Discovering Mingei

“The fundamental problem is that many products are created to be sold, not used.” – Yanagi

2015 was a great year. Prior to that, we were 2-3 years into the business of producing Japan-made Singapore themed porcelain collection and had achieved possibly a cult status of redefining the traditional blue-white porcelain. I was questioning where we should proceed from there, bearing in mind the openness of our consumers towards buying designed-in-Singapore collections.

With the big celebration coming up in 2015, I decided to give it a shot to possibly update the image of kitsch local souvenirs – to move away from Merlion keychains to perhaps something more relatable to the locals. Something personal. The strategy was simple, in order for this to be successful there gotta be 3 key elements – good design, good price and simple production techniques. “Souvenirs from Singapore” was birthed and the first collection – inspired by the 50 icons of Singapore – was wildly successful. I always believed that 2015 was the year which gave birth to the general acceptance and adoption of Singapore design. Due to the seemingly positive outlook, what followed next was the rise of many designers, artists, illustrators and content creators honing their skills, creating fabulous works and along the way developed sustainable business models by pushing out Singapore themed content. While the souvenirs label grew, I also realised that my entire psyche towards content creation had changed. I was in a haste to create the next big thing, perhaps a Merlion figurine, or a plush or whatever that can sell.

So, in a way I was guilty of the opening quote. I was becoming that fundamental problem.

I assumed we did change the perception/image of Singapore souvenirs in 2015 yet, I cannot help but to feel that things moved way too fast. It is a little too rushed, and somehow I was not convinced that we had changed the landscape, it was more of a hype that is taking over. To continue this approach of content creation adds more to the fuzziness of the already confusing Singapore “language” than really defining a clear direction. Things were too orchestrated.

Of the entire 50 souvenirs collection, only one stood out for me – the kopi bag mug. The design was well considered and spoke a truly new Singaporean design language. Totally brilliant, something I am super proud to call a unique Singapore design, proud to call it our own. As for the rest, there seemed to be a certain model that follows – a good story > nice visuals > graphics slap on products > quick to manufacture > sexy marketing > $. It is just so standard, so commercial. Creativity systemised. And then everyone is doing the same thing. And then I realised the new Singapore material landscape that I had so earnestly wanted to transform, somehow did transform. It did. But no. It’s like covering up the old with a new coat of paint. And I am guilty. I am guilty that whatever I produced seemed like created to be sold. I had become the one whom I wanted to replace. And I should be replaced.

So I decided to put a stop to this – even though it meant that we will lose our investment and our positioning as the good ol local souvenir store. And then we went silent on the souvenirs label. I need to find my roots again.

In early 2017, I visited the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (also known as Mingei-kan) for the first time and was introduced to the philosophy of Mingei again. I was attracted to the philosophy of Mingei (or otherwise known as the new Kogei) some 10 years ago when I first knew Muji. The idea of the unknown designer/maker, producing honest, stripped to bare, no fancy, no frills product was mind-blowing at that time – the era of Karim Rashids and Starcks. The simple honesty in using every raw material was screaming out loud to me that – that is the type of design we should be teaching, doing, using. That is what I wanted to do. Designing and producing honest products for the everyday folks. Wood was wood, not treated as some synthetic neon pink solid form.

And then I decided to revisit the writings of Soetsu and Sori Yanagi, scavenging whatever is translated in English, googling everything I can find about Mingei and Kogei and maybe “Singei” (haha)… I noticed, while many of the writings was made almost 2-3 generations ago, it seemed like every account given was parallel to the world we lived in today. What happened in Japan back them seemed to describe what I see in my city today. The shift from expressive Kogei to the unassuming Mingei (the new Kogei some say it), the rejection of Americanised influx of “flashy” design for the honest crafts etc.

In 2 months time, Supermama will be 7 years old. Thats the age of my little boy. I often ask myself, what kind of inheritance would I leave for them? Iphone? Silicon door stopper? Polyester plushie? Or a wooden mug?

The struggle is real.