Design as Text: A seminar for Archifest 2013

Design As Text

<< UPDATE, 23/9/13: CAPACITY EXPANDED! More tickets now on sale! >>

I’ll be presenting a seminar about design writing at this year’s ArchifestSchool of Urban Ideas‘. I’ve just checked the bookings and there’s one ticket left! Are you the lucky last attendee? Click on through to the event page! And check out the rest of the Archifest program while you’re there. I’m looking forward to meeting all the attendees on 5 October at the Archifest Pavilion.

Here’s the seminar synopsis:

Has a building review ever changed the way you think about a city? Has an interview with a product designer made you reconsider your relationship with everyday objects? A thoughtful and lively architecture and design culture needs equally thoughtful communication and criticism to support its development and enhance awareness. The most engaging writers, whose words resonate long after they are published, are skilful storytellers. Equally important is their ability to balance their responsibility to readers, publishers and the wider industry. This seminar will offer practical tips for those keen to write about architecture and design, as well as some perspectives on critical discourse.

The session will be presented by Narelle Yabuka, who has been writing and editing in the field of architecture and design in Singapore and Australia since 2002.

Contributing Editor for


From November 2012 to early February 2013 I had the honour of looking after the design and architecture news website (IDLA) while its regular editor, Janice Seow, was on leave. As the site’s Contributing Editor I filed eight stories per week and drafted a newsletter every Thursday. I take my hat off to Janice for keeping up the pace on a prolonged basis!


I’ve been contributing stories to IDLA for some time, and continue to do so now. It was great to get to know the Indesign team better, as well as make new connections with designers and artists, and with those working in the design-related commercial arena here in Singapore.

During my stint I relished the opportunity to report on some insightful individuals from Singapore and around Asia, as well as some from further afield who have been active in Asia. I’ve gathered a couple of quotes below from people whose words and work have stuck in my mind. Thanks to all who contributed!


“One of the major drivers for the future of landscape design in Singapore is the fact that we live in dense, high-rise housing. The kids that live up there are really disconnected from the ground. When you’re disconnected from the ground, you lose an appreciation of what is required to maintain a balance. I think it’s important for the profession to give them a reason to come back down to the ground so they can understand the issues that confront us. These issues extend beyond Singapore.” – Leonard Ng, Director, Atelier Dreiseitl Asia

Read the full story on Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park here.


“To paint involves a kind of mastery of spontaneity. When you look at my paintings, I hope that in your mind you see this movement across the space and reconnect with the energy. It’s a memory of this act, but I hope it is a vivid memory – not dead. There’s still movement in the space.” – Fabienne Verdier, artist

Read about French artist Fabienne Verdier, who trained in Chinese calligraphy, and the exhibition she held in Singapore here.



Upcycling: converting a disused object or waste material into something of greater value without degrading the material with which it’s made.


The third and final book I wrote for an\b editions has been on sale for a little while now. The concept sprang from the observation that while upcycling has gained popularity as an at-home craft, it holds immense potential for reduced material use when applied to the design and manufacture of consumer objects.

Additionally, as demonstrated by some of the early 1990s furniture and lighting designed by Tejo Remy, ‘upcycling’ can thoroughly challenge preconceptions about the aesthetics of form. Remy’s early work (distributed by Droog) focused on radical reinvention and memory, but today it could also be viewed trough the lens of sustainability.


Upcycle! presenting products, accessories, furniture, and lighting by designers in twenty-five countries, whose work reuses materials in the following general groups: cardboard and paper; cement, ceramic, and clay; cork; glass; metal; plastic; rubber; textile; and wood.

I made some delightful discoveries while compiling the contents – the ability of designers to make beautiful jewellery out of discarded bicycle inner tubes (Nikolay Sardamov, Bulgaria) or old tins and coasters (Melissa Cameron, Australia); to make tables from slices of old furniture (Oormerk, The Netherlands); or to make creature-like lights with the bases of old office chairs (Giovanni Delvecchio and Andrea Magnani for Resign, Italy).

One of the other joys of the research was discovering how witty designers could be in their efforts. Here are some examples:

Animal Skin Rugs by Agustina Woodgate (USA), made with the fur of pre-loved stuffed animal toys.


Stitch by Studio Pepe Heykoop (The Netherlands) – discarded chairs nurtured back to life with new hand-stitched covers and stuffing.


Relumine by mischer’traxler (Austria) – altering the character of old found lamps with a new and energy-efficient light source.


Multi-vase Lighting by Atelier Remy & Veenhuizen (The Netherlands) – compositions of glass objects that seem to have been thrown in the air and frozen in time.


Thanks to all the contributing designers and photographers, and to Jacinta Sonja Neoh (co-publisher) and Lara SH Loi for their art direction, design and layout.

