Lighting up a room: Material matters for Indonesian designer
Budiman Ong has dedicated himself to crafting ethereal lamps and lighting systems in his Bali studio
For Budiman Ong, light is everything. “It’s the most important thing in the room,” he says. So it makes sense that the Indonesian designer has dedicated himself to crafting ethereal lamps and lighting systems in his Bali studio. “It can be functional, but it can also accent something. It’s the key to give a room more warmth,” he says.
Ong founded his design practise, Ong Cen Kuang, in 2008. Since then it has built a portfolio of work for a diverse range of clients, including private homeowners – he designed three huge hanging light installations for a home in Bali – and a number of resorts, bars and restaurants around Indonesia and Singapore. These days, though, Ong is focusing on his six commercial collections, which have been winning him attention at design fairs in Asia and Europe.
Last January Ong was in Paris for Maison & Objet, where he showed off Alur and Bulat, two collections of zipper-fastened linen lamps. “Material is our starting point,” he says. “We don’t draw something and try to force a material to behave a certain way. We work with whatever is the best solution for the material. We always say that we have a conversation with the material.”
Ong sources his materials locally. “We try to use a common material that is abundant, that we can get all the time,” he says. “We have a lot of projects on the back burner, so whenever I look at a material I think about how we can use it. It might be ready in a week or it might be a few years. We make a lot of samples and suddenly someday it might click.”
Ong says he tries to avoid giving his lamps a rigid structure. “We want the material to hold itself together, so usually it looks very organic,” he says. “With [Bulat and Alur] we used zippers. It has elasticity, but the more you stitch them together, the more stubborn it is. It has its own strength. That eventually creates the shape and holds the shape together.”
The aesthetics of Ong’s work are a by-product of his emphasis on materials. Bulat lamps have the delicate appearance of folded paper lanterns, while Alur lamps give the impression of a wide-brim straw hat that has been put to rest after a long day in the sun. Another series, Lipat, has the accordion look of paper fans. For standing lamps, Ong likes to contrast the fluidity and airiness of his fabric lampshades with the smooth solidity of a teak stand.
“For colour, it always has to be warm,” he says – hence the use of teak. “Other than that, we always try to mix a few elements together. Our products always have a lot of texture, so we try to match that with the clean line of the stand so that it’s not too much. Balance is important.”
Balance but not necessarily symmetry. Ong says his lamps often employ “broken symmetry” to pique interest. “We are drawn to things that are symmetrical,” he says, but when there is a slight wrinkle in that perfection, it makes things even more interesting.
There’s another aspect to Ong’s design that might be familiar to people in Hong Kong. Though Ong is based in Bali, he grew up in a Chinese community in Sumatra. “With that came a lot of ceremonial things, we did a lot of folding,” he says. Joss paper was an especially big influence. “It sounds morbid but we would sit and fold things into shapes like a pineapple, which we would burn for our ancestors.”
Ong’s first step in designing a lamp is to fold paper into an interesting shape.
He occasionally veers away from lighting to work on furniture, like the Rubric armchair, which combines an intricate iron framework with smooth-surfaced cushions. In this case, the starting point was technique more than material.
“The process of building this product is almost a meditative one,” says Ong. “[There is] repetition of the basic two dimensional outlines and also of three dimensional form. One form stacks after another. I am in love with the shadow created by this item, its juxtapositions and chaos outlining an idea of broken symmetry found in many of our other collection.”
All of Ong’s work is made in his own factory, which employs 20 people. “It’s small and I’d like to keep it that way,” he says. “I like to know all the people in my company.” But that doesn’t mean he isn’t ambitious. “There are so many more materials I’d like to explore,” he says. He hopes to start working with felt next year. “We can always do more. It’s always about the process with me. I don’t think we’ll ever stop.”