The sustainably conscious firm has carved a reputation for innovative architecture that integrates the natural environment into its design. Now, it is expanding into furniture and home décor with WOHAbeing.
They have designed homes, resorts and skyscrapers — the sort of projects that take years to get from the drawing board to the tangible sphere; buildings that have won applause for their aesthetics as well as their environmental and social consciousness. So, what is it like now that the much-lauded architects at home-grown firm WOHA have started to design objets d’art — such as chairs, ottomans, lamps, rugs and even plates — for the home?

The affable Richard Hassell, one half of the founding team at WOHA, laughs. “It’s like working with a microscope. At every level, you find so much more to think about.” Indeed, another architect who also turned his hand to furniture design once said: “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.” That was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century and creator of the Barcelona chair.

“It’s interesting how there’s so much design in such a small object,” notes Australia-born Hassell, who set up WOHA in 1994 with Singaporean Wong Mun Summ, whom he had met while they were both starting out at Kerry Hill Architects. The duo went on to carve a name with their innovative designs that showcased their commitment to preserve nature by integrating it into the built environment.

These include the Parkroyal on Pickering, a hotel that has brightened up Singapore’s Chinatown with its undulating terraces of vivid vegetation. Then there is the SkyVille @ Dawson, a public housing project towering 46 stories high that stands out for its elevated communal gardens and energy efficiency. And in Bali, there is Alila Villas Uluwatu, whose design has been hailed for embracing natural ecosystems.

The sustainably conscious firm has carved a reputation for innovative architecture that integrates the natural environment into its design. Now, it is expanding into furniture and home décor with WOHAbeing.

On Sept 8, Hassell and Wong will turn the spotlight from their large-scale projects, which now stretch from Singapore to Indonesia, India, China, Taiwan and Australia, to their new homeware line, WOHAbeing. Made up of six collections, the brand will make its debut at MAISON&OBJET Paris in France. The premier show for the interior design industry, MAISON&OBJET has also named WOHA as Designer of the Year Asia 2017. WOHAbeing is being rolled out in collaboration with five home furnishing partners, including Luzerne, which is part of Singapore’s most established ceramics tableware company, and Australian luxury bathware maker, apaiser.

Furniture design has long been something Hassell and Wong have experimented with and enjoyed. It began with décor for the houses and resorts they were designing. “People always asked us, ‘I stayed at your hotel, I loved the furniture in my room. Where can I buy it?’” Hassell tells Options. The architects had been meaning to get round to furniture design on a serious scale, but the architectural projects piled up and the firm grew. The awards followed, as did the requests to sit on boards and councils. All too soon, some 15 years had hurtled by.

Then, last November, the award from MAISON&OBJET landed in their laps. “We thought, This is the trigger; now is the moment,” says Hassell. So, they tapped into their wide network of design specialists to look for like-minded partners to work with: people who were passionate about craftsmanship and cared about the ecosocial footprints of their products.

Take, for example, the fabric for its Crab Easy Chair and Turtle Easy Chair. The customised textile is hand-block-printed in India, with each chair’s covering handcrafted in the workshop. The artisan was discovered by their supplier friend Jenny Lewis, who scours the globe for extraordinary furnishings for her shop Bode Fabrics at Tan Boon Liat Building. “We are very keen on social sustainability,” says Hassell. “If we find a great craftsman, we would like to bring their work to the fore.”

Native influences
The chairs are part of WOHAbeing’s Bintan collection. Named after the Riau Archipelago island just a short ferry ride away from Singapore, the Bintan suite offers a sense of the outdoors, drawing upon the beaches and verdant rainforests of Bintan, as well as a vibe of the metropolis that is the Lion City. The Turtle Easy Chair with ottoman is the architects’ permutation of sea turtles; the Crab Easy Chair takes its cue from hermit crabs found on Bintan’s beaches. The print on the fabric draws upon imagery found in Indonesian ethnographic art.

The other collection from WOHAbeing that centres on furniture is Ulu. The muse for this is Alila Villas Uluwatu, which Hassell and Wong designed for the Alila hospitality group in their signature style of luxury and sustainability. The architects tried to capture the bright light and deep shadows of Uluwatu in Bali’s southern tip, which stands out for its dramatic clifffringed coastline, and were also asked to come up with a range of furniture for the hotel. The Ulu collection builds on this, celebrating the rugged environment and Bali’s rich cultural heritage.

The third collection from WOHAbeing is titled Corak, which means “pattern” in Malay. It comprises a series of rugs produced in collaboration with The Rugmaker, a Singapore maker of bespoke carpets and rugs. The collection showcases Hassell’s enthusiasm for combining traditional motifs and textiles with geometries such as fractals.