What does ‘home’ mean?

What is home?

Habitus magazine invited me to contribute to an exhibition exploring the question: ‘What does home mean to you?’ I wrote a story. The exhibition will be displayed during Sydney Indesign, 15–17 August 2013, at the Galleria in Sydney.

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I didn’t sleep well the night before our appointment with the HDB. We, and the sellers of the 1979 ‘four-room’, were to sign the final round of paperwork. Fear struck my heart – not so much for the thought of the binding and inflated debt we were about to assume, but for the impending interrogation by an officer of a Singaporean government agency. Would our finances be deemed to stack up adequately? Did we properly follow all the e-filing rules for last year’s tax returns? Would the prescribed ‘ethnic quotas’ of the estate allow for a foreigner like me? Would there be any issues with my home-based business? Did we fill out the application forms correctly? Will we comply with all the regulations? Well, Mindy, our youthful HDB officer, wasn’t the stern, severe-haired toughie I’d expected. A mini dress, a mismatched oversized aircon-busting jacket, slippers, flowing locks, and a Hello Kitty pen. But her getup was not to say that she wasn’t by-the-books. In the span of around thirty minutes, she printed and waved what seemed like half a ream of paper past us. We signed about fifteen sheets. The speed of her meek voice suggested (yet somehow demanded) minimum time for detailed scrutiny of each sheet. We proceeded, as you tend to do in Singapore, rather like cogs in a machine, trusting our research and putting our faith in the idea that with 82 per cent of Singaporeans living in government flats, millions have done the same and survived. Surely the government wouldn’t shaft us! Anyway, it’s not like we could bend any rules. So, spat out from the HDB headquarters and a renovation later (and I won’t start on those rules), here we are at home, where I’m a ‘spouse’ by marital status (that is, female) and an ‘other’ by racial profile (that is, not Chinese, Malay, or Indian). The neighbours don’t seem to mind my colour (as far as I can tell), or my gender. The mortgage is cheaper than the rent was. The train station isn’t far away. We’ve made friends with the cleaning guy, the teh tarik uncle, and a lovely aunty down the corridor. It’s a great neighbourhood. By the time we finish paying off the mortgage, our flat’s value – according to the government-issued home insurance scheme – will be about 10 per cent of its purchase price. I doubt that we’ll be here by then.

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Behind Chinatown

Chinatown Complex

When I used to tell people I lived in Singapore’s Chinatown, I usually saw raised eyebrows and heard a confused “Oh.” The four years I spent there provided an education that would be hard to find in the ‘burbs. In Chinatown I experienced a social ecosystem sliced and bound by up to eight lanes of traffic, where the constant and the variable are mashed up into an entity that bears different identities depending on where and when you look.

The sanitised, candy-coloured tourist streets are one thing. But the more ‘hidden’ sides of Chinatown began to fascinate me as I tried to understand and find ways to reconcile with some distressing social situations – particularly homelessness and scavenging among the elderly. Many evenings, closed souvenir stalls would become makeshift beds.

For the communities living in Chinatown’s high-rise housing, the daily grind plays out against the tourist tides and the yearly cycle of festivals. In a way, life for them is partially a spectacle played out in gritty concrete vertical cities.

Badminton atop the podium of the Chinatown Complex:

Badminton at Chinatown Complex

Breakfast (also for the resident podium cat) at the same place:

Chinatown breakfast

The night before lingers at the Chinatown Complex:

Chinatown Complex

The chess corner at Sago Street is inhabited 24 hours a day:

Chinatown chess 2

Chinatown chess 1

Chinatown chess 3

The unofficial recycling station at Spring Street:

Chinatown Recycling Station

Life’s debris. Hopefully it was of use to someone else who needed it:

Life's debris at Chinatown Complex

The food centre in the Chinatown Complex – an important social space:

Chinatown food centre

Between worlds:

Motorcycles, Chinatown

Colonising a laneway:

Chinatown laneway

Fire on the streets for the hungry ghost festival:

Chinatown hungry ghost 2

The street cats have their haunts, and their adoptive parents:

Chinatown cat 1

Chinatown cat 2

In 2009, I walked past a collection of old furniture and recyclables on Jiak Chuan Road. It took me a minute to realise it might have been a person’s home or perhaps a makeshift work station of some kind:

Jiak Chuan Rd 1

Jiak Chuan Rd 2

Jiak Chuan Rd 3

Jiak Chuan Rd 5

Jiak Chuan Rd 4

Five ways with words

1. Epiphany via luxury brand

I suppose many people encounter epiphanies in Hermes stores. I hadn’t until earlier this year. Months after it happened, I still think of a conversation I had with Japanese artist Shinji Ohmaki while we sat on the floor of Hermes’ in-store gallery (Third Floor) in Singapore’s Liat Towers.

