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In Singapore, A Designer Explores Rattan's Possibilities

Rattan may best be known as for its furniture applications in Singapore back in the '60s and '70s but designer Ng Si Ying is giving new meaning to it.

As a trade, rattan has largely faded from its heyday here in the ’60s and ’70s but graphic designer Ng Si Ying is reviving the material in her work.

Rattan is a vine-like climbing palm native to South and Southeast Asian tropical rainforests. Furniture fashioned from the material were common in households here; they were known to be durable, lightweight and affordable. (Though commonly confused with wicker, the latter refers to the weaving technique, rather than the actual material itself.)

Rattan flowers in the process of being oiled

As a trade, rattan has largely faded from its heyday here in the ’60s and ’70s. “Nostalgia is bounded to rattan furniture and (the latter) seems to be used often only as an accent piece in a modern home (these days),” posits graphic designer Ng Si Ying. Though rattan as a utilitarian material has been well explored (according to Roots.sg, it’s a practice with well, roots, going back to the 19th century in Singapore), its possibilities as an artistic medium is much less so.

A brooch woven from rattan

Ng is a devotee to her practice. She took a full year off to properly learn the craft from rattan specialist and furniture retailer Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture, as she says most research materials available on rattan tend to focus more on the documentation of the aboriginal people’s relationship to rattan. As such, rattan would “stagnate” at its most traditional applications.

A ceramic tea bowl wrapped with rattan

This prompted Ng to begin her ongoing research project – 100 Rattan As Wrap – to “exhaust rattan”. The results have seen her tease the material into brooches, wrappings for AirPod holders and even an elegant lamp shade. Decorative objects are not her main goals, however. For example, Ng even custom makes specialised ceramic pieces herself to fully flesh out her ideas for rattan to be used as say, handles or a locking mechanism for a teapot. (Prices range from $70 to $130; DM her on Instagram at @atinymaker as most items are made-to-order.)

Ng sketches out her ideas before creating a custom ceramic piece to complement her unusual application of rattan.

“There is so much we can do with rattan – it can be used as a locking mechanism, as a fastener, a heat insulator, as a hook for hanging and more. I don’t think I can run away from making things that are solely decorative so there are the brooches that allows me to try out different designs that may not work in relation to other objects.”

Above, Ng takes us through her creative process.

Photos Courtesy of Ng Si Ying

ON HOW SHE CAME TO FOCUS ON RATTAN
“My interest in rattan began as a rather investigative one – it started with a search to find a medium that was not commonly explored and the plan was to exhaust the material, to experiment with it, push its aesthetic, physical, and cultural boundaries in order to deeply understand the material. I wanted to study the traditions, the culture and societal relationships of the material in order to break and challenge them or to question it.   The initial fascination with rattan is similar to how one would be fascinated with finding a new craft to exert one’s design sensibilities (i.e. getting into ceramics, knitting, et cetera). But also because rattan, as a material was forgotten and left behind in the contemporary world, fitted perfectly as my ideal material of study.   Prior to the introduction to rattan, like many others, I gave little thought to it. Rattan is often classified as a material of nostalgia, since many people grew up with it as common furniture in the past. I like working with natural materials, and managed to learn a little about wood and ceramics during my years in school. But these were areas that were already heavily explored and therefore comes with a lot of baggage and expectations.   I really liked Japanese bamboo work, but I didn’t want to pursue that because what was more important to me was studying something that was close to heart, both culturally and geographically. Rattan is the material of Southeast Asia, but it has been completely passed over. I think discovering rattan was quite a euphoric moment because it checked off so many boxes of my endless criteria.”   Miniature experiments with rattan ON STARTING HER RESEARCH INTO RATTAN
“I guess upon finding the material, I first had to learn how to work with it. I needed to learn its properties, uses hitherto, and everything related to rattan in theory and practical. I have quite a slow progress because I am not able to work on it full time and somedays procrastination is real.   Guiding materials on how to work with rattan are limited, and more often, books are dedicated to the documentation of the aboriginal people’s relationship to rattan (rotan in their language) through basketry, hats et cetera. This also means that the uses of rattan are stagnated to what has been done by the aboriginal people, whose needs and living conditions are completely different to most of us.   First learn the rules, then break them, right? I learnt how to weave and repair the rattan chair seats from Uncle and Aunty Zeng (owners of Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture). But at the end of the day, they are still running a business and most of the furniture are not made in Singapore anymore.   There is still so much I can learn from them since there are many parts of the rattan that can be used in different ways, but I wanted to focus more on the skin of the rattan. Therefore 100 Rattan as Wrap is an attempt to learn the basic wrapping methods that have been done by skilled craftspeople in both rattan and bamboo works, and perhaps also go beyond the traditional ways by learning from fishing knots, paracords, mizuhiki, textile weaving, even shoelaces and whatever that is interesting that comes my way.”   Ng transformed the sterile aesthetic of AirPod holders with her woven “pouch” ON THE BEAUTY (AND DIFFICULTIES) OF WORKING WITH THE MATERIAL
“It is difficult to find a teacher to learn from locally and there is a lack of teaching materials in English (except for books on how to repair cane chairs and seats) since a lot of the works are traditions are passed down orally or documented in other languages.   Often, I am forced to figure it out on my own and I think it is a double-edged sword. With minimal rules and the ‘right’ way of doing things also means there are no boundaries and no one to tell me what can or cannot be done. This allows me to steal techniques from all fields as mentioned above, which is very exciting.   The skin of rattan is highly malleable and yet strong at the same time, thus often used on chair seats. Furniture constructed from the entire rattan plant are sturdy and yet extremely lightweight. Rattan has very interesting properties which has allowed it to be used in making both hard and soft products.   The rattan skin weaving also allows one to control how stiff or how porous the weave needs to be for specific uses. When working with rattan, it is easier to work with it after being soaked in water. It helps the fibres become more pliable and there will be less breakage (and therefore less anger) during the creation process.”   A lamp shade inspired by Isamu Noguchi’s work ON WHAT GUIDES HER WORK AS A DESIGNER
“Part of me also wants to elevate this ‘third-world’ material to the status of Japanese bamboo as a material. I wouldn’t say that I am heavily influenced by Japanese aesthetics per se, but I admire the tenacity of the Japanese in constantly creating and recreating new works albeit having a strong and long-standing tradition.   There are many things I wonder about when working with rattan: Do we really need rattan bags anymore? What can we do with rattan today? What’s an appropriate design? How far can I push it as a material? Am I just making blindly? Is rattan still relevant today? Designed objects shape our lives and our lives also in turn, shapes design. I think it is inevitable to want to just create beautiful looking things, so these gnawing questions guide and help me to make sense of what I am making and designing.” ON THE RESURGING POPULARITY OF HANDMADE GOODS
“I think the pieces created by the human hand allows for more one-off pieces and designs that don’t necessarily fit in the commercially driven world. When the industrial revolution first came about, hand-made pieces were the norm and so everyone was excited about sameness of machine-made products.   Perhaps it is now the reverse – where machine-made goods are the norm, and hand-made goods are therefore luxury. And increasingly, ethical consumption and the need to know the morals of the methods of production are becoming more important, which is great! With hand-made goods, it is easier to be transparent and harder to exploit.   To me, there are designs that are meant to be made by hand and also designs that are meant to be made by the machine, and most times a combination of both. Neither is entirely better than the other (in terms of outcome), and I believe whatever method chosen to produce the designed item should best portray the qualities of the method of creation and through which, the intention of the designer.”   A commissioned tea canister with rattan functioning as a fastener for the lid