New homewares in Singapore: Ong Shunmugam introduces Suvarnabumi, a Southeast Asian-inspired line that includes porcelain tableware
Land of gold
Ong Shunmugam is having a fantastic 2019 it seems. Earlier this year, it launched OM, a diffusion line consisting of office-ready elegant daywear. This month, it concludes the year with the introduction of Suvarnabumi, an all-new homeware line that draws inspiration from the traditions, mythology, and cultural vernacular of Southeast Asia.
Wide-eyed slow lorises, resplendent rhinoceros hornbills, and carnivorous pitcher plants — some of the region's most exotic flora and fauna come alive in its debut tableware collection. Designed, illustrated, and painted entirely in the label's studio in Singapore and made mainly in Japan, the 11-piece collection is crafted from prized Arita porcelain, wood, and French linen.
While Ong Shunmugam's ready-to-wear is a symphony of attractive prints, tactile textures, and vibrant colours, the tableware is intentionally monochromatic. None of the plates match each other and there's no repetition in print or pattern too. The only element that ties everything together is colour, a blue that evokes the traditional Japanese art of indigo-dyeing.
Below, the label's founder Priscilla Shunmugam lets us in on the influences, challenges, and revelations that arose in the creation of the line.
Designer Priscilla Shunmugam at the launch of Suvarnabumi at Violet Oon, National Gallery Singapore.
Congratulations on the new homeware line! What was the main motivation behind it?
It was a labour of love. When most fashion brands evolve, there's always a natural progression into a different category beyond garments. Ong Shunmugam is nine years old and we are certain of where we are in terms of womenswear. About three years ago, I felt that it was time to grow laterally and try out a different category. With regards to tableware, it was a combination of two things: commercial interest and personal passion. I can't cook, but I love to entertain. I also love collecting porcelain. Commercially, it had to be a category that we could execute confidently.
Is there a particular reason why you called the line "Suvarnabhumi"?
In fact, some people thought that we were going to open a store in Bangkok because of its name! Suvarnabumi is actually a Sanskrit word that means "land of gold". Growing up, I remember learning about this place called Suvarnabumi. Back then, we were told that the Hindu empire was ruling Southeast Asia and they christened Malaya and Singapore, Suvarnabumi. This was because its fertile lands, which were full of natural resources, were in the middle of the maritime route between China and India. This was way before the British came into the picture. Where Suvarnabhumi actually was is still a point of contention until today. In the context of what we are trying to do with our homeware line, we have a long-term goal of starting off in tableware and later expanding into home furnishings, fragrances, and scented candles. We could have easily called it Ong Shunmugam Home and be done with it, but I wanted it to carry this romantic conotation of a time gone by.
Porcelain tableware is rich in heritage and history. What kind of research did you undertake?
Even before we started designing, we spent about two months researching intensively around three main areas: product, design, and market research. We looked at Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Peranakan, and Malay tableware as well as traditions around how they eat and lay their table. That informed where we were heading, but the goal wasn't to merely look at what already exists and mimic that. The idea was to come up with something that was really fresh and doesn't look like we photocopied it from some other culture or brand.
Food is a huge part of our lives in Southeast Asia. What culture-specific factors did you keep in mind?
The Southeast Asian context influenced what we decided to make. If you look at the tableware line, you'll see that there's no fork or spoon. That is intentional. When we were building the range, we looked at what we need and the staples of our cuisine. Rice is a staple in Southeast Asian diets, so of course, we needed a rice bowl. Eating with our hands is second nature as well. If we were dining in London or New York, you would see how people would resist using their hands to take something savoury with their hands. That's one of the beautiful things about Southeast Asia; not only does our confluence affect our food, but it also affects how we eat and how we conduct ourselves at the dining table. We also have a sauce dish. I remember our Japanese counterparts asking us if we really needed the sauce dish as we're just starting out. I told them that Southeast Asians always need their chilli padi, sambal belachan, sauce or some kind of cut chilli!
There are some pretty exotic animals and plants featured throughout the line. Are there particular meanings behind them?
When we looked at Chinese plates, it would typically feature an animal or flower and there would always be a reason behind it. Symbolism is central to Asian culture. We didn't want to ignore that, but at the same time, we asked ourselves as Asians in the 21st century, does everything need to mean something? Sometimes, we should have the confidence and freedom to step away from these kind of restrictions. For example, on the smaller plate, there's a flower crab hanging out with these two dark-handed gibbons alongside some star anises and pitcher plants. There's no real reason why we grouped them up together, other than we thought that design-wise they looked proportionate. I wanted to have a certain element of quirkiness and lightness.
Singaporeans are known for taking out fancy tableware only for special occasions. Was that something you were consciously trying to avert?
Rather than design tableware that would sit on a shelf or left in a box, my hope is that it becomes part of everyday life. Every time I go to a Chinese restaurant, food is always served on cheap and scratched melamine. Even at home, my mother reserves nice tableware for special occaisions. Why is it that we only marvel at the table setting when we go to a Western restaurant? We can do better. Instead of taking someone else's aesthetic, let's be proud of who we are. My hope is that Suvarnabumi offers more than one way of celebrating at the table.
Ong Shunmugam's Suvarnabumi tableware retails online and physically at Atelier Ong Shunmugam at Chip Bee Gardens. The range is priced between SGD59 and SGD149.