THE 8TH FLOOR CREATIVE SPACE
When Alvin Tan enrolled in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) in 1997, there were no ceramics studios in Singapore to speak of. Now you can Google and find maybe five or more, but at the time, it didn’t look like Mr Tan – who was taking a course in ceramics and encouraged by lecturers who felt he had a real flair for it – would be able to do anything about his talent apart from keeping it as a hobby.
Now a lecturer himself who has taught ceramics at Nafa over the years, he’s also the founder of The 8th Floor Creative Space, a studio-workshop space which specialises in ceramic art. He sees the pick-up in interest as a sign that “people no longer want to just spend, they want to pick up an experience, and to have a hobby”, he says.
His studio is supposedly the first in Singapore to implement a progress-monitoring system for its pottery courses. “I guess it is because of my academic background that my lessons are more structured,” he explains. He keeps track of each student’s pace and progress and says “students can see better results”.
Courses are split into two phases. Each course costs S$450 for 10 three-hour long lessons. In the first phase, students learn to make domestic objects such as cups and bowls. In the second phase, they learn how to make decorative objects such as vases and pots.
“Making an aesthetically pleasing looking piece takes about 90 per cent hard work, and 10 per cent talent,” notes Mr Tan.
His students’ projects aren’t just for show – he wants them to take them home to use. “There is joy in using something that you’ve made, and at the same time, you know how to improve after you’ve used it personally,” he explains.
Just like chef Teoh Min Jun, who has been taking lessons for the last three months, and goes twice a week. Ms Teoh, who is now on a break, began pottery lessons as she wanted to make items for use at the restaurant where she was working at. So far, she has made a few matcha bowls which the restaurant is using. “It is all about the skill, right, and you do need patience,” she says.
So you need a new reading chair. What are you going to do? Head to your favourite furniture showroom for a browse, or how about spending 48 hours of hard work making one from scratch?
Make no mistake. There are actually a growing number of city folk doing the latter. Kung Guangjun and his team of woodworking instructors would know, because they spent the last three years teaching some 100 budding craftsmen to do just that.
Mr Kung founded Tombalek, a woodworking studio in Mandai, and teaches people how to make chairs, electric guitars, longboards and chopsticks.
His popular chairmaking classes sell out quickly. Students pay S$1,380 for eight weekly sessions that last three hours each, but Mr Kung says students need to spend time outside the class curriculum to complete their chairs. “It is a lot of effort, but the result is a chair that you cannot buy in any shop,” he adds. “You have a closer connection with the chair, after spending time making it.”
Students learn to make a stylish-looking armchair, with double rabbet joinery sculpted to appear seamless and flowing. No nails or screws are used as the pieces are held together with glue. Nyatoh, pine and walnut woods are used. The chairs are made from square timber stock so students learn the use of the bandsaw and routers to shape and construct the joinery required to hold the pieces together. The rest of the work is hand rasping and carving, and a lot of sanding.
Mr Kung, who learnt chair-making from YouTube videos, says participants fall into three broad categories. There are the retirees looking for an engaging activity; working adults who want an escape from work, and millennials who want something fun to do. “Most students are totally new to woodworking,” he points out. “You don’t need natural talent, you need hard work and time.”
Retiree Rubin Aw has spent about 90 hours building his chair from scratch. “I’m building this chair for my wife,” he says, while taking a break from sanding. “It is a piece that she can keep forever.”
ART GLASS SOLUTIONS
Glass-blowing is a fascinating art, as veteran Australian glass artist Barbara Jane Cowie can attest to. At her studio Art Glass Solutions, she puts molten glass on one end of a blowpipe and blows through it to create a bubble, manipulating the glass into a languid shape that could end up as a vase or a beautiful sculpture.
Better known as B Jane Cowie, she is the artist behind an installation at Ocean Financial Centre that depicts a school of fish. She is also the one behind the bouquet-shaped sculptures, decorated with bright-coloured mosaics, sparkling mirror accents and sculptural glass petals at Changi Airport Terminal 2.