Late last year, Hassell showcased his artistry via an exhibition at Gillman Barracks featuring a series of prints. They explored complex geometries and tiling, a fascination of his that can be traced back to his childhood, during which he found wonder in recreational mathematics with his brother, now a mathematics professor at the National University of Australia.

The rugs in the Corak collection highlight the region’s rich legacy of textiles and tribal patterns, in which abstraction, repetition and geometry play strong roles. “Asian cultural traditions are so rich and Singapore, being such an intersection of cultures, has been a limitless source of inspiration,” notes Hassell. The rugs come in limited editions of 15 and are signed and numbered.

The fourth collection is called Sampan and comprises bathware. Here, bath tubs and vanity sinks are fashioned after the tapered shapes of sampans, the small wooden boats that were used to load and unload goods into warehouses along the Singapore River in the days when it was a thriving trading port. Sampan is Cantonese for “three boards” and the boats were made using a flat plank as the base, with two planks at an angle making up the sides.

The bathware line was produced with apaiser, a maker of high-end bathroom fittings that was founded in Melbourne in 2000 by Belinda Try. It is known for its non-porous marble, which uses Australian minerals. Hassell and Wong had worked with apaiser for the Parkroyal project, making the company, now headquartered in Singapore, a natural choice for WOHAbeing’s bathware line.

The architects have also fashioned lighting for the home, having partnered WonderGlass, a London-based lighting company that fuses the age-old craft of Venetian glass blowing with contemporary design. Founded in 2013 by Christian and Maurizio Mussati, the company uses glass from Murano, Italy and works with artists to create lighting sculptures, bespoke installations and chandeliers.

WOHAbeing’s rendition of lighting is found in the Oli collection, which takes its name from the Sanskrit word that means “the glow of a lamp”. The series of hanging lamps comes in glass and bronze and seeks to mimic lanterns floating in space. It also draws upon Hindu and Buddhist sacred geometry such as mandalas. The Oli 44, for example, is a chandelier version with 44 pieces.

The final collection from WOHAbeing is Diaspora. This is a line of tableware being made with Luzerne, which was introduced to Hassell and Wong by MAISON&OBJET. Luzerne is part of Hiap Huat Holdings, a family company that began in trading and in 1994 bought a tableware-manufacturing factory in Dehua, China. Dehua in Fujian province is renowned for its high-quality blanc de chine porcelain. Luzerne pioneered the creation of fine china without animal bone ash and today supplies to restaurants, hotels and retailers worldwide.

WOHAbeing is working with Luzerne to create a Chinese tableware set that reflects the lifestyles of the Chinese people who live outside the mainland, of which there are an estimated 50 million worldwide. It combines ancient shapes from Chinese culture with contemporary colours inspired by the landscapes and cultures of their new homes.

Allure of good design
WOHAbeing conceptualises and designs all its homeware products, leaving the manufacture, distribution and shipping to its partners. “We’re not going to sell stuff directly,” says Hassell. “We don’t want to get into the retail space directly. We’re really interested in people who can make stuff beautifully or well.” Hassell and Wong set the creative direction for WOHAbeing, which has six people working on the new brand. The architectural practice as a whole has swelled to about 90 staff, making it one of the larger firms in the trade.

“That’s the beauty of the brand. When we come across people we like working with, people with skills and crafts we like, we can wrap it into our work,” says Hassell. As he sees it, 90% of people are just doing a job. Only a tenth are really passionate and excited about what they do. “We have built a network of people who love making stuff. We can choose who we work with and we can choose to work with the best.”

That said, this is a world awash with mass-market brands such as IKEA, whose low prices have fostered a throwaway attitude towards furnishings. It is also a marketplace buffeted by the internet, where you can even buy big-ticket items such as sofas online now. Hassell acknowledges the appeal of affordable brands such as IKEA, but reckons there is a space for furniture and homeware that are well crafted and thoughtfully designed.

“WOHAbeing can fit into different environments,” he says, adding that it has classical bones with respect to proportion, shape, comfort and scale. He also feels there is more of a blurred line today, with outdoor versus indoor furniture and modern versus vintage furnishings. As architects, Hassell and Wong have struck a chord producing architecture that has been guided by local context, culture and climatic conditions. With their latest designs for home interiors, they must be hoping to strike an emotional chord with people who prize craftsmanship and consciously made items for the home.

Left to right: The Oli 44 chandelier was created in partnership with WonderGlass of the UK  •  Rimba (bottom) and Lautan (top) rugs from the Corak collection  •  The Bintan collection (from left): Turtle Easy Chair with ottoman in ochre; Crab Side Table with Angler Lamp; Turtle Side Table and Crab Easy Chair in espresso

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, loves looking at beautiful buildings

This article appeared in Issue 795 (Sep 4) of The Edge Singapore.