ALVIN & CLARA
Company Founded in
Names of Founders
Alvin Ho, Clara Koh
Founders' Birth Year (Both)
Diploma in Industrial Design, Temasek Polytechnic (2002)
Masters in Contextual Design, DesignAcademy Eindhoven (2007-2008)
Other Pursuits (Both)
Part-time teaching at LASALLE, NAFA, and Nanyang Polytechnic
Period of Occupancy (1st Office)
Estimate Space (1st Office)
Number of Staff (1st Office)
Petain Road, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (2nd Office)
Estimate Space (2nd Office)
Number of Staff (2nd Office)
Kuo Chuan Avenue, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (3rd Office)
Estimate Space (3rd Office)
Number of Staff (3rd Office)
De Meyboom, Netherlands
Period of Occupancy (4th Office)
Estimate Space (4th Office)
Number of Staff (4th Office)
Tong Lee Building, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (5th Office)
Estimate Space (5th Office)
Number of Staff (5th Office)
Bedok South, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (6th Office)
Estimate Space (6th Office)
Number of Staff (6th Office)
7th Office (Current)
Period of Occupancy (7th Office)
Estimate Space (7th Office)
Number of Staff (7th Office)
Alvin and Clara founded Atelier HOKO in Älmhult, Sweden
Exhibited Index Ring for Global Identity by "chi ha paura...?" in Milan, Italy. Acquired as permanent collection of Stedelijk Museum's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands
2013 - Present
Ongoing Series “Science of the Secondary”
Participated in "THE FAB MIND: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World" for Design Sight 21_21, Tokyo
Exhibited "Café CUP – a drinking laboratory" at Singapore:InsideOut, Bank Gallery, Tokyo
Exhibited "A Dozen Eggs", "Plates Please" & "Café CUP" at Pon-Ding, Taipei
"Science of the Secondary" Acquired in Permanent Collection of MAK Museum, Vienna
Showcased "HABIT©AT" for "ToGather", Singapore Pavilion, Mostra di Architettura di Venezia, Italy
Exhibited in "R for Repair" at the National Design Centre, Singapore
Directed "PEEL HERE" Exhibition at the Lim Hak Tai Gallery, NAFA, Singapore
Exhibited "Put On / Take Off", Singapore Art Week
Readjusting the Human Being
By Rachel Chia, 30 June 2023
Good morning! So here today we’re with Alvin and Clara from Atelier HOKO. Let’s start from the beginning. How did both of you meet and why did you decide to set up your company?
Clara We met in Temasek Polytechnic in 19…
Clara Yeah. We were in the product and industrial design department, and then what happened?
Alvin That’s it lah. That’s how we met right? (laughs)
Clara Yeah we met there and we were in different classes and then we somehow got together.
Alvin Oh, we were about to graduate I think, in 2002. We hadn’t graduated yet and she was doing an internship in IKEA, in Sweden, and then I went to visit her. Then we decided, maybe we should do something together after we graduate? So that we don’t have to apply for jobs? (all laugh) So it’s kind of a way to stall ourselves a bit –
Clara – before working somewhere properly.
Alvin Yeah. So we decided to do something together and then we started HOKO then.
Clara So HOKO because his surname is Ho and my surname is Koh.
Rachel Yeah, we noticed! Very cute.
Clara Some people still don’t know.
Alvin Must clarify, must clarify.
Clara It's that simple, yeah.
Oh okay, thank you for that! That was very sweet actually, it sounds like a high school romance kind of thing.
Alvin Yeah, yeah! We’ve been together for quite long actually, 20? 30? 20? Not 30, not 30.
Clara I forgot already. 20 years?
Alvin 23 years, since 1999 lor.
Rachel Wah, that was before I was even born. (laughs)
Alvin Ya… We know! (all laugh)
Clara Ya, we are getting old.
Next question: Are your projects independently run, so by the both of you, or do you work with a team?
Alvin Mostly it’s the two of us.
Clara Just the two of us most of the time, yeah.
Alvin Over the years we sometimes have interns coming in.
Clara Or whenever we need help for something then we ask for help.
Alvin Yup, like an illustrator, visualiser, same right? No different. Anyway, whenever we need help lah we bring in, but generally just two of us.
That’s very nice. So how would you say you strike a balance between being business partners and life partners?
Alvin Balance? Actually we’re very imbalanced. Yeah, we’re mostly about work actually.
Clara I don’t think we really try, or deliberately try to strike the balance lah. We just work (laughs) together and most of the time we're working.
Alvin Very little leisure.
Clara But it’s very integrated, our work and personal life somehow – there’re no really clear boundaries.
Rachel That sounds very ideal actually.
Clara Not really…
Alvin Not really. (laughs)
Clara So we fight all the time, it gets personal and all that.
Alvin (laughs) Yeah. But this home office - home studio thing also kind of represents how we work. So it’s just work. Just keep doing. But we’re not suffering – so it doesn’t sound so negative. (laughs)
But it’s very integrated, our work and personal life somehow – there’re no really clear boundaries.
Okay, that’s nice to hear. Maybe tell us more about each of your childhoods.
Clara My childhood? Not very interesting. Actually, my parents were not always with me, and they’re not really that strict kind of like: You have to study hard, and all that. So most of the time I’m left by myself, like I’m okay being alone and quite – I hope – independent. And then, I really liked colour pencils when I was a kid.
Rachel (laughs) Me too.
Clara Don’t all girls like colour pencils? Every Christmas I would just hope to get colour pencils. And then I remember sharpening them one by one, and smelling them, and really obsessing over colour pencils. So I’m not really like a drawing kind of person, I just like to colour things. Colouring books and things like that, yeah.
Rachel Is there something particular about the smell that you liked?
Clara Actually it just smells like the normal pencils you have today lah, but then –
Alvin Really meh?
Clara – yeah it’s just wood what. Right?
Alvin I thought colour pencils smell different?
Clara They smell like wood. When you sharpen them, and then you look at them, and then like: Wow the colours line up…
Alvin (jokingly) OCD, OCD.
Clara …And the smell, like the wood smell. I just spent time sharpening them and then smelling them then using them and arranging them. Also quite curiously, I remember I once put my hand in a bread toaster, because I was wondering: If it’s not heated up, can I put my hand in? So I tried and actually it wasn’t about the heat but I got electrocuted. It just "TANG!" My whole hand flew out. And I do a lot of stupid things like that lah, all the time.
Rachel Oh dear.
Clara And my parents were not there, so I could do whatever I want.
Rachel Glad you are okay now. (laughs)
Alvin (laughs) She’s still here!
Clara (laughs) Maybe I’m not… Okay. (laughs) A bit siao.
Alvin (laughs) Maybe that’s why she’s like that, you know.
Clara And I wasn’t really good in my studies also lah, I knew that from the very beginning. I think my parents also knew so they didn’t pressure me so much. My brother could study, my sister could study but I knew what I couldn’t do. It’s not that I particularly love art or anything, but I just knew I couldn’t do math, I couldn’t do science, so I just naturally gravitated towards The Arts, in a sense.
Alvin My childhood is very typical, I guess – middle class family, HDB all the way, Tampines – both of us are from Tampines.
Clara Yeah, Tampines people.
Alvin Ya lah, typical boy you know, just play and play and play, and not very good in studies as well.
Clara Eat sweets lah you like to eat sweets.
Alvin Who doesn’t like to eat sweets?
Clara I don’t eat that much.
Alvin Okay, fine. I grew up with my brother actually, I’m very close to my brother – my elder brother. So we played a lot, and most of our childhood was really just playing in the void deck. That’s what I remember the most. And getting into accidents and things like these. Playing hide and seek, climbing into things and doing all the rubbish things. But at some point, it becomes you know – boys being boys – starting to do things that are not so legal; or not so nice; not permissible –
Clara (whispering) Like what?
Alvin – cannot say. (all laugh) So I think during that time, I was very bad with team sports, I realised, like football, basketball – I’m really bad. I tried it, and I’m so bad at it. So I decided to do more individual sports like skating, ‘cause skating you’re on your own right? So you cannot blame people or people don’t rely on you. It’s a very a solo kind of thing.
Clara You’re not a team player.
Alvin Ya, I’m not a team player lah, to put it very bluntly.
Rachel Is that inline skating or ice skating?
