Pamela Ting and Jessica Wong left stable careers to create contemporary furniture and homeware that embraced art deco and local heritage under their label Scene Shang. Now, they want to take that aesthetic and their award-winning designs beyond Singapore

SINGAPORE (Oct 14): As interns in Shanghai, Pamela Ting and Jessica Wong used to cycle through the city’s streets, soaking in its art deco architecture. Among their favourites was the Cathay Theatre, with its towering, linear geometric façade. Dating back to 1932, the cinema was the biggest of its kind during Shanghai’s belle époque. Another was the Peace Hotel on the Bund, famed for its luminous stained-glass art deco atrium and the hotel of choice for visiting dignitaries and stars such as Charlie Chaplin. “We kept going in and imagining it during the 1920s and 1930s,” says Ting.

Main image: Wong (left) and Ting believe that people are looking for a story behind a piece, not just a functional item

Shanghai is a treasure trove of Chinese art deco. Architecture graduates returning from the West developed a unique style, incorporating traditional Chinese motifs into the modern geometric style that defined the art deco movement. “When we came back to Singapore, we realised we had our own art deco heritage,” says Wong. These include the Tanjong Pagar railway station, the Cathay building and the first public housing flats at Tiong Bahru.

Images of those heritage buildings can now be found on velvety cushion covers, designed by their label, Scene Shang. Leaving their day jobs in banking and interior design, the millennial entrepreneurs have immortalised their passion for art deco and heritage in contemporary homeware such as an award-winning modular storage system. From a pop-up six years ago, Scene Shang has grown by word of mouth into a design force in Singapore, with a flagship store on Beach Road and a brand-new boutique at the Raffles Hotel.

At the colonial-era edifice, Scene Shang’s light-filled store is a showcase for many of the brand’s bestsellers as well as a range of new designs exclusively stocked at the Raffles. An example is the Yan sofa, a leather three-seater with rosewood veneer side panels whose contours are shaped in a soft art deco style. There is also the Meng bar cabinet with its eye-catching Oriental brass lock and rounded corners, and the Wan coffee table, whose nyatoh wood stand is inspired by Chinese coins.

The store also pays homage to Singapore’s cultural heirlooms with its new 1818 Collection of blue-and-white porcelain plates and mugs and linen tea towels inspired by Ming Dynasty artefacts found in the Kallang River, remnants of trade between China and Southeast Asia. The ceramic is sourced from Jingdezhen, home of China’s imperial porcelain factory, and the artwork re-imagines scenes from folklore such as Sang Nila Utama.

The “invisible” Shang system by Singaporean designer Larry Peh takes pride of place. This is an avant-garde interpretation of the brand’s much-feted Shang system; it can stand handsomely as a cabinet and also double as a stool, side table or tray. Its upturned edges mimic the eaves of a Chinese roof and the system can be personalised with vibrant hues and dimensions. The Shang system received a special commendation at the President’s Design Award in 2014, which was also the year that Peh was named Designer of the Year in Singapore.

Two years later, the Shang system gained fanfare on a bigger stage when it clinched the Golden A’ Design Award in Furniture, Decorative Items and Homeware Design in Italy. The A’ Design Award is the largest and most prestigious competition in the design world. Ting and Wong then approached Peh to collaborate on a limited-edition Shang system and Peh chose to remodel the drawers using transparent acrylic, giving the piece a thoroughly original and cutting-edge feel. “I still can’t believe we are working with him,” says Wong. “He was this design guru and here he is, designing for us. I have to pinch myself.”

Mosaic tiles at their Raffles boutique are identical to those in Wong and Ting’s art deco apartment foyer in Shanghai

Furniture with a story

The duo, both 35, must also be pinching themselves over how far they have come since 2013, when they left stable careers to start up the business. Ting had been working in trade financing at Bank of America while Wong was working at a graphic and interior design firm she had co-founded. Ting is the eldest daughter of Arthur PY Ting, an established mixed-media artist and interior designer.

Growing up, her artistic pursuit of choice was ballet, but her mother nudged her towards a practical career route. So, Ting opted for economics and finance at the Singapore Management University. Meanwhile, Wong studied architecture at the National -University of Singapore. She realised upon graduating, however,  that architectural design was ultimately shaped by client briefs and building regulations. “My skills are more small scale. I wanted to design things that could touch people’s emotions,” Wong says.