Ohmaki was telling me about the installation he had just finished there – a colourful floor- and wall-scape of powdered glass in floral shapes titled Moment and Eternity. It was intricate, delicate, precious, and fleeting, for it was soon to be smudged and destroyed by the slipper-clad feet of exhibition goers.

As I was probing Ohmaki for insights into the experiences that have shaped his art practice, he offered an intriguing morsel: his karate practice has influenced how he perceives space. There is a limited space for karate, he explained, and during training you need to perceive each corner of the space. You always need to think about the limit – the life-and-death line, he said. Your body may be positioned in the middle of a space, but your mind is above and perceiving every part of it. Everything’s interrelated.

Ohmaki’s thoughts on space visualisation left a memorable impression on me. It was a pleasure to experience their manifestation in the confined space of the Third Floor gallery, to which he managed to bring a quality of infinity by smartly manipulating shape and reflection. A few snaps of the work follow …

Ohmaki demonstrating how he applies the motifs:

Then after the layering of colours and a quick vacuum of the excess powder, voila!:

The first of the exhibition goers treading carefully on the opening night:

And some weeks later:

Thanks to Ohmaki for sharing his thoughts, and to Haruka Hikita for her expert translations! Read all about Moment and Eternity and see a great photo of the infinity effect in Cubes magazine, issue 56.

2. Discovery via state

When you live ‘elsewhere’, discoveries seem to happen more often than they otherwise might. Until doing research around the Singapore Art Museum‘s exhibition Lee Wen: Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real, I was unaware that Singaporean performance art was the subject of intense controversy during the 1990s. Government funding was slashed after a particularly ‘prickly’ performance, and though the cuts have since eased, strict licensing still applies.

Lee pushed on with his challenging practice through the lean years and found himself with a Cultural Medallion from the National Arts Council in 2005 and the solo show in 2012. With a celebratory undertone, the show drew on his entire portfolio. The suggested mixture of control and support for performance art practice in Singapore may be looked upon with some confusion. Nevertheless, Lee’s exhibition surely reached out to a wide audience who may have drawn varied messages from it.

I wrote (cautiously) about the show for Art Asia Pacific magazine, issue 79. The article can be read online or in print.

3. Scoops via suburbs

Beyond the theme park rides and the golf course lawns, there is site-sensitive design and a sustainable dwelling ethos to be found on Singapore’s Sentosa island. I discovered an example of it in the form of a meticulously conceived five-level house designed by Singapore-based Australian architectural designer Nicholas Burns in the Sentosa Cove suburban development. Despite its size, it embodies multiple qualities that establish its sustainable nature now and into the future. The materials, vertical screen, and overhang in the shot below start to tell the story. Read more in Monument issue 110.

Back on the mainland, I discovered a house with an equal amount of natural ventilation but a very different aesthetic. Walking through a home crafted by MAKK Architects in Serangoon Garden Estate gave me the impression of touring a spacecraft that had docked with its party wall and that hovered just above the ground. Its white mosaic-tiled, angular facade turns up the hip factor on its architecturally unchallenging street. But there was certainly more to discover than its appearance. The tale is told in d+a magazine, issue 68.

4. Encounter via Internet

For I wrote a feature on Singapore-based French architect Yann Follain – director of the Singapore branch of architecture practice WY-TO. I enjoyed speaking to Follain about high-profile projects such as the exhibition design for Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal at the ArtScience Museum (Marina Bay Sands) and his art direction of ArchiFest in 2010 and 2011. It was even more enjoyable to hear him talk of ‘dreaming’ tropical architecture. Read about it here:

5. Style via craft

I turned my hands to copywriting earlier this year for Singaporean laminate brand Lamitak. With newspapers and fashion stylebooks in its conceptual DNA, Lamitak’s The Craft of Style brochure presents some of the brand’s latest laminate designs with an emphasis on how they were conceived and produced. Thanks to the great team I worked with on the project.

In and out of the grid

Time, spaces, people, and the grid. What’s it like to live in the Singapore grid of public housing blocks, shopping malls, and tiled surfaces? Can some kind of liberation be found in what can be a rather dehumanising environment?

I enjoyed the opportunity to contemplate artist/writer/curator Heman Chong‘s exhibition Calendars (2020–2096) with reference to Superstudio’s science fiction-style photomontages of the 1960s and ’70s. I did so for d+a magazine’s 67th issue.

Held at the NUS Museum from late 2011 to early 2012, Calendars (2020–2096) was a menacingly expansive meditation on Singapore’s overwhelming homogenising ‘grid’, its ‘public’ spaces, and the roles that people play in them through time. Chong presented 1,001 photographs of de-peopled ‘public’ spaces in Singapore as future calendar pages – an eery collection that he referred to as a “dream machine” in the show’s catalogue.