Alvin More like inline skating but the kind that you do jumps and grinds and things like these. And then skateboarding and cycling as well. So I started to get into all the individual sports where you don’t rely on anybody because I realised when I play in a team, I get very stressed. People scold me and –
Clara – you’re liable.
Alvin – and I suck lah. Anyway, I’m not very good with ball sports. So, then that happened and I think ‘cause those sports are kind of counter-culture sports, so you start to develop a kind of (opposing) worldview on some things. And then that’s when I started to think: Oh, maybe I should do design or art. So I’m not like her, I think she’s generally quite inclined to more artistic things. For me it’s more like: Aiya, I just don’t want to do any kind of math lah, or you know, that kind of thing.
Clara Me too, I couldn’t. And it’s not like you couldn’t – you could, you were more academic, but I couldn’t do it at all.
Alvin Ya surprisingly I was more academic.
Clara He scored better in terms of academics but I cannot (do academic-related activities).
Rachel It’s okay, we’re all in the arts field now. (laughs)
Alvin Yeah, yeah, exactly right, so at least that’s how we arrived here – or at least I arrived here, from my childhood.
It’s not that I particularly love art or anything, but I just knew I couldn’t do math, I couldn’t do science, so I just naturally gravitated towards The Arts.
Wow, very nice. That was a very seamless integration of your childhood to your work.
Alvin But you know, during our time we don’t think so much one.
Clara Yeah, we never really thought of being artists or designers or creatives ya, we just go with the flow, just play, don’t want to study.
Alvin "Don’t want to study" is the main criteria for doing design or art.
Clara No lah, nowadays things are different.
Alvin Ya nowadays it’s different. But in the past it’s like most of us who don’t want to study or do math or science –
Clara – we always end up in the arts stream. The arts class would be the last Express class.
Rachel Actually why ah?
Clara Last time lah.
Alvin Ask MOE (Ministry of Education) lah.
Rachel In my time also.
Clara Is it? I thought it changed a bit. Now, like you have to be good in everything then you can do art.
Alvin Won’t change one lah.
Rachel The world is changing slowly.
Alvin Yeah… That’s what you think. (all laugh)
Okay. So maybe tell us what some life experiences that really shaped you are? It doesn’t have to be from your childhood. Maybe like from your work as an adult.
Alvin For me, I think it’s leaving Singapore. (laughs) Doing our masters lah. ‘cause we did our Masters in Netherlands, in Eindhoven. I think for anybody, the moment you leave your comfort zone, that becomes the most significant experience for you. Because you start to really have an outsider view of your own life, and also what you’ve been going through for the past – regardless of how many – years. So that was a nice part for us to be out of Singapore – for me it was about three years that I was away, and you really start to get a nice perspective on things. I guess you become more aware, and also a bit more cynical I think. I don’t know whether that applies to everybody who goes overseas to do something, but for us it did. Also because the friends we met are all very cynical. (laughs) So I think it helped a bit. And actually, after going overseas, I no longer have the same perspective on things. That was a good change for me. It was a positive change, not a bad one.
Clara I don’t have many crazy life experiences, but before I went overseas, I was working at many different places – all the different odd jobs. I didn’t go straight into a design company or a proper workplace, as you call it. I was working part-time everywhere while he was in the army; NS (National Service), so I guess working in those places helped me to see the world a bit more clearly. The real world is very diverse, because I’m not always in The Arts or a creative kind of environment, but in a very real environment where I actually meet people who are just common everyday folks, and I think I’ve learnt a lot from their perspective as well. And I also worked as an Arts Administrator in a Performing Arts Centre before, and that really shaped me a lot because I met a lot of older performing artists at the time. They had a way of working that is very different from young people nowadays. I was very young then, so without mentioning names, hanging out with them is really quite something because the way they do things is very different.
Alvin It’s their world lah – they have a world.
Clara It’s their world you know, not my world. While in their world, I started to develop more diverse perspectives on things.
Ya I think for anybody, the moment you leave your comfort zone, that becomes the most significant experience for you.
Maybe I’ll have both of you elaborate a bit more about what you said because it’s a little vague. So for Alvin, what’s maybe one example of a cynical experience that you’ve had, or a cynical topic that you and your friends talk about?
Alvin No, there’s no singular moment, more like because a lot of our friends are Europeans – and of course that was probably the first time we had very regular interactions with Europeans – then you start to realise that Europeans are generally more cynical and critical towards things, which is not a bad thing because you cannot be too comfortable lah I guess. And that was how we started to realise that yeah, you can have kind of a stand or ideology as well, which I feel a lot of Singaporeans maybe don’t have when we go there (Europe). When we go there we think: Oh you mean you can talk about this, oh you mean you can think about this, or you can have another way to look at something? And yeah, that was the cynical part lor, ya.
Rachel So it’s something like everyone has strong opinions of their own.
Rachel Oh, okay.
Alvin And cynicism has to come from a kind of resignation right, because, you know you’re not doing so well, and so you just be cynical about it in order for you to be alive lah, to be happy right? So it’s kind of a coping mechanism sometimes, but it’s nice.
Rachel Yeah, seeing that life is so unpredictable.
Alvin Well, it can be predictable. In Singapore it’s very predictable. (laughs)
When we go there we think: Oh you mean you can talk about this, oh you mean you can think about this, or you can have another way to look at something?
Yeah that's true. Then for Clara, what ways of working do these older colleagues have?
Alvin Yeah, (laughs) I’m very curious.
Rachel Yeah! (laughs)
Clara Ways of working… ‘cause they’re artists, mostly performing artists. So, it’s like they would come in and they would just practice all the time, so like maybe one day I’m just doing my normal data entry computer stuff, boring stuff. And then it’s like the environment you know, it’s very – I would say – magical or nice, then somebody would be there singing, and or dancing, and then they’ll just be like practicing their –
Alvin – crafts.
Clara – craft, like moving their bodies or just playing an instrument, so the environment was like that for many months while I was there. It’s just like I would never have this kind of experience if I didn’t work there lah, even as an Arts Administrator, yup.
Rachel Ah, yup, understand.
Clara It’s just kind of subconsciously or subtly influencing me in that sense, it’s like you’re always in that world.
Rachel So you would say that this is like a nice, magical experience?
Clara In hindsight I would say it’s nice, like of course not everything is smooth-sailing but I really kind of appreciated the way things were at that time.
Alvin Actually it’s important for her but also important for us – that period – because we came from a design world mah. We just graduated from Temasek Poly so we were in a very design kind of world. And then immediately when she started working as an Arts Administrator we got thrown into the art world as well. So I think that’s what she’s trying to say, that it’s a completely different way of working, completely different from designers right? And that’s when through her interaction with them then we started to learn, understand more about I like guess art, about artists, how they work.
Clara Yeah, how they work and how disciplined they are and how much they’re struggling. It’s not so easy and all that lah. And it also influences how we became very mixed, like we’re not really considering ourselves artists or designers per se, so it’s just mixed. Right?
Rachel Nice, staying adaptable.
Alvin Yeah, we just let ourselves be influenced, by the art world as well. And also I think during that time we really picked up on just reading up on art or being more exposed to art.
Clara Looking at what they’re doing: They’re painting, they’re dancing, they’re drawing something, or they’re sweating, you know.
Alvin Yeah, you’ll be surprised because in our design education we’re not so much exposed to art. It’s very like: Oh, you’re design-educated so you’re exposed to designers – or architects maybe, and then that’s it. But when it comes to exposing designers to art as a way of education, it’s not so much in our training.
Clara It’s quite separated.
Alvin Yup. So it was a nice exposure there.
We’re not really considering ourselves artists or designers per se, so it's just mixed.
You seem to have a never-ending list of project ideas at hand. Why do you find dissecting the mundane so enjoyable that you’re willing to do it full-time?
Alvin Firstly, I think because it’s mundane objects, so it’s everywhere, you can just access them – they’re within your reach. It's limitless almost – from socks to a bowl or something like that. So that one is easy; to find subjects. Why we are interested in dissecting the everyday is because… (gestures to Clara, laughing)
Clara Because I guess, you see that cup over there right and you think there’s nothing much to it – it’s just a cup, you drink from it. But then if you really look closely, there's something that maybe you can discover. And then we get very high when we discover stupid things like that. And like, wah! Like really like: Ey ya hor, it’s there! This thing is happening, you know. So giving one example, when we were on the subject of Cup, we gathered a lot of cups together, and one day I was looking at the bunch of cups which came with saucers –
Alvin – some of the cups came with saucers you know.
