Asian designers star in exhibition of ‘pieces you don’t see every day’
alamak! showcases the work of 12 designers and studios from 10 countries across the region
Alamak! That saying, which ricochets around Southeast Asia and Japan accompanied by an exclamation mark, can roughly be translated as “Oh my god”, “What a surprise” or even “Mamma mia”. So says Yoichi Nakamuta, a curator of a show dedicated to design from Asia influenced by that Asian feeling or emotion. “The designers were selected for their ability to represent the spirit of this expression,” he says. “It’s an exhibition of pieces you don’t see every day.”
Ostensibly the Singaporean national contribution to the Triennale exhibition (a major international arts show founded in the 20s that has returned to Milan after a 20-year hiatus), alamak! showcases the work of 12 designers and studios from 10 countries across Asia. The decision to open it up to the region was a deliberate one. “Design is totally dominated by the West at the moment,” Nakamuta says, “but there are many great designers in Asia who haven’t been discovered yet.”
“The idea to reach beyond borders was quite radical,” says Tim Power, the show’s other curator. It was also ambitious. Representing almost half of the world’s population through a handful of designers is no mean feat. And though visitors won’t detect a unifying style or aesthetic in the same way they might at a showcase of Scandinavian design, they will find a series of pieces influenced by local culture, manufacturing and environment that defy the usual made-in-Asia stereotypes.
Examples abound of high and low culture being merged and traditional and contemporary materials, crafts and technologies being combined. Tables by Taiwan’s nbt.STUDIO are made out of paperboard and lacquered in the traditional Japanese style, while irreverent sculptural thrones made of bicycle parts and jute sacks or silk covers for backrests by Indian designer Gunjan Gupta are inspired by the fast-disappearing bicycle vendors in her home country and the paradox of acute poverty existing beside unparalleled wealth in a booming economy.
Thailand’s Anon Pairot transforms an ordinary gallon tank, used as seating by his poorer compatriots, into a precious object through the use of marble, brass and aluminium. Elsewhere, Jo Nagasaka’s twintsugi updates the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold- or silver-dusted lacquer to emphasise and celebrate the scar. In this case two broken pieces of ceramic mugs and glasses are joined on to a 3D-printed element to create an entirely new object, a twin mug or glass.
Beijing-based Naihan Li’s contributions also blend heritage and modernity with irony and self-awareness. Her wardrobe version of the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV building (one of an edition of eight) combines traditional Chinese carpentry with contemporary architectural forms. The piece references the historic Chinese preoccupation with the miniaturisation of existing buildings (such as pagodas) into objects, and the tradition of hardwood furniture. But it also speaks eloquently of today’s China in which wealthy people and art collectors “want to tell the world, ‘I made it’.” Owning a piece this huge is a “demonstration of power and wealth”, she says.
The other piece by Li is a miniature version of Birmingham library in the UK that doubles as a chest of drawers. The rich exterior pattern borrows from the circular metal filigree cladding of the actual building and is created by pouring layers of resin into cuts created with computer-control tools. “Traditional marquetry and veneer inlays have been replaced with resin and digital machinery,” says Theo Theodorou, the show’s director.
“A lot of Asians still look up to European designers,” says one of the participating alamak! designers from the Philippines, Gabriel Lichauco. He studied design in the West (at Milan’s Politecnico university) but went home after his studies to try to “figure out what he could do with the resources there”. His architectural Spring Stool, with its intricate sculpted leg, betrays its tropical provenance with a slatted seat designed to allow much-needed ventilation. “The combination of machine-made and hand-carved is what makes this piece Asian,” he says.
For her part Li is pleased to be showing in a wider Asian context. “I’ve been involved in a lot of Chinese projects in the Milan [furniture fair] before,” she says, “but I never felt we were judged fairly when people came to see us because they didn’t see what we were doing as international work or contemporary design.” What persuaded her to take part in alamak! was the exhibition’s aim to transcend stereotypes and celebrate the dialogue between East and West but also pay tribute to the links and shared cultural influences between Asian countries.
“There isn’t enough of a spotlight on Asia as far as culture is concerned,” says Nakamuta, “I wanted to showcase what Asian designers are making and experimenting with. To show people what the future might look like.”