Low Chee Siong, Edwin
Low Chee Siong, Edwin graduated in 2004 and is the founder of Supermama

What is Supermama to you?
I think Supermama is a calling to me. I started Supermama to take a break from my work, from the structures of life, to give myself a lot more free time to see what I could churn out and also to spend time with my kids. Before that, I was the course manager for the experience design programme in Singapore Polytechnic (SP).
And after that, it became more or less a full-time thing that you had to handle?
I think it’s every industrial designer’s dream to start a design shop. To be honest, when I started Supermama, it was not supposed to survive for more than a year. Both my wife and I wanted to take a year off to spend time with the kids. We didn’t have much money so we downgraded from a 4-room flat to a 3-room flat and then we just started. A year later, I kind of predicted Supermama would make a loss, and we were prepared to lose money, close the shop and go back to work. But after one year, we were neither making a loss nor making money. We did not know what to do. So we extended the business for one more year.
Yeah, to see how it goes?
Then again after two years it was neither making nor losing money, but that was when we were offered a space at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), to shift Supermama over. We thought, “Okay, let’s give it a try again,” and we shifted to SAM.
So it was really like a toss in the wind. You’re quite a family man. How old are your kids?
Toby is five years old, Donna is seven.
Outside of Singapore, where is your favourite place?
Japan. I first fell in love with it when I visited Tokyo for an internship with Toshiyuki Kita. I think Hans and Winston were part of the team.
Fell in love because it opened your mind?
Yes, to craft, to traditional cultures. But also to a society that appreciates and accepts good design. And of course something changed in my mind. I remember this session that I had in Kita’s studio. One of us asked Kita what his design philosophy was. And he mentioned that his design philosophy was really to extend the longevity of the craftsmen, by making their trade contemporary, relevant to the current generation. With that, he could extend the longevity of the trade. I woke up.
I can imagine. What I see here at Supermama is akin to what Kita had said, right?
Yeah. During my era haha, I owned the second generation iPod. That was when iTunes first came out, that was the hot thing. And at that time design was geared towards designing systems, etc. So I had wanted to focus my thesis on that. But when I came back, I wanted to make a 180-degree shift. If technology was going to be the big thing, then maybe the other side was more essential.
“The other side”?
Yes, so I read up on this guy called Tim Dant who wrote Material Culture in the Social World. It is about how the world perceives the role of objects. That was when I began to realise that objects are powerful, design is powerful. It can alter your behaviour. It can make you behave in a certain way. It can make you believe even in something non-existent. I kept that whole study at the back of my head, and I went on this teaching tour. I was teaching part-time here and there, until I was approached by SP to develop a course.
Did you restructure to give a perspective shift?
We looked into experience design instead of product design, where attention was given to the intangible aspects of things more than the tangible aspects. We developed a whole new series of user-centric programmes. We began to get a lot more female students coming in. I spent three to four years in SP; it was a wonderful time as we shaped the course.
What is your favourite piece in the shop now?
Every one is my favourite. The most recent one is the Merlion set. When I started the Singapore Icons project, I realised that designers always bashed this poor little Merlion.
Bash the Merlion?
Bash the Merlion because it is often seen as a souvenir. Who buys Merlion keychains? Only tourists. And we kept slamming it, wishing for someone to design the Merlion better. So when I started the Singapore Icons project, my theme was whether we could do something beyond the Merlion. It is a mystical creature; it is not even real, why are we making it a national icon? That’s why we came up with the Housing & Development Board (HDB) flat designs and all.
I love the HDB and origami designs! The next series were more about the aspects of culture and society before 1965?
Yes, we came up with the vessels, the porcelain cups. Every time people ask me about the Singapore icons, I always say things like, “You know, Singapore is more than the Merlion, we cannot keep overemphasising the Merlion.” I kept bashing the Merlion. Until one day, I asked myself as a designer, could I make the Merlion sexy, better? I took up the challenge, and I launched the Merlion this year, and a lot of people loved it. The first batch of five hundred sets sold out within six months.
But response aside, as for your own feelings towards it, why do you say that it was the best?
It’s about perspective. If you look at the Merlion that I created, there is nothing Merlion-y. Yes, it is wholly Merlion, but I did not show the face, it was just part of that structure. I saw that part and I thought it was really beautiful. And it works as a dish as well, so I thought it’s one of the best designs.
Now, about your logo. How did it come about?
Let me tell you the story. I did not have a logo or branding when I started Supermama because I had no money. The logo came a year after when Donna, who was then three years old, could not sleep one night. She woke me up and said, “Papa, I cannot sleep, can you do some drawings with me?” Reluctantly, I went with her and she started drawing. I came across these two elephants. I did not know whether they were elephants or hippos.
To me, they’re elephants.
Even she said that they were elephants. If you look at the logo logically, there is nothing “elephant” about it; in a logical sense. But it gives you the feeling of elephants. Then I wondered how she could express the feeling of an animal, and how we’ve lost that, growing up. I thought what she did was amazing. At Supermama, we want people to take a step back when they come into the shop; to relax and to question life, because Supermama to me is a life-changing experience. We want people, like the logo, to be able to know what they like, yet not know what they like at the same time. To be moved by their hearts rather than their brains.
What were your favourite times in DID?
There were a few, but one I think, would be the days of staying overnight, going to Fong Seng Nasi Lemak then coming back to play Counter-Strike. And I remember that was the year that 9/11 happened. We streamed everything, and we were talking and discussing. That happened in 2001 and we were there.
I asked you to take a photo that encapsulates your time in DID, and you gave me a photo of cherry blossoms. Why?
A few things. I really like this because firstly, it is captured on 35mm film, on my recent trip to Japan. I was introduced to film photography in DID, and that was one of the best modules ever.
You had a photography module?
Yes, Alex (taught it) that time. It was good, because we looked at things from a different perspective. I was so intrigued by the photography techniques that I went outside to pick up techniques such as black and white processing. Secondly, I really like the idea of waiting, I really like the idea of that moment when things happen. To me, that is life. There are seasons where nothing is budding, but there are seasons where things will happen. And you just have to wait for it and they will come. So my time in ID was really interesting. I did not start off well. I remember when I finally did very well for one of the projects in Year 1. One of the lecturers told me, “Edwin, you need to continue to work hard, because you’re not talented. You’re not like so-and-so who is talented and can get an A.”
Wow, right after you’ve gotten an A?
Yeah! But it woke me up and I began to recognise that I was not talented so I had to work hard. If working hard was the game, then work hard I would.