DESIGNation.co was initially meant to have a four month long residency at a pop-up art block in Publika, but the contract ended up being extended for over a year — this is probably because its tenants saw the importance businesses like theirs have towards the creative community in Kuala Lumpur. Upon entering the carefully curated design marketplace, one is hit in the eye with bright yellow walls at the front and bold chequered tiles on the right — like a pattern and colour palette that Gwen Stefani had in her wardrobe during her ska days, no doubt.
Placement-wise, its most refined products such as Mad 3 Studio’s PVC stringed chairs, Mossery’s journals, and Repleat‘s geometrical-inspired bags are at its entrance, which generates enough attention to encourage a person to waltz throughout the entire store — just in case its interior didn’t already do that. Though we have to say, the best items are hidden at the back, particularly The Alphabet Press’ L.E.A.D Board Game — thank us later.
DESIGNation.co screens through the kinds of products it stocks as cautiously as it does with which artists it’ll work with in the respected month. Many aspects have been taken into consideration — quality and originality of each product being the two that are prioritised the most. Furthermore, if there are any questions regarding functionality, durability, or so on, the team managing the store are more than ready (read; intellectually equipped) to explain the uniqueness of each item.
Pay them a visit at Lot 54, Block B3, Level G2, Art Row, Publika Shopping Gallery, Solaris Dutamas, Jalan Dutamas 1, 50480 Kuala Lumpur. Opening hours are 12pm to 9pm.
Michelle + Harith
Local products have yet to shake off the stigma that they’re uninspired and of subpar production. This could be due to a lack of genuine support, or legitimate platforms for artists to utilise. Enter DESIGNation.co, an incubation and retail outlet that prides themselves on being the ultimate space for local designers. JUICE spoke to DESIGNation.co’s founder, Michelle, and her partner, Harith, about their plans to create a paradigm shift within the local design industry as well as educating consumers on recognising quality local craftsmanship.
What were you guys doing prior to operating the store?
Michelle I was in Genovasi — it’s a school of innovation that has licenses from Stanford University and the HPI School of Design Thinking. What we did there was teach design thinking programmes to solve problems through creative methods – we called it ‘Design Thinking’. I use to coach about 20 sessions [of that class] to both public and government employees — it’s fully sponsored by the government, so it’s government-linked in some sense. But I wanted to do something else on my own, so I left.
So, you had the vision of DESIGNation for a while now?
M No (laughs). I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I quit [first], then thought about what it was I wanted to do. I came about the concept of DESIGNation after reflecting on myself; I was a struggling designer in a sense that I wanted to create ideas but there was no platform in Malaysia to support it. You don’t have someone to go to ask, “Hey, how much money should I invest in this? How can I test the demand for my ideas? How do I go into prototyping or manufacturing?” There wasn’t anyone that gave that support, so I decided to be the platform that I needed. One of my investor friends asked me what I’d do if I put all my money into prototyping and creating products but the products didn’t end up selling very well — this thought persuaded me to focus on marketing and retail first.
Harith I am one of the founders of ThinkLab, and Michelle used to work with us, so I’ve experienced working with her before, and we have the same mission, so it’d be a waste if it’s not running; I knew she needed help, I told myself I’d join [and] then I became the partner.
M Our mission since we were in ThinkLab that was instilled in us, [is] that we would do anything to elevate the design community — no matter what form it is. His previous company did workshops, conferences while we focus on the retail aspect of it; we promote products using this company. Anything that’s related to design, basically.
Since operations started until now, have you seen an elevation?
M There’s an elevation in appreciation, definitely. This year in January, we started a programme called DESIGNation Lab, so that is the whole incubation concept that I initially wanted to do in the beginning, but we’re doing it now, which has been really interesting because we see the public responding to us saying, “Hey, I have ideas too, and I need your help to help me make that happen.” And we know for us that everyone wants to do their bit to push the industry, just that everyone needs help.
What persuaded both of you to get into design? Was there a moment?
M I wanted to be a marine biologist (laughs).
That is a huge jump.
M I didn’t study biology in high school so I thought maybe I’d do architecture… so that’s how I got into design. But design is something I’ve been interested in since I was a kid — it started with Legos, the Sims, so in some ways I was inclined towards interior architecture.
