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Questioning the Question ‘What is Singapore Design?’

“What is Singapore design?” we often hear, but is this still a relevant enquiry? What are the better questions to ask of design in Singapore, going forward? How comfortable are we with our past and future of design?

Questioning the Question ‘What is Singapore Design?’

Models for Singapore's 'Mr Dior', couturier Rolan Chow (1960s). All photos from the DesignSingapore Council's exhibition 'Fifty Years of Singapore Design'

“What is Singapore design?” is a query local designers commonly encounter. From the pitching process to the award jury interview, so repeatedly and customarily has the question been posed and ruminated on that it is at risk of losing its value (and our interest – not least for the fact that it is a fraught and uneasy topic).

What if we reframed the identity query with a different line of questioning – including not only the well-worn consideration of design’s role and purpose, but also its wider meanings and relevance?

The phrasing of “Singapore design” lends itself to being read and located within a national context. One main conception is in terms of the role and place of design in Singapore. Jeffrey Ho, the former DesignSingapore Council Executive Director, offered a one-line precis of such conception when he said, “Singapore was designed from day one.” His comment referred to how design has always been tapped on as a multipurpose resource for nation building, in its wide application from urban planning and the formulation of public housing policies to the creation of new industries.

Fifty Years of Singapore Design, an exhibition commissioned on the occasion of the SG50 jubilee, has offered a similar reading of utilitarianism by providing a backdrop to the decade-by-decade account of design history with a thread of national needs and imperatives. The current design master plan, Design2025 (published by the DesignSingapore Council, the ‘national agency for design’ – itself birthed by an Economic Review Committee), outlines the role of design in re-creating Singapore as an “innovation-driven economy” and “a loveable city”. While this recognises the softer values of connection and fondness, it still takes the socio-political and economic agenda as its framework.

Where can we locate other meanings and relevance for design?

Read the full story in Cubes 86. Out now!


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