Mlkk Studio's design for the new Aesop VivoCity store celebrates the humble rattan
Into the woods
Walking into an Aesop store is like entering into a meditative submission. From the calming blend of citrus aromas such as lemon rind, ylang ylang and bergamot to the feel of the Resurrection balm smoothed over your hands by an attentive retail representative, each visit is like an ASMR video come to life. If anyone dares interrupt this experience, all you have to say is this: "Aesop, shut up and take my money".
Because honestly, browsing has never looked this beautiful. Started in 1987 in Melbourne by Dennis Paphitis, the modern day apothecary is loved for its botanical and laboratory-generated ingredients, commitment to culture and attention to detail.
Each time you buy an Aesop product, it comes in a paper bag that recommends a list of places to visit in a city — the one I brought home had a breakdown of Toronto's cool spots. There's also a collection of quotes that won't make you roll your eyes like those you encounter on Instagram or Tumblr. Right before I applied the Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum, I'm reminded by St. Francis De Sales to "never be in a hurry, do everything quietly and in a calm spirit". Noted, with thanks.
I had just visited Aesop's newest — and sixth signature — store in Singapore at VivoCity, where their on-point branding is translated into interior design. Co-designed by architect Kian Yam of Hong Kong-based studio Mlkk, it exemplifies Aesop's 'no one size fits all' approach that it employs in stores around the world. Aesop takes this seriously — prior to Mlkk Studio, Yam, an MIT graduate, was the brand's first internal architect. Together with Leon Goh, Aesop's retail design and development manager for Asia, they conceptualise spaces that connect with each location and support the communities that the brand enters into.
Living in a material world
Yam, one of the Ks that make up Mlkk Studio, has worked on more than 10 Aesop projects. In Hong Kong, she used cork as the main material for the IFC store, while pebble wash was adapted in the Harbour City store. There's always a respect to the traditions and history surrounding the materials used — cork oak from Xian province was chosen for its down-to-earth texture and acoustic insulation properties, while pebble wash played an important role in shaping public spaces in Hong Kong and Southern China.
There's also a commitment to sustainability, seen in Aesop stores around the world. In San Francisco, architects NADAAA lined a tapestry of wooden boxes made from reclaimed wood. In New York, Tacklebox Architecture cut 400,000 strips from 2,800 reclaimed copies of The New York Times to form paper bricks.
In Aesop Singapore's ION store, architecture firm Snøhetta used timber as an ode to the nutmeg plantation that once occupied Orchard Road. When the brand partnered with a Singapore architecture firm for the Ngee Ann City store, the designers from Asylum used terrazzo, a material commonly used in old Singapore houses after getting inspired by the courtyards of traditional Peranakan homes.
A humble home
When Yam started on the project for Aesop VivoCity, she looked up 'Singapore' on Google Images only to find the Marina Bay skyline on its first page, showing off the glitz and glamour you'd see in a postcard. Although it wasn't a dishonest portrayal of Singapore, the architect wasn't convinced. This wasn't quite the hidden beauty of the city that she was looking to explore. It wasn't until she saw an image of a HDB block — with all of the residents' individualistic items such as planters, shoes and clothes lines — that a clear vision soon developed. Yam was immediately taken to the picture's simple and truthful depiction of Singapore culture. The keyword? Domestic.
To inject a sense of life's daily comforts, Yam and her team looked towards the humble material, rattan. They scouted craftsman Chen Foon Kee, the 69-year-old second-generation owner of Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture, a manufacturing shop that's neighbours with a prawn noodle stall, a local bakery and electrical companies along Jalan Bukit Merah. Chen still works on manufacturing, fixing, painting and upholstering rattan in a business that he took over from his father, who came to Singapore from China.
Rattan, a material that's popular in the '60s and '70s, was loved for its long-lasting and flexible properties. It's also lightweight, making it ideal for Singapore's humid climate. Because of the coconut palm tree's quick harvesting cycle, its renewability is faster than other forest trees, making it an environmentally-friendly source.
From the shell chairs and swings that dominated your childhood photos, rattan's seeing a renaissance of sorts, with trendy lifestyle establishments such as Clan Café and Merci Marcel using this material in their chairs and panels to evoke some serious nostalgia.
Updating a classic
After meeting with the craftsman who shared rattan's history, its source and the right methods to weave it, Yam was excited to incorporate the material into Aesop VivoCity. Upon entering, you're drawn to three main touchpoints that characterise the space: Its light blonde hue, the use of rattan and the tiles that line the floor.
The unglazed cement tiles fill the 45-square metre space, while vertical surfaces are paneled with rattan woven in its signature pattern. Solid oak surfaces end in timber edges, curved in style. Good design is stylish as it is instinctive, and I appreciated the way the cupboard door handles are short with a curved dent at its bottom for an easy reach.
While rattan can easily make a space look dated, Yam ensured that the proportion and colour of materials used were arranged to give it a contemporary update. Light blonde rattan and oak lend the space a lighter, airy feel. As customers flock to the sink — a watering hole of sorts — for consultation, they'll notice the sleek use of bronze and brass for its basin and tapware. The hero piece is undoubtedly the large lampshade, a woven UFO-like being that dominates the space above the counter.
With the retail market increasingly threatened by the popularity and convenience of e-commerce and online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores that remain should exist to educate, inspire and provide that human element in design. Aesop's done a good job so far. "There's nothing like staying at home for real comfort," said Jane Austen once, and if you grew up in Singapore, you'll sense that Aesop's VivoCity outlet could very well be the next best thing.