Clara I was asking Alvin: Ey what do you think? If we filled the cup to the brim and then we pour the liquid into the saucer, do you think the saucer can hold the whole volume of liquid?
Rachel That’s interesting!
Clara Yup. So it’s like we’re just asking stupid, simple questions like that right, then –
Alvin Then we try lor.
Clara Then we tried. Then he was like: I’m sure cannot. Because the saucer looks really shallow –
Alvin – deceptively shallow.
Clara – very shallow like, how can it be? And I was like: No, no, maybe we try. I’m sure can. I think it can hold all the volume. Then he was like: No way, there’s no way. So it's like he's challenging me, I'm challenging him, and then in the end we just have to try right? So when we tried, for some reason, until the very last drop, nothing overflowed.
Alvin The volume was equal.
Clara Ya. Everything was equal. It was just right. Like the cup and the saucer, they held equal volumes. Although there was the illusion that –
Rachel – it’s shallow.
Clara – it’s shallow, yeah!
Alvin But not all cups and saucers do that.
Clara Then we tried with the IKEA ones, which are the big breakfast cups –
Alvin Yeah, it didn’t work.
Clara – which came with the saucer and then that didn’t work of course, because the cup was super big. Then we started to ask questions like: Do you think all the older cups in the past were all designed in that way in which –
Alvin There’s a relationship, yeah.
Clara – there’s a relationship between the saucer and cup in terms of the volume, because they always pour the beverage to cool it down right? Like something like that. Of course they don’t pour it all in one shot lah, but yup. Maybe when they're designing they consider things like that, but in the present maybe designers don’t really think about that. They just design something that is nice, fancy, or looks cute –
Alvin In a magazine, yeah.
Clara – wah got a lot of facets, very stylo, can feature in a magazine.
Clara Aesthetic, ya. They don’t think about how people drink, or how they use the cup, as long as it looks nice, yeah.
Rachel That’s so interesting. I would never think that people will pour their drink out onto the saucer to cool it down, and then pour it back in.
Alvin No, they don’t. They just drink directly from the saucer. You don’t do that?
Rachel Oh, no.
Alvin Orh… Okay.
Clara Like… If you go to Ya Kun, you can still see some old people doing that too. It was quite a common practice in the past.
Alvin In our time it’s still a common practice, but it’s actually an English –
Clara – invention.
Alvin The English people do it, not even Singaporeans – we found out in our research, yeah.
Rachel Wow, that’s a new discovery for me!
Alvin Yeah, a lot more lah, if you keep looking then you’ll find something.
You see that cup over there right and you think there’s nothing much to it – it’s just a cup, you drink from it. But then if you really look closely, there's something that maybe you can discover.
Okay, I’ll keep that in mind. So, next is: Since most of your research is self-assigned; so y’all give yourselves projects, how long would say you take to complete one?
Alvin We choose a subject like a T-shirt and then we spend about six months doing research. So research meaning no Google, every day just take a T-shirt and try it out, wear it differently, do stupid things with it, basically. Then we make observation notes – things like these – and after six months we kind of say: Okay maybe that's enough, and we spend about three to six months distilling it into a book.
Clara Filter… Clarify…
Alvin Yeah, filter and clarify it into a book. So normally it’s about six months research, six months “editing”? Editorial? Whatever you call it.
Clara Six months? I thought it was three months.
Alvin Three months, but it normally extends. Ya lah, always overshot one ‘cause we are terrible at editing; editorial. We are not trained in that at all so for us it's very difficult to do.
Clara So normally the whole process takes eight months right?
Alvin Yeah. We hope lah, we hope the whole process takes eight months.
Clara It used to be eight months, then now it’s like one year, one time. (all laugh)
Alvin And then with kids it’s like: Oh, it’s even slower.
Clara Yeah the kids slow us down.
Rachel Oh dear. (laughs) But should be fun ah!
Alvin Uh… Ya lah. (laughs)
Clara (laughs) Excuses.
Alvin It's okay lah.
Rachel They can participate also.
Alvin & Clara No, no, no, we don't want to get them involved.
Alvin Their world is different.
Clara They just make a mess and then we have to clean up.
Research meaning no Google, every day just take a T-shirt and try it out, wear it differently, do stupid things with it, basically.
For one of your projects called HABIT©AT, you decided to scrap the idea of creating houses because you realise that the cats actually don't need them. We're wondering how your client reacted, and if a similar situation happens in the future, how would you balance fulfilling your personal interests and meeting clients’ expectations?
Alvin Okay, but to give a bit of context the project was actually not really client-based, it was more like a commission. So what happened was that we were commissioned to interpret this – it was part of a much larger workshop programme that was organised by DesignSingapore.
Clara It's more educational rather than a client-based thing.
Alvin So they got these different primary school kids to come in and one of the proposals was a – was it a cat house?
Clara Yeah. I think they were supposed to go around…
Alvin Yeah they went to Woodlands or something like that.
Clara …to some neighborhood and observe the environment.
Alvin Yeah and the kids made a cat house.
Clara They saw a lot of stray cats I think and kids being cute and naïve right, they were like: I'm going to make a cat house for the cats too because there are so many stray cats here!
Alvin We were the workshop panelists who were supposed to choose a project to work on to reinterpret. So we choose the cathouse made by the kids to reinterpret. So during our reinterpretation, I mean, generally we were expected to design a nicer looking cat house – that was the premise. But then we realised, don’t need lah there's no need for a cat house. So we just threw them a book – which became the HABIT©AT event eventually. So I think it's okay right? I don't think anybody was offended.
Clara No, because that initiative was more like an educational thing than a making money kind of thing. So they were quite open, I mean in the end we exhibited the book with some maps that we drew, and they were okay with it.
Rachel Yeah, it looked very nice!
Alvin Yeah I mean of course if it’s a paying client then obviously we would have to approach it differently but I think that during that time restrictions weren't so tight.
Clara And the book was obviously not the one that we finished in the end. It was a beta version which was a small one – a cute, very thin book. Then after four years, we published the official book so we had to add on a lot of context in front – what is Singapore like, what's HDB, because maybe nobody knows. People overseas wouldn't know what an HDB and void deck are so we had to add in those things, and at the back, some propositions.
Rachel It’s nice how y’all try to make your works more universal so more people can appreciate them.
Alvin Actually we always thought: Isn't it a prerequisite to make your work accessible for a bigger, worldwide audience as much as possible? We thought it was a prerequisite so we never felt that we should do things to speak to a local audience only. I mean especially today right? You can buy things across the world so easily, so it doesn't make sense to just speak locally to local people.
Actually we always thought: Isn't it a prerequisite to make your work accessible for a bigger, worldwide audience as much as possible?
I see, that’s very nice. So now we're moving towards an age of sustainability and a technological era so more and more projects are moving online, but it seems like you prefer books as a medium. Do you see yourselves creating maybe digital books or exhibitions anytime soon?
Alvin No, no, almost never. No reason to. Not because we're not thinking of sustainability, but I think there are many ways to be sustainable, and not making books it's just one way lah.
Clara It’s a very direct way.
Alvin Yeah, it’s a very direct way: Oh let's not cut trees, let's not make books. But if you think about the amount of value that a book can give, then maybe that offsets something as well. I'm not saying that all books are good, I’m sure there’re crappy books out there that don’t deserve to be published, but we try right? As much as we can. But digital has its own burden as well. And for us, because of the nature of our work, if we go into the digital experience, then what are we trying to do? I think that kind of puts us into a bit of a situation as well. I think a lot of times if people are familiar with what we’re looking at, it’s a lot about our senses, because the moment you enter a digital experience the rest of your body is irrelevant. Everything happens around the top part only, the eyes and the brain, maybe our fingers lah hah. The rest can throw; you can chop off already. So we’re trying not to go there and not to lead people there as well.
Clara Also our work is very tactile right? We touch things all the time; we play with it so putting that forward digitally is also a bit contradictory I think; it’s counterintuitive.
Alvin And exhibitions even worse right? So for us, for example in our exhibitions nowadays especially, we try as far as possible to make sure our exhibitions are participatory somehow, where people can touch a bit. Because it’s very weird to have an exhibition where people just go there –
Clara – be passive.
