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He Searches for our Design Past in Junk Stores

10 min read

Justin Zhuang has a little obsession with the past – our design past, specifically. The founder of the nascent Singapore Design Archives began collecting design objects and ephemera some years ago when he was commissioned to write a book on the history of graphic design in Singapore. He now continues to amass “treasures” found in second-hand book shops and junk stores, in his personal bid to tell a richer story of Singapore design history.

The Archives, a ground-up effort to document, research and present Singapore’s design history, are currently housed at the fifth floor of the National Design Centre. Justin shares why he is doing this, what he’s gained from it and how you could also contribute to the Archives.

 Dsg: What is the Singapore Design Archives?

Justin Zhuang (JZ): The Archives is a platform to document, research and present Singapore design histories. We put up a monthly window display of local design objects and ephemera at the DesignSingapore Associates Network* office located at the National Design Centre (#05-04). This can be viewed any time, but the public is also welcome to come in and take a closer look at the objects during our open houses. This happens every two Saturdays in a month (our website and Instagram have the latest schedule). In addition, visitors can also browse our growing collection of books and artefacts related to Singapore design. If you are researching about Singapore design, we are also happy to see if we have resources that are of use!

The Archives’ collection has been amassed over the years, but the act of curating a display has made me look at them more closely and also in terms of a relationship to one another.

*The Archives is supported by the DesignSingapore Associates Network (DAN), a network of current and former DesignSingapore scholars, and the DesignSingapore Council (Dsg). Justin Zhuang is one of 54 members of the DAN.

This window display on “Constructing Singapore Design” featured various catalogues and publications from attempts to defined what “Singapore design” is.

Dsg: How did the Archives come about?

JZ: This physical archive is related to the Singapore Graphic Archives (SGA), which was started in 2011. This was when I was working on my first book about the history of graphic design in this country. As part of this project commissioned by The Design Society, I was introduced to many pioneer graphic designers and their works. It occurred to me that there was no public resource about this subject, so I started this website to collect and document graphic design from Singapore. I was also inspired by a similar initiative across the border, the Malaysia Design Archive.

Dsg: Why did you set up a physical archive?

JZ: Even after publishing the book, I’ve continued collecting materials related to Singapore design over the years. While I’ve shared many of these via SGA as well as through writing and lecturing, I felt it would be useful if people physically access these items. Thus, I proposed to set up a Singapore Design Archives when the DesignSingapore Associates Network (DAN) made a call for ideas on how to use their office space.

In the archives is this rare 1990 issue of Design Journal, a Korean design magazine that published a special feature on Singapore design. It showcased the portfolios of various leading local designers.

Dsg: What do you hope to achieve with it?

JZ: On the most basic level, I want to let people know that there is a long history of design being created in Singapore. I hope the archives will also be a resource for anyone interested in design. You can treat it as a historical resource to retrace local histories. You can even use it to inspire your next design. While I created the archives out of a historical project, I’m excited to see how others use it.

Most recently, we collaborated with independent publisher Temporary Press to put out a small publication, Symbols of Singapore, which features local graphic symbols and logos found in SGA. As practitioners, they were interested to see the designs as a kind of visual language rather than just historical artefacts. Similarly, the Archives hopes to encourage a more critical appreciation of the world we live in. Once we start to see how everything around us is designed, planned and made with intention, we can engage it more meaningfully.

 Dsg: What has been displayed so far?

JZ: Since opening in June, we’ve put up four displays. We started with a display on Singapore’s first national design school, the Baharuddin Vocational Institute (BVI), to mark graduation season. Then we looked at local designs for children — from illustrated books to toys. For August, we tackled the question of what “Singapore design” is by reviewing exhibition catalogues and books published by the national agency for design, DesignSingapore Council. We’ve just wrapped up a display of local advertising matchboxes – a forgotten medium for graphic design from the 1960s to 1980s. Our latest display will look at early Singapore design awards in response to the on-going President*s Design Award exhibition in the National Design Centre.

The Archives’ window display for September and October features annuals and ephemera from early Singapore design awards.

Beyond the display, we have various books and materials about Singapore design. This includes the very first BVI annual which showcased the staff, students and their works. We also have the annual for the First Annual Advertising Award organised by the Creative Circle in 1963.

If you’ve been following the on-going discussion on conserving Singapore’s modernist architecture, you can come by to browse titles such as Our Modern Past: A Visual Survey of Singapore Architecture 1920s-1970s and Before It All Goes: Architecture from Singapore’s Early Independence Years. We even have a copy of Pastel Portraits: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage, a book that kick-started the conservation movement in Singapore in the 1980s!

Dsg: What are some of your insights since delving into the Archives?

The Archives’ collection has been amassed over the years, but the act of curating a display has made me look at them more closely and also in terms of a relationship to one another.

For instance, the matchbox display actually belongs to a collector, Mr Yeo Hong Eng, whom I interviewed several years ago to write a story. Through working on the display, I noticed the names of the manufacturers printed on them and that led me to dig deeper.

It turns out that there were once three manufacturers of matches – an essential good before piped gas and electric domestic appliances – in Singapore. On the matchboxes, you will also notice restaurants advertising their location with images of the modern architecture buildings they were located in. In this way, graphic design becomes a record of Singapore’s architecture history!

Dsg: How have you been going about gathering these archives?

Over the years, I’ve built up the archive with materials largely by picking up free ephemera and buying from used bookstores and junk stores! Many of the materials are also scans from books, ephemera and magazines I’ve come across in the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library. If you think about it, those are the materials produced by graphic designers — so the library is really an archive of Singapore design too!

I would love to seek out designers to donate their works, but I don’t have the resources to archive them for posterity. For now, I seek out selected items from what people have thrown out. Recently, I finally managed to get my hands on the first annual of Baharuddin Vocational Institute. It was pure coincidence as I chanced upon it on Carousell and the seller turned out to be a former student who happily shared his memories with me.

Matchboxes from Keola Ho’s collection.

Another chance encounter came from our neighbour, Participate in Design. One of their staff, Keola Ho, came over with a collection of matchboxes he got from his neighbour. Some of those ended up in our display of matchboxes. So if you have a collection related to designs from and/or about Singapore, come pay us a visit!


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Singapore’s highest honour for designers and designs across all disciplines
One of Asia’s premier design festivals that champions design thought leadership
National Design Centre