Interacting with customers, Wong developed a desire for home decor that captured elements of heritage yet looked contemporary and chic. She began experimenting with traditional Chinese brass knobs and locks on cabinetry. In fast-changing Singapore, she also sensed a sentimentality towards legacy designs such as art deco era façades and Straits Chinese shophouses. “People are looking for a story behind a piece, not just a functional item,” she says.

With just under $100,000 of their savings, a chunk of it coming from Ting’s bonuses during her banking days, they set up shop in Shanghai. Ting took charge of the commercial side while Wong handled the creative side. From an apartment in the French Concession, they worked with craftsmen to churn out samples. Returning to Singapore, they operated out of a shophouse in Institution Hill, where items such as their Bankers’ lamp, with its brass stands and marble base, were snapped up. Ting’s father also created a series of 3D artwork of traditional shophouses for the brand that resonated well with buyers.

Their repertoire expanded to larger pieces that employed quality materials such as marble from a supplier that used to supply to Malaysian royalty and leather from producers supplying to French luxury brands. They also cemented their name for originality with creations such as the Jia Ju rocking stool, an -elegant reinvention of the rattan rocking horse from many a Singaporean childhood.

Take a piece of Singapore back

It took three years for the business to break even. “We had no expectation or benchmark,” says Ting. “We thought it would take some time.” The homegrown label now has a team of 10, including retail staff, and works with furniture makers in Malaysia, China, Vietnam and Singapore. A significant 70% of their customers are regulars. “When we started the brand, we thought it would be people like us, those with first homes, stable jobs,” says Ting.

However, the price tags of their products meant their typical buyer was in the 40-and-above age group. Most are either locals or expats who have lived in Singapore for a while, and are looking for accent pieces. “Singaporeans are getting more sophisticated and willing to pay for something that belongs to them,” says Wong. Customers have, for example, asked Arthur to recreate shophouses where they lived or paint in family names above doors in the artwork.

With the Raffles store, Scene Shang is targeting tourists who want to take a piece of Singapore back with them. Already, the label has been shipping a number of Shang systems, rocking stools and artwork to buyers overseas. “We think the Scene Shang aesthetic extends internationally,” says Wong. The plan is to take Scene Shang to new markets, Ting adds, standing on a mosaic of hexagonal black-and-white tiles at the entrance of the store. These were the very same type of tiles that used to greet them in the foyer of their art deco apartment in Shanghai. They are now a slice of nostalgia and a spur to stay rooted to their mission of merging the old with the new.

Sunita Sue Leng is a former associate editor at The Edge Singapore


Scene stealers

Art deco cushion covers ($26.90)

The series of Embrace Me cushion covers is a tribute to art deco icons, such as Clifford Pier. Recreated in vibrant hues, the illustrations are done by the brand’s graphic designer, Eugene Wong, who is also co-founder Jessica Wong’s brother.

Scene Shang x Larry Peh ($2,899)

Singaporean design guru Larry Peh collaborated with Scene Shang to produce a limited edition of 10 Shang systems made of beech wood, brass and acrylic. In a whimsical throwback to his childhood, Peh came up with a see-through box hovering between the top and bottom layers of the Shang storage system based on Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. The top can double as a tray and the bottom as a stool or side table. Scene Shang has also collaborated with local atelier Bynd Artisan to build drawers wrapped in rich, colourful leather for its Shang system.

Jia Ju rocking stool ($380)

The beloved retro rocking horse is reinvented into a multi-purpose stool. Its angular polygon seat is a stylish nod to the present, while the brass hexagon inset featuring rattan is a window to the past. Its clean joints are inspired by Ming Dynasty mortise and tenon joinery. The stool was selected as one of the Design Stars at the International Furniture Fair Singapore 2016 and is among the brand’s most popular products.

Anggung chair ($999)

Inspired by the simple folding chair, this is an elegant chair made from solid rengas wood, a dense rosewood found in Borneo. The wood’s natural dark reddish-brown colour and grain draw the eye as do its curved backrest and contoured seat, designed for ergonomic seating. The lines are graceful and fluid and were conceived by Wong, who added brass supports for a touch of Oriental heritage.

Emerald Hill Door Art in an acrylic frame ($3,600)

Produced by Arthur PY Ting, father of co-founder Pamela Ting, this 3D mixed media art piece comprises hand-painted windows with abstract collages as the background. Born in Malaysia to a poor family, teenage Arthur came to Singapore to study at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. His art paid the way for an interior design course in London and he subsequently built a career in design while continuing to paint. This is his third series of door art for Scene Shang. Customisation and commissioned pieces are also available.