Alvin – hands behind their back and then just look at the thing, not touch anything. I think we’re beyond that kind of set up now. Now we need a bit more engagement because of how high resolution all these things are – I mean you can enjoy an exhibition on an iPad nowadays right? Because there are those 360 views of an exhibition. You can do that you know? And really absorb a lot from that exhibition. So we felt that if we have to make a physical exhibition, we need to make sure people can touch or smell or hear things; they can move through the space, things like that. I think it’s a response lah. Any creative or artist out there is always responding to the situation; the world that we’re in right now. So now I guess for us, we’re responding a bit to the digital world.
The moment you enter a digital experience the rest of your body is irrelevant. Everything happens around the top part only, the eyes and the brain.
So would you say that you are resistant to technology? Because as creatives, our line of work is always about experimenting right, but you would prefer to create a more in-body experience rather than having the person segmented from what they’re actually doing.
Alvin I don’t think we’re resistant, we’re more cynical maybe, or critical of technology. For us, technology should remain as a tool. Once it takes over; it becomes a lifestyle – then that’s when we say no. That’s where you have to draw that line. Because a tool is okay, AI maybe, even Netflix is just a tool – it transmits content to you. But let’s say you go into the metaverse and everything you do is in the metaverse, then I think there’s where you need to stop and evaluate the situation a bit. Because it doesn’t make sense for us human beings with our bodies and everything to just engage one part of our body, constantly. That’s what we thought was a bit weird.
Clara We’re not resistant, we also use technology all the time. (all laugh) So for one of our projects, Clock, we actually had someone help us make a page turner which turns the pages automatically.
Alvin It’s like a kinetic installation.
Clara We use I mean, computers, technology, scanners, digital…
Alvin (laughs) Wow, we’re so high-tech right? We use scanners!
Clara We’re not resistant; we’re not purists lah.
Alvin But we are careful of it. We embrace it and we want to use it well, but not overuse it.
Rachel So you'd say technology is useful insofar as it is tools for us to fulfil what we want to do rather than something that consumes us?
Alvin Yeah, that exactly, yeah.
Clara Yeah it's just how we use it right?
For us, technology should remain as a tool. Once it takes over, it becomes a lifestyle – then that’s when we say no. That’s where you have to draw that line.
Yeah I agree, okay! (laughs) How would you say you plan to stay relevant in society when it's changing so often? Do you have something like a mantra that's everlasting that you think will last throughout the ages?
Alvin I want to say no. I don't think anything will last throughout the ages but for us we try to stay relevant by firstly, letting our subjects lead the way. So the subjects we choose are, we hope, timeless unless you stop eating an apple or you stop using a cup. In general, you can relate to it. The things you look at, human behaviour, I think most people can relate to. What I do and what you do are more or less the same, so we try to keep those things relevant.
Rachel Sounds good!
Clara I guess it's relevant right? I mean everyday things are relevant.
I want to say no. I don't think anything will last throughout the ages but for us we try to stay relevant by firstly, letting our subjects lead the way.
Yeah! That's timeless in itself. So with Science of the Secondary you continually stress the importance of people looking deeper into everyday objects like cups and books, in a process known as defamiliarisation. So unknowing something that you already know. Regarding audience reception, how do you think that "unknowing" common objects compares to other forms of entertainment like Netflix, YouTube or going outside to play sports with your brother?
Alvin Wow, this one is tough.
Clara How does it compare?
Alvin How to compare? Actually cannot compare also right? Ya it's difficult to compare leh. Those are forms of entertainment, but I guess what you're trying to say is why should people even look at all these mundane things right?
Rachel Yeah, correct.
Alvin Technically they shouldn't, (all laugh) they don't have to, but ultimately I think what we're trying to do is get people to question their everyday and also in a way to get them to not be so overly-obsessed with all those things we were saying just now – all those sensational things. Because now it's very easy and convenient to be absorbed into that world. Every content is very fantastic, you know, very exciting – something's happening; a lot of things are happening. But maybe it's also okay to not be in that world where a lot of things are happening. Maybe it's okay to just sit here and just look at a cup, look at a spoon, to observe yourself and your surroundings. Because when you're able to question your surroundings, you also become a better, more aware human being. You might not be a better person you can be an ass, but you can be a better –
Clara Just being more aware.
Alvin Just being more sensitive to the environment. Not environment as in the world, but to your surroundings. That will maybe help you to make better decisions. Like when you buy things, maybe you will buy them with more awareness also. So every time people talk about sustainability, they always have this one way of talking about saving the world, which is: you don't buy so much, blah blah blah. But also if you raise the awareness of people, of how we relate to our everyday, maybe you don't need to buy another spoon at all because you're able to understand how to use something that you can enjoy. So sometimes we put the responsibility on other people; the commercial world when actually we are also able to become more and –
Clara – make better decisions.
Alvin – make better decisions and enjoy a cup more because you are able to bring out the qualities of it.
Rachel So your works kind of introduce a different lens of seeing the world through.
Alvin Yeah, that's what we hope. We don't know how many people care about it, I mean generally people don't care because now the world is like that, but we still try. Wah, very sad hor. (all laugh)
In a previous interview with HLDL (Habiter Le Déjà-Là), you cited Kenya Hara as one of your inspirations for researching about the process of knowing or unknowing. We’re wondering how he inspires your work, and maybe, what other inspirations you have?
Alvin Yeah, Kenya Hara of course. I think he's the one who conceptualised and put out the idea of "unknowing", through the series of seminars that he did in Musashino (Art University). It’s a project called Exformation that he does every year with a bunch of graduating students from Musashino University. And I think the premise is so simple – it's about having people not be so content with what they think they know, and that to us is very refreshing and also in a way on point today. Because now we always think we know a lot of things or at least information is very accessible to us. If you rewind back to 20, 30 years ago if we wanted to find information we had to go into a library, and at that time there was no phone no Internet –
Clara – no Google.
Alvin So I think the idea of acknowledging that we don't know everything is kind of refreshing right? Because then you become a bit curious or maybe a bit stupid even, but that's also okay. I think when you don't know something you tend to make mistakes, so it kind of lowers our ego. Yeah, it really does lower our ego and our guard, so you're allowed to be more free. Kenya Hara puts that out for us to explore further, so when we found the word “unknowing”, to us it was a starting point and then we started to give ourselves methods to “unknow” things and that's why we started to do instructions, make ourselves do 1001 things with a banana, write 500 questions about banana, things like that. So we gave ourselves all these different exercises to “unknow” something. And as we went through those processes, that's when we started to discover things – discover something about an apple: Oh my God, like, what's happening? And how come we didn't realise this last time? And it's so nice because it's almost like we’re little kids again, discovering things again and that's precious right? Because now in our daily adult life, we don't discover things anymore.
Clara Jaded lah.
Alvin Yeah we're very jaded and very dull, like zombies like that.
Alvin So that was the starting point that Kenya Hara kind of gave us and we're very grateful. As for other people who influence us, we like Bruno Munari very much – he's an Italian... Designer? I don’t know what to call him to be honest – he's great. He’s got this very childlike way of looking at things and so he's also one of our guiding points.
Clara And of course, Rudofsky.
Alvin Bernard Rudofsky as well, he's more of an architect-theoretician kind of guy, so he came up with a book, Architecture Without Architects.
Clara He's very cynical.
Alvin He’s very cynical, but also very anti-everything, so we kind of enjoy his observations. Umberto Eco as well! But not everything because Umberto Eco is sometimes a bit heavy for us, so we enjoy some of his books – those which make very light observations about society. These few people are really what kind of guides us all the time, all the time. We always refer back to them – How would Eco talk about this? – we sometimes think like this.
Clara They influence our writing quite a bit.
Alvin Yeah, definitely – the way we write about things.
Rachel So the way you write about things is also quite childlike and filled with wonder, so that’s –
Clara No not really. In the beginning maybe like for Apple because it's the first one (in the Science of the Secondary series) right, when I go back to read Apple again I'm like: This is terrible, so naive and like what you said, childlike wonder and blah blah blah. But then if you read the last one which is #13, or even #10 on the toilet, it sounds a bit angry. It sounds like you're scolding someone – it’s cynical.
Alvin Yeah, extremely cynical.
Clara If you compare the first one and the 10th one it's quite different.
Rachel But it’s fun to see it evolve – your writing voice.
Alvin Yeah, yeah, yeah, it is. Maybe our age also plays a part.
Clara In a way the voice develops over time in a more critical manner lah.
Clara We would never write like how we wrote Apple again. If we were to rewrite Apple, it would not be the same.
