Besides maintaing a strong profile in retail, with branding and corporate identity work for Singapore's new Triple One Somerset shopping mall and the experimental Eighth Floor in established stalwart Ngee Ann City mall, Asylum is also behind the branding and corporate identity of stylish dining venues The White Rabbit and Prime Society. Honored with DesignSingapore's highly coveted President’s Design Award, Chris is constantly looking for inspiration, with an extended stay in Berlin, the widely acknowledged mecca of design, art and culture potentially on the cards.
Chris talks to Adeline Chong about how he became one of Asia's most respected creatives, how he almost didn't become a designer, and much more.
Congratulations on winning the prestigious President's Design Award in the Designer of the Year category. What does the award mean to you?
It’s a huge honor to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the best in our industry, so I am ecstatic. It also meant that I needed to reflect on my work so that I continue to be inspired. I’m afraid of becoming the establishment.
How would you compare the four winners of the Designer of the Year award?
We are all slightly different in our disciplines. There was an architect, an interior designer, an advertising creative director and myself. What we have in common is perhaps our relentless pursuit of excellence.
Were you one of those kids who started drawing before you could walk?
I was always given reams of computer paper to doodle on when I was young, because I was easily distracted. My dad just wanted me to stay home more regularly so that was his way of bribery. Most of my doodles then were just the usual superheroes and monsters — nothing you would frame in your bedroom.
You actually studied Engineering first. Why did you switch to design?
I guess I was never fully convinced that Engineering was my destiny, it just seem like a respectable career, but as soon as I started the course I knew for sure it wasn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life. I narrowed my choices to Hotel Management, Marine Biology and finally Design.
You started your own agency in 1999. Wasn't that a tough time, just after the Asian financial crisis? What gave you the impetus to start Asylum?
I was Head of Design at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) Asia Pacific when I felt that I’d achieved all I could within the context of a big agency. There were smaller, interesting projects that I wanted to do for certain companies, but they could never afford agency fees. So that’s when I started to think about striking out on my own. I also felt that it was time we had cooler design studios instead of the commercial ones that existed then.
We had support from BBH so we were swamped with work from day one! For me it was important that we also did our own projects on top of our commercial commissions.
In branding, the right name helps build brand value. Why did you name your agency Asylum? Were you not concerned about alienating clients?
In those days, the cool UK design firms like Why Not Associates and Tomato were a bit rebellious and irreverent, so there was that influence. I felt the name Asylum was memorable. Client approval was the furthest thing from my mind!
What kind of clients did you hope to attract when you struck out on your own?
I wanted to work with open-minded clients so our name became a filtering process to attract the right type of clients.
How do you select your staff?
Talent, attitude and hunger are important attributes, as is an ability to drink!
Frolick, an Asylum project, garnered very positive response. Why do you think this was so?
It’s one of our great showcase projects, that proves that creative thinking and branding can lead to exponential financial success. We took an entirely new approach in branding a yogurt brand and it worked. We are designing the sixth Frolick outlet now and they are about to franchise it to the rest of the world.
Chocolate Research Facility, which offers over 100 flavors of chocolate at any one time, is another Asylum project that has broken new ground. Tell us what makes you most proud of this retail venture.
What we were able to achieve with CRF was a holistic brand experience, from the idea of having 100 flavors to experiment with, to the way the chocolates were being presented and sold. CRF was voted by Time magazine as “the best place to experiment with chocolates” and the CRF brand has been featured in numerous other international publications. We’ve had more than 30 franchise inquiries from around the world.
The music scene in Singapore is not known for being progressive. Why did Asylum venture into producing experimental music?
I guess it was an extension to our retail store. When we first started the store in Ann Siang road, its mission was to inspire our customers. Supporting experimental and progressive music was part of our offering that includes art, books, products and fashion. I wanted to promote non-mainstream music to our customers to broaden their views on music.
Asylum also has several non-commercial projects that have created buzz. Tell us about the Moonlighting project.
Moonlighting is about highlighting passionate individuals who are creating things that they love, outside of their day jobs. I wanted to inspire young people to follow their dreams instead of feeling stuck in a rut. We published the first edition of Moonlighting in March this year.
What prompted you to start up Design Society?
A group of us felt that Singapore’s design industry had reached a place where it would be meaningful to start documenting and archiving our milestones. We also felt that we could give back to our community by starting a society that would promote design and educate our next generation. In addition to organizing events for practicing designers, we’ve also started workshops in schools. In January, we also put together a public exhibition, “100 icons”, showcasing iconic Singaporean logos and trademarks of our generation.
Why do you feel this need to be involved in promoting design in Singapore?
I think our industry has progressed in leaps and bounds in the last decade and it is time for us to take stock of our progress and set the foundation for future generations. It’s our dream to see a permanent design gallery here.
In your opinion, which are most powerful brands in Asia and the world?
There is only one: Apple. It’s a religion. And everything they touch turns to gold.
What advice would you offer to aspiring designers?
That they must possess passion, hunger and humility.
Who are your heroes?
There are too many to name. They run the gamut from architects and artists, to fashion designers, musicians, chefs, and even scientists.
Apart from these heroes, where do you draw inspiration?
From looking at our world that is so diverse and wonderful.
Which is your favorite city in the world?
Tokyo. It is truly an utopia that defies categorization and is constantly evolving. The more I visit it, the less I know and I’ve been there about 30 times!
What would be a dream collaboration for you?
It would be to create a brand new city with Herzog and de Meuron (the Basel-based design firm best known for the National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest”, in Beijing). I want to design the flag, language, clothes, signage, identity, streets, food, etc.