery and accessories. Fashion will be added in the near future. An interesting component of DESIGNation is the “Documentary Series”, which introduces the brand and explores the designer’s creative philosophies. These video shorts allow a glimpse at the designer’s creative process and insight into his or her philosophies and drive.
Trained in interior architecture and design, Tan has been in the industry for seven years, working at different design-related establishments. One particular stint — at the design research organisation thinklab, which provides a platform for knowledge-sharing amongst designers — had a profound effect on her. “It really exposed me to what was going on in the design industry. It helped me understand what was going on, the struggles of the industry and the things that needed to be done to improve the scene,” explains Tan.
With 48 design institutions and an estimate of 1,500 to 2,000 design graduates per year, where are these talents?
Tan explains that the many design courses available are focused on teaching technique and creation, and not how to build a business around their ideas. “A typical scenario for a young design graduate is to find work at a conventional design firm, work overtime and be underpaid. That can make anyone frustrated after a while,” says Tan.
“I decided to create DESIGNation because I felt there was a gap in the industry, with too many reasons contributing to that gap. Many design graduates feel that there is no platform for them to execute ideas. They discover quite quickly that they don’t know how much funding is needed to begin with, how to do branding, make the products, and most importantly, how to sell. Hence, a lot of them end up not pursuing it simply because they don’t know how to go about it. Often their passion eventually dies out, and they switch industries altogether, or find opportunities in a different country. That is a lot of wasted talent.”
This is not to say that there isn’t a scene of independent designers at all, Tan adds. In fact, there are a few individuals who have managed to start something, but most of them are struggling to get their products and brands out in the marketplace.
“One of the key things people need to learn is that you could have created the best product in the world, but if you don’t market it right, no one is going to know about it,” says Sri Kartina Tjandra, DESIGNation business director and Tan’s partner. “That is what we hope to do on these designers’ behalf. They are not experienced. So we’re not experienced with 20 years in the industry either, but we are focusing our energy on helping them the best way we can. They can focus on designing and making things, and we help them with the rest.”
Tjandra oversees the operations and administration. A good friend of Tan’s fiancé, she brings to the table years of experience in the UK working with tech-based start-ups. Tan needed help and Tjandra, inspired by her passion, decided to join her venture.
“If you talk to Michelle and get to know her more, she is very big on this whole Malaysia thing. When I suggested that we eventually bring in designers from other countries, she reminded me that our priority isn’t about bringing foreign designers into the fold but to take local designers abroad. She’s very patriotic,” remarks Tjandra.
When asked about the substantial investments they’ve made, she says, “I have always loved working in a small company environment where everybody knows what’s happening and can directly dontribute to the direction of the company. I don’t want to do something I don’t enjoy. I think it’s a very sad thing to have a job or do work that means nothing to you. If this enterprise becomes successful financially, that would be a bonus. For me, as long as we can survive, I’m happy to do this because it adds value to my life in other ways, not just financially.”
The duo recently opened a pop-art store at Publika Shopping Gallery in Solaris Dutamas. It was not in the initial plan but they felt it was a good way to build their presence, and give a chance to those already interested and curious to touch and feel the products. The next phase will be to develop talent.
Tan says, “Right now, DESIGNation is a designer hub from which they can sell their products. The bigger goal is to become an incubator. That is when a fresh grad will be able to come to us with an idea and we would help them produce, manufacture and perhaps brand and sell his or her products. That idea was inspired by a New York-based startup called Kwerkee. They are invention-focused, and they invite the layman to submit ideas, then the Kwerkee team would prototype, brand and sell. We want to apply that format to helping emerging talent — but that will come later. Now we’re concentrating on helping those who are already fairly established. Once we’ve got that figured out, then we’ll start incubating.”
Visit www.designation.co to learn more. You can also discover the products at DESIGNation.co’s pop-up store at Art Row @ Publika, Level G2, Block B3, Solaris Dutamas, KL. Open daily from noon to 9pm (until June). For enquiries, call (018) 268 8690 or email [email protected].
This article first appeared in The Edge haven, on Issue #72 April + May 2015.