Alvin No definitely not. But mostly we're laughing.
Clara Laughing at ourselves.
Alvin And human beings in general. I think that's the way to go forward –
Clara – for us.
Alvin For us to laugh at ourselves and not be so serious. Otherwise it's very dull.
I think the idea of acknowledging that we don’t know everything is kind of refreshing right? Because then you become a bit curious or maybe a bit stupid even, but that’s also okay.
Life shouldn't be so serious and stringent. Okay, so let's go back to the part about tactile imagery – using touch as a sense. So when you focus on how humans interact with the space and the objects around us and you use the human bodies in many projects, what other senses apart from touch do you enjoy using? It can be in your research or the projects themselves. So maybe, in Science of the Secondary or HABIT©AT, what other senses do you use?
Alvin All senses actually. I don't think we have a clear definition. For us it's whatever is contextual to that particular situation. In general, we are of course a bit biased, so we try not to concentrate so much on the sense of sight – 'cause that's the most primary sense today. So we always try to shift to a sense of smell, sense of sound, always trying to make use of different senses or sensory organs to encounter the subject matter.
Why do you think it's so important not to just use sight – like how people look at their screens all day? If sight can be the primary medium where you get information from, why should people make the effort to use other senses?
Alvin Wah this one will lead to a very big reason. I think it boils down to what it means to be human. So if we just focus on using our eyes as the predominant sense, it's fine, it's not wrong, but we have to balance our body a bit to redistribute our experiences. I think a lot of the time it's about adjusting right? What we’re doing – “we” as in not just me and Clara but artists or designers in general – we’re trying to readjust the human being; what it means to be human. Whatever we put out there is to get people to think: Okay, what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to experience this thing; to move through a building? And I feel like we're always fighting against a much bigger –
Clara – system.
Alvin – digital world. Yeah it's really about getting people to shift their priorities a bit.
Rachel Very nice, as in how your line of work is also a lifestyle.
Alvin Ya lah, we try lah.
What we’re doing – 'we' as in not just me and Clara but artists or designers in general – we’re trying to readjust the human being; what it means to be human.
Okay, what inspires the personalities and voices of the inanimate objects that you feature your projects? So for example, do the toys in the Lost Bear Club and the four cats in HABIT©AT have a happy-go-lucky kind of voice, or is it more cynical?
Alvin Cynical lah, definitely cynical – a bit of a self-deprecating kind of voice. What inspired that voice?
Clara I think it's his natural voice. (all laugh)
Alvin No lah, it's not lah
Clara When he writes it’s natural, it just comes out like that.
Alvin No, no, it’s not, it’s not.
Clara But it's just always very cynical.
Alvin But I think because they're animals right, so we don't really know what they're thinking – or soft toys. For the Lost Bear Club or for the cats in HABIT©AT. So we just imagine that they hate human beings in general, then they become like that lor. They naturally have a cynical voice.
Rachel Or there was a description of one of the toys in the Lost Bear Club which was like: Brown’s name is brown because he is brown.
Alvin Oh yeah, there's a bit of dry humour as well.
Clara Yeah, it's just like that lah I mean –
Rachel It’s just natural.
Clara It’s just the way he writes.
Alvin Matter-of-fact, yeah.
We just imagine that they hate human beings in general, then they become like that lor. They naturally have a cynical voice.
Very nice. Do you think these personalities make them more relatable to a foreign audience?
Alvin Wah, we don't know leh – but the two projects we've mentioned – Lost Bear Club and HABIT©AT – they’re more local because of the subject matter and voice. The Lost Bear Club was actually a very old project but it became part of this Salvation Army initiative with Channel NewsAsia, so that one is more local right? It’s just within our community, with people throwing away their soft toys. HABIT©AT is very local of course, it’s talking about HDBs and our community cats and yeah, for sure I think HABIT©AT as a book is more relatable to Singaporeans. Most of our readers of course, naturally, are Singaporean. When we try to talk to the Japanese, let's say, they find it very hard to relate actually. It's really not their context so they have to overcome that part to understand.
Rachel So it's because of the HDBs that they don't really understand?
Alvin Yeah I mean, if you've never been to Singapore I think you won’t be able to understand: Ey, how does this work? How come there’re HDBs? How come the ground floor is clear? How come there’re cats around?
Clara I don't think they have a lot of stray cats also.
Alvin They have lah – the Japanese.
Clara They have but not so many right, because they have winter and all that also.
Alvin Yeah so their cats are not forever one right, I think our HDB cats are more like forever – they're always around somewhere, we can see them a bit more. In Japan, maybe it’s harder. In Europe of course it's different as well.
Rachel There’s this theory about a Cat Distribution System that’s something about the Universe making cats appear when you and the cats need it most. So maybe all the Japanese succumb to this and they’ve all adopted the cats.
Alvin Yeah, I like that theory. Nice theory man! (all laugh)
Most of our readers of course, naturally, are Singaporean. When we try to talk to the Japanese, let’s say, they find it very hard to relate actually. It’s really not their context so they have to overcome that part to understand.
The next project we want to talk about is the INDEX RING. So I'm curious, why protect the index finger instead of any other finger? This ring seems very simple and aesthetic, but not really functional because you can't use it to press things, you have to take it off if you want to touch the screen right? There're some rules that you set out for wearers to adhere to. So yeah, why protect the index finger?
Alvin It was a response to the theme Global Identity, so at that point we were trying to understand what the Global Identity was. During that time of course, there was a huge explosion of iPads, you know, all the touchscreen devices started to really become commonplace. And then you start to look at people's behaviour – we start to do this swiping thing, and a lot of the time it’s with our index finger. So we thought maybe now and forever and ever, our index finger is maybe more important than an opposable thumb. So why don't we kind of shift the priority of importance, so maybe you can lose your thumb, but your index finger you must maintain, because without it you cannot swipe or activate your phone. So with that digital environment in mind, we thought: What if jewellery can also address our anatomy? And if you notice the INDEX RING'S finger pad is totally covered, so we want to talk about how your finger pad is very important because it's your identity, so you have to maintain it and keep it covered. Only use it for touchscreen devices.
Clara If you want to switch on the light you use your middle finger.
Rachel Okay that makes sense.
Alvin But now it’s no longer like that, I realise, because especially young people are very good with their thumbs on their phone.
Clara Or like you use the index plus the thumb?
Rachel Actually what fingers do y'all use to use your phones?
Alvin Sometimes I use my index finger.
Clara Yeah depends lah, how you use the device (gestures) like this, or like this, or like this.
Rachel So now need thumb ring as well.
Alvin Maybe, yeah. We should have come up with a two-ring thing.
Rachel Actually this project reminds me of the old Chinese Empresses –
Clara Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rachel – where they had long nails and then you must cover the nails with the protective covering.
Alvin Yeah that was actually one of our reference images when we were designing it.
Clara To protect the nails right, the long nails yeah.
Rachel And like the hands in general, like they can't do anything.
Clara They shouldn't be doing anything, so therefore they have the long nails and the covering right? To protect.
Rachel It’ll be interesting if after wearing this ring for a long time, you realise your index finger is just white and then the other fingers are just mottled or something. Like how people who work in the fields, maybe farmers – their legs are white and pristine, then their hands have sunspots and wear-and-tear.
Alvin In this case, your index finger will really be reserved for digital experiences or interactions only.
Rachel That's so funny! Okay.
Clara I think that one was more of a statement than a really functional kind of project, you know.
Rachel Yeah, okay, I understand.
Clara Nobody wear it.
We want to talk about how your finger pad is very important because it's your identity, so you have to maintain it and keep it covered. Only use it for touchscreen devices.
So among all these interesting projects, if one of them could really alter our life which one do you think it would be and why?
Alvin I would like to think it's the Science of the Secondary publication series because for us that is something we like to put out there continuously, and hopefully when people read it they just question their life and everyday a bit, and that to us is enough to get them to be a more a bit more aware.
Clara I don't think it's going to be life altering. It wouldn't alter anyone's life actually.
Rachel Maybe if they think about it deeply enough then they'll be like: Oh my gosh, I've been missing out on life!
Alvin Yeah or to slow them down a bit as well. No need to always look for exciting things. Can be exciting and normal things as well – that's generally what we're looking for.
The Science of the Secondary publication series because for us that is something we like to put out there continuously, and hopefully when people read it they just question their life and everyday a bit, and that to us is enough to get them to be a more a bit more aware.