If you missed the show, it’s well worth taking a look at the catalogue – as well as d+a of course!

Also for d+a 67, I investigated dreams of other persuasions – a radically remodelled home by Genome Design Consultancy in a fantastical, other-worldly Singaporean estate of repetitive pseudo-classical terrace houses; and an artful redeveloped shophouse by HYLA Architects that forms part of a developer’s larger vision of a collection of boutique properties on a single Geylang street. The HYLA project won a URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2011. Read all about both projects in d+a.

I’ve also had a number of articles appear in Cubes 55, addressing an array of contexts and conditions. Firstly, there’s an extended look at the colourful architecture of Sauerbruch Hutton via their new book Sauerbruch Hutton: Colour in Architecture, which I had also investigated for

Secondly, I had the chance to immerse myself in the mesmerising pattern-scapes of the Grand Hyatt’s newest events space, The Gallery. Super Potato continued their work at the hotel with this seductive space that presents new options for guests in terms of how they interact with and direct their experience of the venue.

I took a walk across the water to write about Aedas Singapore‘s Sentosa Boardwalk – a morphing surface of composite timber that provides a direct pedestrian link between Vivo City and Sentosa.

Finally, I contemplated a rare instance of pro bono architectural work with Spark‘s design for Fai-Fah Prachautis – a centre of creative education for disadvantaged youths in Bangkok. Read an abridged version of the article on

Jake Dyson and his amazing long-life LED lamp (

So ubiquitous is planned obsolescence that products designed to last for decades seem almost unreal these days. I was staggered to learn that British designer Jake Dyson‘s new LED task light CSYS will shine for 37 years before its LED chips need replacing – even when it’s used for 12 hours per day.

I interviewed Jake recently for at Space Furniture in Singapore, where he was launching CSYS. Read the full story here.

The stars seem to have aligned for Jake in terms of creating the conditions in which he can deeply investigate and push an engineering-led design practice. It’s a good thing. His dedication to sensible innovation has the potential to shake up those with complacent design habits and benefit us all.

Thanks for your time Jake!

New work on the screen:

Meeting and chatting with Berlin-based architects Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton (Sauerbruch Hutton) was a genuinely pleasant experience.

I met them recently on a grey and rainy Singapore afternoon to discuss their new monograph Sauerbruch Hutton: Colour in Architecture.

The thoughtfulness and open-heartedness with which they answered my many questions seemed to me a reflection of the sensitivity at the root of their approach to architectural forms and urban connections. Thanks Matthias and Louisa!

Read about their thoughts, their work, and their new book in my article for

All work, no play?

If only you could buy window grilles like the old one above (Club Street, Singapore)!

Since January I’ve looked fleetingly through my (more tamely grilled) window at the world beyond while my thoughts focused on the many worlds being developed in the multitude of Word documents before me.

To say the least, it has been a busy time. It’s also been an interesting one. I’ve ventured into art and architecture; PR for interior designers; the manufacturing process for an architectural material; fashion branding; human-robot love; and a swathe of interactive digital media projects.

Future posts will explain the projects I’ve been immersed in, but for now here’s a look at work that has hit the shelves and screen during the past couple of months.

For d+a magazine (issue 66), I wrote about two memorable houses. One of them (pictured on the cover) was designed by Studiogoto for a builder. It manifests a rawness that’s not often seen in Singapore, and which I didn’t expect given the owner’s line of work. No marble in this house. Instead, exposed concrete, remnant materials, and reclaimed timber from the house that formerly occupied the site. It’s an exciting direction.

The other was designed by Genome Architects and Design Consultancy with inspiration drawn from parasitic plants. New upper levels were hung over the existing lower ones, with sky-lit voids on either side of the floor plates breathing life into this ‘treehouse’. Read more in d+a!

For Cubes magazine (issue 54, Feb/Mar 2012), I had the pleasure of entering the home studio and the minds of Plystudio‘s Victor Lee and Jacqueline Yeo. The resultant profile explores the rigours of their thinking and design approach – both of which I greatly admire. The article also features a number of their projects. One recent project that particularly struck me was an outlet for The Soup Spoon at Changi City Point mall. Learn more in Cubes or in the abridged version of the article on

For Cubes 54, I also wrote about a house in Japan by Singaporean architectural designer Kevin Lim of Studio SKLIM. Designed with a ‘super pragmatic’ approach, the house offered the opportunity to contemplate exhibitionism and privacy in the realm of (foreign-designed) Japanese residential architecture.

For Singapore Architect (issue 267), I wrote about the Hub-to-Hub public art program of 2011. I had compiled a short blog post on this event last year, but it was great to explore it in greater depth for SA. One hopes that the event will encourage top-down and bottom-up design/engagement with Singaporean public space into the future.