Since debuting their Singapore-based studio WOHA in 1994, Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell (the practice is named after the first two letters of their surnames) have been lauded as much for their intriguing furniture and accessories designs as for their mammoth residential, commercial and public works projects. So, it’s a surprise that they have taken this long to realise a full-fledged commercial collection.
“We’ve always designed furniture as a part of our architectural project work,” says Wong, “and it was after receiving various enquiries over the years from guests that have stayed at our hotel projects that we seriously considered making our designs available in the retail market.”
Forty-two prototype pieces, collectively anointed WOHAbeing, made their international debut at Maison&Objet in Paris last September with not one, but six separate homeware collections of furniture, rugs, lights, bathware and tableware. Each features a collaboration with a blue-chip designer — to wit, WeWood, apaiser, Industry+, Luzerne, The Rug Maker and WonderGlass — and is based on designs harvested from WOHA’s diverse projects over the years, including Bali’s Alila Villas Uluwatu and Singapore’s PARKROYAL on Pickering. Each piece is numbered, and some are limited-edition, like the rugs from the Corak Collection of which there are just 15.
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WOHAbeing has been a long time in the works, though Wong points out that, in reality, the spirit of the collection has been a long time part of WOHA’s practice. But it wasn’t until Maison&Objet tapped WOHA as “Designer of the Year 2017, Asia” that the designers were able to give a final push to find partners and produce the prototypes that launched in Paris.
“The entire process,” Wong says, “has been a nice change for us to make objects with enthusiastic partners, and give our objects their independent existence in their own time. It’s interesting to discover all other aspects of this industry such as logistics, sales structures and so on, and it’s especially interesting to us because our architectural projects have a start and an end, but products can extend into decades or more.”
This long gestation period has had an immediately obvious benefit in that there is a thoughtfulness to the designs, sometimes, even a sense of child-like humour. As with the Sampan Collection of bathtubs that WOHA and apaiser worked on, their tapered polygonal forms inspired by old sampan boats — archly described as “bathware as furniture, and not furniture”. Or the Bintan Chairs, which emerged from a resort project on the Indonesian island — the flippers of the resident sea turtles find expression in the broad smooth solidity of the Turtle Recliner, and the spindly legs of the Hermit crabs forming the palimpsest of the Crab Chair.
This ability to reify something so ephemeral as nature into corporeal form resonates most notably in the Oli, an otherworldly chandelier created in collaboration with WonderGlass that parses precision engineering, ancient Hindu sacred geometry and Buddhist architecture into a mesmerising, cascading cloud of stupa-like Venetian bead-shaped glass pieces.
As Wong and Hassell tell it, designing a standalone collection of furniture and household accessories is a natural extension of their considerably more massive buildings. “We’re used to working at different scales, from masterplans down to interiors and objects,” says Hassell. “We try to make sure our interiors and objects harmonise with their environment, that they are appropriate for their context and complete ‘the bigger picture’. And because we’re not primarily product designers, we don’t really pay much attention to trends, so when we design our objects, we follow a similar thinking to when we work on architectural projects.”
The subject of trends is a recurring leitmotif, for Hassell especially whose advice for young designers starting out in the business holds a particular resonance. “I would say don’t chase trends. Find things that deeply interest you and follow through with those things. If you follow your passion and make discoveries, eventually people will be interested in what you do and pay attention to your work.”
It’s an ethos that permeates WOHAbeing. The evident joy of Wong and Hassell when they talk about the creative process is both startling and refreshing. “We love it. Designing a collection takes around six months to a year. This is a stark contrast to our architectural projects that take several years from initial concept to finished building, so it is much more immediate. You have less people involved, so the communication is a lot less complex, and it’s refreshing to sometimes just work with a small team of craftsmen. Unwrapping the prototypes is our favourite part. It’s like Christmas, every time.”
Some pieces were conceived and nurtured in-house. The patterned objects, for instance, like the Corak Rugs, are based on Hassell’s personal artworks — “I wanted to be an artist when I started out, but discovered that being an artist is a very lonely existence. I wanted to work with other people and so I turned to architecture,” he quips.
If it’s not already clear, WOHAbeing serves two purposes. One, says Hassell, is to “satisfy the demands of people who see our pieces in the projects and love them…We did wonder if our designs appealed more to this part of the world, but we were pleasantly surprised with the evenly positive response at Maison&Objet Paris.”
The second purpose is more subtle, if not cerebral. The collections allow them to follow design ideas through to a satisfactory conclusion. “Often, in our development projects, pieces are not made, or don’t proceed for one reason or another, or we realise that they could be developed to a new level if we had more time or a more innovative maker…Now that we’ve started on this journey, we’re very excited to see where it will take us,” says Hassell.
So are we.