Yeah, totally agree. Okay then, how does all the knowledge you glean from your creative work translate to your part-time teaching or vice versa? So maybe how does what you’ve taught translate to your work?
Alvin Actually there's no separation. For me, at least. Because what we do –
Clara – is basically what we teach right? It's what informs us lah, when we're teaching.
Alvin So it's about discovering something right? Or learning about something, generally lah. Our preoccupation is about learning about something, so when we talk to students it’s the same. So we ask them to do exactly what we do as well.
Clara The approaches are being applied, like we ask them to apply the “unknowing” research methods or whatever.
Alvin So it's very useful. Actually, we can immediately translate what we do on our side for the students. Of course, we contextualise and adjust it a bit, but generally it's very seamless for us.
Rachel Nice! So for listeners who might not know, Alvin and Clara are teaching at NAFA, NYP and LASALLE, right?
Alvin Yeah, sporadically here and there.
Clara Yeah, here and there.
We can immediately translate what we do on our side for the students. Of course, we contextualise and adjust it a bit, but generally it's very seamless for us.
Okay. Do y'all really enjoy this aspect of your work? Like why choose teaching?
Alvin I guess firstly because it's so close to what we're doing, so it's very easy almost. We don't need to overthink or try to come up with something. The transition is very clean.
Clara It just happened.
Alvin We didn't plan it.
Clara We didn't particularly go to get a teaching job, it just happened like: Oh you wanna teach? Yeah, I’ll come. Okay lor, just try, and then we just went on from there.
How do the students react to this sort of “unknowing” process? Are they interested in it? Are they wowed by it? Do they get “high” as y'all when they find out new things?
Alvin Sad to say, no. It's very difficult.
Clara I think a lot of students actually feel very shy, like they usually feel very inhibited. But the younger ones – maybe from the age of 15 to 18 – are more receptive to “unknowing”. They're more playful, I think they just want to play – the 14 year olds. But the older they get, then the less they want to try –
Alvin – as all human beings are, the older you get.
Rachel Actually that's true.
Clara The older people will always say: I know this already so why should I do this?
Rachel That’s so sad.
Alvin Or they judge first. There's always a judgement –
Clara – because they're so full of knowledge already.
Alvin Tertiary students especially, because I think when you’re of that age you’re also more concerned with your image –
Clara – it's not cool, I don't look cool if I do this.
Alvin And what we do is always stupid things, like sometimes we ask people to eat a banana the other way – the students have to find ways of doing something stupid right, so very often they'll end up looking quite ridiculous. Like once I was down in the field and I had to fly a roll of toilet paper in the air.
Clara Like a kite.
Alvin I unrolled the toilet paper and it caught the wind and started to flap in the air – we have to do things like these –
Clara Ridiculous things.
Alvin – and people will judge you, so you need to have a bit of a thick skin. I think nowadays students don't have that kind of skin, they're more concerned with how people view them, which I think is partly due to social media.
Rachel Yeah me too.
Alvin So that's the difficulty for us to introduce our way of working. There's always a lot of resistance, so we can only impart so much. Then the rest we let them be and see how it goes.
I think nowadays students don't have that kind of skin, they're more concerned with how people view them, which I think is partly due to social media.
But your points of view are very important, so it's very nice that you keep trying to get people to come out of their shell and have a bit of fun.
Alvin Yeah ultimately it's about having fun right? But they don't view it as fun.
Clara Some of them do. They still try and then they go "ha ha ha!"
Alvin In general they view it as: Don’t want ah, shy lah, so stupid! Then the process stops there.
I see, okay, how much of your current work banks on your formal education and how much utilises skills you've picked up over the years?
Alvin The skills... Almost none. (laughs) Skills, we have to pick up along the way as we're doing our work 'cause ultimately we’re trained in product; industrial and contextual design. So what is good about industrial design is that makes us first and foremost, think about people and human beings, so that, we hold onto until today. Of course, Science of the Secondary is all about human beings so that is the good thing about learning about this aspect. For contextual design, when we were doing our Masters, we got a more critical; cynical view of the world and also a more open view of design. Because in our Masters, it was very open. There's no real definition of: Oh – this is design – this is art – this is architecture – this is fashion, you know.
Clara It wasn't skill-based also, and we had other classmates who were not trained in design or art at all, like there was one mathematician right, dancers, and there were architects as well. It was quite mixed. It was good because learn from each other, and we can see what they're doing and they learn from us as well.
Alvin Then you also start to realise, you know, design cannot be just one way.
Rachel Actually, even in universities across Singapore, they're trying to introduce this concept called Interdisciplinary Learning so it's nice that they kind of picked up that you can't just force students into a box, and then expect all of them to turn out the same way.
Alvin & Clara Yup!
It was good because learn from each other, and we can see what they're doing and they learn from us as well.
So, drawing on that, what do you find lacking in design education that you might wish to change? Maybe from your teaching when you wonder: Oh actually why are students only learning about this concept now?
Alvin I think for me – I speak for me because we teach different things – I think design education is now still very much about preparing students for the industry rather than making them think about design as a discipline, or as a way of doing something. They just want to make them into some kind of worker and that to me is the biggest problem. And of course it doesn't help that it's also a lot about GPA and things like these, and I think grading still doesn't make sense in a design context. So the problem is of a much larger scale in terms of a governmental type of problem already.
Rachel So regarding this systemic grading system, what do you think might be a better path rather than exams or assessments?
Alvin I think it should be more about having meaningful discussions about the students’ work. The student shouldn't have the idea that he or she can arrive at a distinction or a B or C or something like that. It shouldn't be that way lah, right?
Rachel Yeah. Ultimately life has no grades right?
Clara So adding on to what Alvin said about design education, about grading and all that, it’s similar for me in that when I was teaching, I had to grade; critique the students’ work. I always had to have this list or rubrics which you check off, and I find myself sometimes marking but feeling like the project is not great. Like it was not “wow” or inspiring, but the student managed to get every single rubric on point, so there's no way I can mark him any less because he really did very well for everything. So then naturally he became the top student, but of course for me maybe the second or third person who got lower marks had a much more inspiring project which I much prefer, but it's just that he didn't get so many points because maybe he didn't fulfil one of the criteria lah. But grading doesn't matter actually and sometimes my students will be very sad and will ask me why their grades are like that and then I would have to tell them that it's not about the grades. But when you're saying that you're also grading them, so it's a bit contradictory. That part is really hard because as teachers we’re also forced to be partial – we don't want to grade you but we still have to mark you.
Alvin I think we always ask: How do you grade the spirit of a student? Spirit is very hard to grade eh.
Clara Or like commitment, like can you give a mark for that?
Alvin Commitment can.
Clara Can, but sometimes they don’t account for it, you know?
Alvin But just sometimes this student has a spirit that is so good, there’s something there that’s very precious, but there's nothing in the rubrics that says “spirit”. So the student that you think actually has very strong potential to go very far – he or she won't get a good grade because her way of working is not within the rubrics and that's very sad lah and then in the end, ya lor.
Clara And then we also realised that the person who has the highest marks in class usually doesn't go out to do their own thing.
Alvin They’re not independent.
Clara They always work for somebody else and just go into the system, like just blend in right?
Rachel As they should, by the system.
Clara Because they're very good at –
Alvin – checking the rubrics –
Clara – in the system.
Rachel So what y'all are basically saying is that it's difficult when people have to use objective forms of grading on a subjective discipline.
Clara It could be improved lah.
I think it should be more about having meaningful discussions about the students’ work. The student shouldn't have the idea that he or she can arrive at a distinction or a B or C or something like that.
So sad. Okay, so maybe if you were to share one important takeaway from your projects with your students what would it be? Apart from things like "don't think too much about your grades" – that sort of thing.
Alvin I think they have to find their way. Every student needs to find their way.
Clara Their own voice.
Alvin Yeah their own voice, their own way of working. Of course there’re always influences coming in, nowadays very fast for them, but they have to find their own way to do something. And this is sorely lacking nowadays. All the students are just copying – when I say copying I don't mean plagiarising – but they're just looking at what's on Pinterest or whatsoever, and that only limits what you can do, that's all. That's why we always ask them to do research without using Google because when you Google, everybody can get the same results. But if you use your body to do research you can get different results for sure because it's your body mah, your own terms, your own premise all the time. So we always ask them to do that and hopefully they can find something new; information they can use for their work.