Ms Cowie is believed to be the only glass-blower in Singapore. When she is not busy working on commissioned projects, she conducts lessons at her Katong studio. Most of her students are working adults who “want the experience of trying something new and different, and feeling at one with glass”, she says.
Workshops range from the basics of glassmaking to more complicated techniques. In her beadmaking workshop, for example, participants try their hand at hot glass on a small scale, working with an extremely hot flame. They make glass beads and learn how to add colour and decorative details to each piece.
Be prepared to sweat at her classes, as you’re working with molten glass at a temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius. You will learn how to blow into the blowpipe, turn the pipe with hot glass on the end and how to sculpture the molten hot glass. For such classes, Ms Cowie says long-sleeved cotton shirts and pants are highly recommended for protection from the heat, and closed-toe shoes are a must.
After a hot glass workshop, participants get to go home with their very own tumbler or small vase after the glass has been cooled slowly over the next 24 hours.
“You can learn in a few lessons how to blow glass, but mastering the technique will take at least five years,” says Ms Cowie. So you will need patience, especially when your first vase or glass will be raw rather than refined. But don’t despair. “There is beauty in the naïveté of your very first blown glass piece.”
One of her students even held his own solo exhibition in Singapore after a year of regular glass-blowing sessions.
Class sizes vary but generally she takes up to 15 people for the easier workshops. She sometimes has just one student in the hot glass workshops that explore the more difficult techniques. Classes cost from S$50 per person for an introductory class to S$480 for a series of four hands-on workshops to learn kiln casting, hot glass-blowing, lampworking and cold working.
Ms Cowie enjoys working with glass because of its transparent colours, its fragility and the dichotomous nature of glass – being beautiful and dangerous, soft and hard at the same time. “There is also nothing like drinking out of a glass that you’ve made yourself,” she adds.
Her dream one day is to open a glassmakers’ cafe. “A place where people can come, learn about glass, design their own pieces and enjoy a coffee and friendly cafe ambience,” she adds.
If you’ve been to Changi Airport Terminal 3 recently, you would have seen Europe rebuilt in cardboard. Discover Europe is an exhibition of cardboard replicas of European landmarks including those from Berlin, Moscow and Prague – it’s the work of Paper Carpenter, a company which creates 3D sculptures out of cardboard. Founder Adrian Chua believes that anything can be built with cardboard, and that includes your own furniture.
Mr Chua recently launched his PaperConnect collection, which uses hollow cardboard bars to create shelves, coffee tables and chairs. Each bar measures 48mm by 48mm by 2.3m in length, and costs S$12. They can be cut to length without any fancy equipment. “Even a S$2 saw from Daiso can do the job,” he quips. The bars are treated to make them water-resistant and fire-retardant. Mr Chua also developed a collection of 3D printed plastic joints, each also priced at S$12 to connect the bars.
“Anyone can be a carpenter,” he says. “They can play around with the pieces, like Lego.”
The furniture pieces are light and easy to carry around. Mr Chua reassures that they can withstand the weight of an adult. In fact, he uses these same cardboard bars to build pellets which can withstand the weight of two tonnes.
A customer told him recently that she planned to use the bars to create shelving for her bomb shelter. “She didn’t like the ones that traditional carpenters can offer, and Ikea didn’t have the designs that she wanted,” he explains.
Customers have to cut and assemble the pieces themselves now, but Mr Chua hopes to introduce ready-cut pieces by this year. He will soon launch a PaperConnect website, and customers can choose the design of the pieces they want.
For now the pieces are more suited for indoors, than the outdoors. But Mr Chua plans to introduce a new range of cardboard bars that will be coated with a waterproof material. And when you tire of the pieces, or when they have worn out, the cardboard furniture can easily be disposed of at the recycling bins.
This story was originally published in The Business Times.