Despite its sleek, functionalist looks, the new furniture label Niiil is a rather playful and experimental one. For a start, the brand’s name is a portmanteau of its founders’ initials, with their favourite number, three, in Roman numerals wedged in between.
Established by artists Luke Heng and Nicholas Lim, Niiil’s first collection is concise, with five made-to-order designs in total ($580-$1,850) – a chair, stool, bench, table and an armchair (which comes in silver or matte black).
Niiil co-founders Luke Heng (right) and Nicholas Lim.
With anodised aluminium and stainless steel as the primary materials for this collection, the first word that comes to mind is industrial. However, the founders say that this aesthetic won’t always be the defining look for the label; they intend to experiment with different materials with each successive collection and let each material shape the design process, rather than the reverse.
This unusual approach can be chalked up to the duo’s training in fine arts at Lasalle College of the Arts (Lim currently works in interior design by day, while Heng continues his art practice and lectures on the side).
Niiil’s designs are led first by the choice of materials, instead of the object’s intended use – which means future works might take on an entirely disparate look, depending on what materials the artist-founders pick next.
“Instead of thinking about the end product, we thought it might be more fun in letting the material reveal its potential to us. Before identifying aluminium as the key material for our first series of work, we went through a process of experimentation with various probable materials,” explains Heng.
“I suppose we lean on our formal training as artists where we are accustomed to the process of ‘play’ (experimentation) in order to find the right element for this first collection. We would like to think that it was an opportunity for us to further understand ourselves in the context of making functional objects, and as a duo.”
The atmospheric set-up for Niiil’s debut showcase, held inside a shipping container in Tagore Lane.
Their art-based MO also extends to how the duo presents their works. They staged a one-night-only event to debut the collection in mid-January during Singapore Art Week, renting a shipping container to house the pieces and serve as the backdrop to which the sound artist OFTRT created an aural experience in response to Niiil’s furniture pieces as well as the site.
“There is an art movement called Happening, which are theatrical events created by artists in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Happenings typically took place in an environment or installation created within a particular location and involved light, sound, slide projections, and an element of spectator participation,” says Lim.
The sound artist OFTRT was invited to create an aural experience that responded to the furniture and the unique set-up.
“In that spirit, the launch was essential to us because it allows one to get close to the pieces and have a feel for them. That is something you cannot achieve by just looking. We felt that it is vital that we create a space that enhances the engagement with the furniture; we wanted a comprehensive encounter that is not limited to sight and touch.”
Due to the industrial nature of the materials they chose for this inaugural collection, the pair encountered many problems during the manufacturing process. “‘Nobody does it this way’ – this is by far the most common response we encountered from most of the suppliers while attempting to either buy certain materials or fabricate a particular part for our furniture… (but) I suppose it is more interesting to think beyond the (usual) standards of how things are made,” says Lim.
The end caps on Niiil’s armchairs are custom-made for the label – the founders say other furniture labels that use similar materials typically have very sharp edges and they wanted make sure theirs balanced aesthetics as well as functionality.
Just looking at them, one would think that they’re all cold and uncomfortable to the touch – this writer will attest that they’re actually pretty comfortable, especially the armchair model.
“Understandably, a full metal piece, in general, might not be as ideal as its counterpart that is wrapped in soft leather or foam cushion. But that is precisely why we chose the materials that we did; it is to think about furniture as objects that could materialise in all forms,” says Heng.
A detailed shot of the stool
“With this group of aluminium furniture, we are trying to rethink the purpose of the furniture that we use on a daily basis. What does an armchair provide besides allowing the human body to rest within it? How does it make you feel besides comfort? Does the sensation of comfort lay purely on the human flesh or does it go deeper than that? We think that is something worth looking into.”
For now, interested parties can reach out to the founders directly on their Instagram page @niiil.co or peruse their website to place an order.
Below, a closer look at the designs.