Clara Maybe look more internally than externally, because we also notice that students nowadays have so much information around them, so they are always addressing very big issues like global warming; save the world. Because everyday when they scroll on the Internet it's all about that right? In the past we didn't have that.
Alvin We were ignorant. (all laugh)
Clara Yeah, so we tend to look more internally but now it's different is external. So yeah, everybody is addressing the same thing but actually they're not really addressing anything at the same time.
Rachel Actually I'm also working, personally, on getting a more Internal Locus of Control rather than an external one. Especially because of the system and society, it’s important to develop your own opinions and voice.
Alvin Yeah we're still looking for that, we’re still waiting, actually.
If you use your body to do research you can get different results for sure because it's your body mah, your own terms, your own premise all the time.
Nice, same! So the next question is seeing that Singapore is relatively new to creating compared to other nations what do you think could really help us to boost our design scene?
Alvin I think we need more space, more funding – generally it’s like that lah, because from our experience in Europe especially, when you see those artists or designers, when they’re given the generosity of space to really do something, then when you have the space and the accessibility to materials, more things can happen. You're just like a child, you’re given some things to play with so you can start to tinker around a bit more. But now we are always in this one-table-one-computer kind of setting so that's not so useful for I guess creating anything actually. Regardless, I mean you can just be a writer or anything, but you also need more things to be surrounded with. And also this division – this ridiculous pigeonholing of design and then art, they’re so separated – I cannot fund you – that has to stop man, that's so antiquated. I don't know why we're still having this division between different disciplines – there shouldn't be any kind of division between all the disciplines within design or art, it should just be one thing.
Clara Just creatives lor.
Alvin It doesn't help to divide what... I don't know what's the point. Oh bureaucracy and funding. Any thoughts?
Clara No, it's just the space thing, I think. Designers are just struggling because they have to pay rent. Rent in Singapore is just ridiculous, we couldn’t afford it and then we moved back home to work from home. But we also need more space because we have a lot of books and then the books are everywhere – like in the wardrobes, the storerooms, under the bed.
Alvin I think the rationale is always that designers need to pay rent because they're a business.
Alvin But that’s one way mah to look at design – as a business entity. I think within design there are many smaller disciplines like critical design. Maybe they don't make so much money but they work more in museums or in different companies for other kind of reasons, to make exhibitions and things. So that needs to have a kind of space as well, a way to operate. And I think in Singapore we don't have that kind of openness to smaller business.
Clara It’s too rigid.
Alvin Ya, it’s very rigid in the sense that design is business and you have to pay rent. Then if you’re within the design world, you have no choice, you cannot get Arts funding or housing and you have to rent a space and because you have to pay for the rental you have to do client jobs or whatsoever. Then it becomes a vicious cycle again, and then you're not able to practice what you wished or wanted to do in the beginning. So then everything becomes part of the rubrics again.
Clara No diversity.
Alvin Yeah, yeah that's the word.
Rachel So this openness we need is not so much about the space but a mental systemic space?
Alvin I think it's both.
Clara Physical as well, it will help.
Alvin The important thing is to have that atmosphere where we don't immediately categorise people. Like: Oh, you're in industrial design or you're in graphic design, I think that kind of encounter shouldn't be a de facto way of looking at things.
I don't know why we're still having this division between different disciplines – there shouldn't be any kind of division between all the disciplines within design or art, it should just be one thing.
Okay, that's all for the design process, let's move on to some of your life views! So knowing the importance of stepping back to consider ordinary objects around you, how would you say that you "unknow" in your daily life? Like what are some of the ways you choose to see ordinary objects that are different from other people?
Alvin Oh, so I think we talked about it earlier, like really it's a lot about the process of defamiliarising ourselves with the thing right? So generally our process is always about doing a lot of things with the subject that we're choosing. Is that even answering the question?
Rachel It's more of like why is this way of seeing the world so different from normal people, or people's normal views? As in like, normally people will just take the cup and drink from it right?
Clara But that's what we also do right? We’re also very normal people.
Alvin It's not like every day we look at a cup.
Clara We're normal people also using the cup normally. Once in a while we switch the "unknowing" lens on while we're doing research then we switch it off, then we use the cup normally again.
Rachel It'll be so curious if you constantly defamiliarise everything then everything will look strange.
Alvin No lah cannot, I think that one need super high level of brain power.
Clara Need to be drunk everyday or something.
Alvin Yeah you need some substances but we don't do that. When we choose a subject then we really get some quite obsessive over the object. We have to focus lah.
Okay, very nice. So next is the importance of having fun while working. What are some of the things you love most about your work?
Alvin The research part the part where you wake up and you decide: Okay what am I gonna do with this T-shirt today? Normally I line up for myself about 5 to 10 things to do, like layer 20 pieces of T-shirts so I just do, do do do, and then I make photos and videos and draw, and if you discover something then it's a kind of bonus right? Or you generate a set of questions to think about more about the T-shirt. So that part is the most precious and the most fun, and then the editorial part is the most hateful.
Alvin So when we do together, that day we were wearing one T-shirt together, just trying to squeeze two of us into one T-shirt.
Rachel That must have been fun!
Alvin Yeah, very fun! A lot of times we do things that don't make sense that will never see the light of day.
Clara You just have to do until you find something.
Alvin Yeah, it's part of the process.
Rachel So this T-shirt research is also part of Science of the Secondary?
Alvin & Clara Yeah, yeah, it’s the next issue.
Rachel Oh, so exciting. Yay! We have like a behind-the-scenes; early look into it.
That day we were wearing one T-shirt together, just trying to squeeze two of us into one T-shirt.
So as self-declared “rebels” – in previous interviews you said you rebel against both Singaporean society and even your parents. So how have different people reacted to your unique attitudes towards design and such unconventional projects that you create? ‘Cause it’s really not something that people ordinarily think of.
Alvin Generally younger people are more receptive to what we do, I guess because they're also in that point of life where they're still learning; they’re still open. So when they see our works I think they kind of get it, I hope, so that was really nice. When we have art book fairs, our conversations with them are always quite positive. But of course the older generation, you know even our parents and all this – it's a bit harder for them to understand why we do what we do, which is understandable of course.
Clara Some old people are more open as well. It really depends on the person.
Alvin We've been called indulgent before, by an old person I think. But it's okay. I think every creative has their own place and things to do and we just feed off each other. So it shouldn't be like you shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that – we all do different things. Some work, some don't work, who knows?
I think every creative has their own place and things to do and we just feed off each other. So it shouldn't be like you shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that – we all do different things. Some work, some don't work, who knows?
Apart from the reactions across different ages – like y'all mentioned for Café CUP there were different countries also but foreigners seemed to be more receptive – what were some of the reactions from foreigners versus locals?
Alvin I think it's more about the nature of the event. So the Café CUP is such that people don't expect or don't know how to behave in a situation like that, where it’s like: Huh? We're supposed to choose a cup ah? They don't understand that because in Singapore it’s very clean one – exhibition is exhibition that's it. You go to an exhibition, don't touch anything. Very rarely are Singaporeans exposed to this semi-experience; semi-art; or semi-design kind of mixture, so I think it's very hard for them to understand. And Singaporeans are like that one, if they cannot understand something right, they won't go for it. They need to know what it is. I don't know whether it's because we think we’re damned good in English, that we’re a bit like that. In other countries is just like: Oh? What's this? Haha! And they're willing and open to try, and they understand what we're doing. I don't know why they can understand. I'm not saying Singaporeans suck lah but…
Clara Maybe it's the exposure, the culture, like even the very old people are always going to exhibitions in Japan – they’re exposed.
Alvin It’s their life; it’s part of their way of life. Culture is part of their life. I think in Singapore, culture is not our way of life.
Clara For us it’s more like an event rather than a part of life.
Alvin In Singapore when you go to art events it's like: Wah, you’re so atas; you’re so artistic. It’s very strange. It shouldn't be that way.
Very rarely are Singaporeans exposed to this semi-experience; semi-art; or semi-design kind of mixture, so I think it's very hard for them to understand.
Yeah, that's true. Ok then, talking about cynicism, how has your cynicism towards people motivated your projects, and why is it worthwhile trying to convince people to think otherwise? Like stepping away from their routines?
Alvin The cynicism part is just our point of view of the world. To be honest, it's not easy to live in Singapore. It's either you follow society, or you're cynical about it. And being cynical is our way of dealing with it lah; not going crazy.