What about you, Harith?
H I studied Media Design, purely because I love animation and graphics. I grew up watching anime — but I didn’t know that that’s more towards computer science. I slowly realised that everyone else really knew about design, and I learnt from them regardless of their background; I learnt from architects, graphic designers, product designers — we all speak the language of design but we have different views. One of the reasons as to why we started [ThinkLab and DESIGNation] is because the design industry is very segregated. Among my friends, we’d sit down to talk about design and thought it’d be a good idea to start a conversation that everyone that speaks the design language can join in.
Why do you think there is that segregation?
H If it’s done top to bottom, you’ll see things from a very narrow perspective, but when you step back to look at the bigger picture, you’ll see otherwise.
Will DESIGNation Lab also try to create more conversations?
M Right now, we’re focussed on products. We’re focussed on making ideas happen, so in terms of conversation, not very much because that’s something that ThinkLab does. But we might collaborate with them to do it in the future.
Do you sell your own products here?
M Not yet. That’s something we’re working towards by the end of the year while the lab’s running.
How do you ensure that the products you stock have enough coverage?
M It depends on various reasons — for example, products that are doing well on their own, because they’re more established than the rest, they can sort of do their own marketing, so we focus on the ones that don’t get as much exposure. Take Repleat for example, before we brought them in, they weren’t getting any exposure at all and we are their only retailer. So, we focus on featuring and mentioning them as often as possible unlike Medium Rare, which is already very well known, we don’t have to mention them as much.
Why did you decide to stock designers that are already established?
M Because we felt like those people — Nala, Medium Rare — they are setting the pace, so we want to bring them in because we know they represent a certain quality.
So, how often do designers rotate?
M I would say every month we’d let go some and bring in new ones.
And letting go is determined on how much sales they’ve generated?
M When we curate, we think of three criteria — first, that the designer is Malaysian or based in Malaysia, then the product has to be of a certain quality and standard, and it should not be a copy of another designer’s work.
How do you verify that?
M Google (laughs). It’s quite easy to tell because the circle is so small.
You mentioned in one interview that you think the perfect partnership is between someone who is of a creative mind and a business mind, so how do you avoid conflict from happening between the two minds?
M You can’t. It’ll happen, so you face it and work around it.
H As long as both partners have the same mission and vision, no matter what happens, it’ll work out. It’s not about us, it’s about the industry. We think about that a lot, we have to have a goal — does this contribute to the mission? Does it help our goal? If it does, we keep at it but if it doesn’t, then we let it go.
DESIGNation’s goal is to elevate the design industry in Malaysia, right? When do you know that you’ve made that a reality?
M Our benchmark is actually the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) — they have a store in which they only pick, celebrate, and sell good design products. If we can create design products under DESIGNation Lab or with our designers to the point where MoMA would stock them, that will be our ‘made it’ moment.
H Yeah, it’s not just us but also our designers. The difference between what we did before and actually setting up a store to curate design is that [now] we’re actually creating our own creative economy. Before this, we relied on funding from other people to create events, but now we’re generating our own funds and people come to us. This is very important for us to push the mission forward and not to rely on other people.
What do you look for in designers?
H Passion, and as Michelle pointed out earlier, there has to be a level of quality. We can work with them, but most of them don’t know the business part of it, which is an area we can help out with. But ultimately, it’s purely on whether or not they have the passion, they know what they’re going to do, and have the willingness to do it. That’s it.
What is the level of quality that DESIGNation has set for itself?
M I wouldn’t say it’s raw but it’s more refined, more detailed, more thought out – in terms of function and not just aesthetics, because that’s not design then. Design is not just a surface, it’s a combination of aesthetic and function.
H Yeah, you don’t make it pretty first, then think of the function later.
Is that something you were taught in school?
M I think it’s something we developed, especially through ThinkLab because ThinkLab is all about design conferences and it intellectualised the conversations we had, and we understood it on an international level in some sense, so that’s the criteria we look for.
What would you say of the local designers that you’ve observed thus far?
M I would say a lot of designers are trying to make it crafty, so they will do handicraft work from scratch — because they don’t have the manpower — so it becomes very cutesy and artsy, and that’s not what we’re looking for. We want to keep pushing them to different levels.