Clara It’s different from being angry right?
Alvin Yeah it's not angry, it's not angry. It's just like "haha", you know.
Clara Yeah like you laugh about it then you move on. But the other way would be, to be angry all the time. Then it's very toxic; it's not good; it's not constructive. So the way for us to be cynical is actually to be constructive.
So since most people they're more guai; like they follow the system, why do you think it's worthwhile trying to convince them to not do that?
Alvin Is it worthwhile?
Clara In the first place I don't think we try to convince or want to convert people. We're just putting it out there, like look: Do you want to do it or not? And it's always about your choice lah – you make the decision, we don't force you to do this but we want to do it. It’s for ourselves. (jokingly) It's not for you, we don't care about you actually.
Alvin Yeah primarily we're doing it for ourselves. It’s a very selfish thing; it's indulgent, like what some people would say.
Clara It’s your own life.
Rachel Personal interests.
Alvin And we also don't try to figure out who our readers are right, we just put the content out there and the readers –
Clara – decide for themselves.
Alvin – if they can connect, then good.
Clara We don't make a book for certain kind of readership.
It's always about your choice lah – you make the decision, we don't force you to do this but we want to do it. It’s for ourselves.
Okay, so then you mentioned you have two wonderful boys. What values do you want to impart to them and do you think their attitudes towards life resonate with yours?
Alvin I don't think their attitudes resonate with ours (laughs). But I guess they’re quite funny also lah, that’s one thing good about them.
Clara I think they’re quite happy lah, they're just happy go lucky, just having fun every day. They're only three and six.
Rachel So cute.
Clara So we don't expect anything from them. Just be happy, play, can already.
Alvin What we expect from them is the same as what we expect from the students actually. Just really find their own way of life. And I think every generation will have their own world to deal with and it's completely different from our world, so we cannot decide for them what they can or cannot do; what they should and should not believe. We just have to make them think for themselves, that's the more important thing. Not don't follow this don't follow that, it's just what are you, or who are you, that's all.
Rachel Nice, to be independent.
Alvin Yeah, yeah, in that way you can tackle anything along the way.
I think every generation will have their own world to deal with and it's completely different from our world, so we cannot decide for them what they can or cannot do; what they should and should not believe. We just have to make them think for themselves, that's the more important thing.
Just a few more questions for this part. Where is your ideal locale of residence?
Clara That’s a very good question. We’re still searching, I mean I don't think Singapore is bad but it's also not ideal, but at the same time like when we think about moving it's also very difficult. Like where do we want to go? Nowhere is really perfect actually, we always think that there’s a perfect place but I think there is none. That's why we're still here.
Rachel Or having been to so many places, what's one or some of them that you really enjoy?
Alvin Maybe not a country but for us, more ideal is the countryside; a more away-from-the-city kind of situation.
Rachel So Punggol? (laughs)
Alvin Yeah, exactly, that’s why we’re here.
Clara On the fringe of Singapore for now.
Alvin For us it's important to live at the edge. If can see a bit of water that's nice.
Clara Mountain, water.
Nowhere is really perfect actually, we always think that there’s a perfect place but I think there is none.
If given the chance, would you wish to erase some of the "stupid" things that you have done or would you rather leave them be?
Alvin Leave them be lah, for us.
Clara Erasing is quite deliberate lah, very hard to erase. Right now this is recorded and I don't think we can ever erase it.
Rachel (laughs) Stuck on the Internet.
Clara Maybe 10 years later when we look at this interview it’s like: Haha, bullshit.
Alvin Complete rubbish.
Clara It's not timeless, so we evolve and we move on.
Alvin Yeah, but now more than ever we have to not erase things right? Because people are erasing things from the past as well, so that’s not very nice.
Clara Why not nice?
Alvin Like people are trying to censor Roald Dahl and stuff like that. So all these things are weird, it's not real.
Clara it’s not real to keep erasing.
Alvin We don't realise that time has got its own place as well.
We don't realise that time has got its own place as well.
One of your pet peeves seem to be designers creating “stupidly produced objects” and people doing “stupid things”. So what are some examples of these things that people do that you wish that they wouldn't?
Alvin We don't have an example, of course there stupid things out there, but I think the basis of this is actually why we are doing this. When we started out, a large motivation was to address design; the process of design because at that point in time there were lot of designers but they were also doing a lot of frivolous; superficial designs.
Alvin Very vain. and also because at that time there was an explosion of design media so a lot of designers are more celebrities than actual designers. So they're selling their face more than their work. So the process of design becomes more about making that object that is photographable –
Clara It’s an image.
Alvin – but very few designers think about or question how we sit so if you look at this this room right now, all five of us are sitting differently. But designers don't think about these things anymore or just draw a chair on a bloody serviette. So that was the starting point and that's why we were thinking about the stupidity of design at some point because there was so much about that – there wasn't any kind of in-depth thinking about anything. Basically the human being is completely left out of the equation of design most of the time – in all fields, not just product architecture or fashion as well – everything. Designers don't think about human beings, and I feel like that was kind of the starting point of why we do what we are doing; Science of the Secondary.
Clara Sort of a reaction.
Alvin Yeah, a response, but of course it slowly evolved and now we're not so much talking about designers anymore.
Basically the human being is completely left out of the equation of design most of the time – in all fields, not just product architecture or fashion as well – everything. Designers don't think about human beings, and I feel like that was kind of the starting point of why we do what we are doing.
Say something in a language other than English.
Clara 小便！(both laugh)
What are some of your nicknames?
Alvin Ah Bin!
Clara Cruella. (both laugh)
What’s your favourite song?
Alvin "Mellow Dream" by Ryo Fukui. He’s a jazz pianist.
Clara "Silver Moon" by David Sylvian.
What is something you could eat every day for a week?
Alvin Cheese? Maybe?
Clara Bread? It’s not that I want to, but I have been doing that because of him.
Bungee jumping or deep-sea diving?
Alvin & Clara Deep-sea diving.
Invisibility or super speed?
Alvin & Clara Invisibility.
If a genie were to grant you three wishes, what would they be?
Alvin More time – I need more time in my life, no health problems – ‘cause I’m getting old… I don’t know leh.
Clara I never thought of that leh.
Alvin Ya I never thought of that sia. Oh my God, so weird. World peace. (laughs)
Alvin No? Ya okay, your turn.
Clara I think freedom… Financial freedom – means like I can do whatever I want and don’t care. Good health – it’s because I’m getting old as well.
Alvin (pointing at Clara) Good eyesight.
Clara Safety for everyone around me, like I don’t want anyone to die before me.
Alvin That’s selfish.
Clara (laughs) Quite selfish but I don’t think I can take anyone dying before me – that I love. Yeah, like that was one of my greatest fears, although it’s a bit selfish.
If you could time travel, would you travel to the past or the future and why?
Alvin & Clara Future.
Alvin Future for me because I don’t know what’s in the future, so maybe that’s more something to encounter. Past you know, you have expectations and then that’s not so nice.
Clara I think there’s a lot of suffering in the past. (both laugh) Like there’s WWI, WWII. Hopefully there’s no WWIII in the future, but then I’m just saying future because hopefully there’s no war and in the past there was a lot of suffering I think. Post-war.
Alvin (laughing continuously) Very grim eh.
Clara It’s post-war!
Would you rather come face-to-face with a dozen cockroach-sized T-rexes or a T-rex-sized cockroach?
Alvin & Clara (both murmuring) Cockroach-sized T-rex… T-rex-sized cockroach… (both laughing)
Rachel So, very small T-rex – 12, or humongous cockroach.
Alvin Oh my God…
Clara Small T-rex.
Alvin Yeah small T-rex.
Rachel Both are in a bad mood.
Clara Small T-rex easier to…
Alvin Can crush.
Clara …crush, even if it’s in a bad mood. Big cockroach, jialat.
Rachel But at the same time, the cockroach like not harmful. The T-rex…
Clara But it’s gross.
Clara Even the small cockroach is quite gross what if it’s really big? It’s quite gross!
Okay, last one. Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump?
Alvin (slowly) Kim Jong Un.
Clara Ya, same. He’s cuter. (laughs)
Alvin Looks like her brother. (all laugh)
Clara More relatable.
Clara No lah. In terms of looks.
Rachel Okay, thank you so much Alvin and Clara for joining us this morning. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours!