Priscilla Ong-Shunmugam launches a rattan furniture collection handmade by artisans in Malaysia who uses very traditional Southeast Asian material

Priscilla Ong-Shunmugam had always harboured dreams of becoming a fashion designer. After reading law at the National University of Singapore, she decided to pursue her love for fashion and spent a year in England studying dressmaking and pattern-cutting.

In 2009, she returned to Singapore and started her womenswear label Ong Shunmugam. Her signature design style features Asian fabrics that she cleverly weaves into contemporary fabric. Later, Ong-Shunmugam started a new homeware collection, Suvarnabumi where she aims to bring eccentric, beautiful and contemplative homeware to life.

Today, fresh from her success of the Suvarnabumi tableware range, Ong-Shunmugam is now focusing on a different material, rattan. Ong Shunmugam rattan furniture and basketry is made in Malaysia, home to the greatest diversity of rattan.

In the hands of veteran craftsmen, the use of Malaysia-harvested Rotan Manau, Rotan Mantang and Rotan Sega species with mixed media — batik and synthetic rattan from Indonesia, jacquard from China, indigenous Iban weave patterns — produce technical triumphs that cut across boundaries created by time, geography and cultural matrixes. 

While the structure of each furniture is made of rattan, Ong-Shunmugam kept that iconic Asian fabric and is used in abundance on the screens and chairs are either batik fabric or jacquard fabric. 

In an email chat with Haven, Ong-Shunmugam shares her journey from fashion runway to designing homewares and furniture.

How did you move from fashion to home furnishings? What was the deciding factor?

A combination of curiosity and a sense of timing. Fashion brands with the right DNA can sometimes get restless in exploring new territories and I think we fit right in there. I love to create and I am not precious when it comes to categories. But the most important factor was when I sensed that enough years had passed for me to develop the foundations of a design language and as a business, we were in a stable position to experiment. 

Does Suvarnabumi have a special meaning?

It is Sanskrit for “land of gold” and was once the name bestowed upon Malaya, depending on which history book you refer to. We could have easily called our universe Ong-Shunmugam Home and be done with it, but I wanted it to carry this romantic connotation of how precious we were once perceived to be — rich in fertile land, spices, trade routes … opportunities. 

You started with tableware, can you tell us the inspiration behind that and what was the message you want to put across?

Unlike the majority of tableware offerings in high design value categories, our focus here is the Asian table. Here are the broad questions that direct our approach: 

A) What is on the dining tables of Asian homes? What defines our tables as compared to Western ones? 

B) How do Southeast Asians serve and savour food and drink? 

C) What makes our Southeast Asian culinary rituals so specific and so stubborn that they are able to resist technology or modern life? 

From tableware to furniture, was the transition an easy one?

Not easy, but I have an exceptional team of colleagues who understand why we do what we do. Very fortunately, that shared spirit extended to the craftsmen who took on our furniture designs. This made all the difference — we learnt so much from them. Designers must always have the ability to listen to the makers, I’ve always suspected that, but after this process, I’m convinced. 

What were some of the challenges working with rattan?

As a girl of the tropics, rattan is not quite the exotic material to me. But I’ve only known it as a consumer, not a furniture designer, nor a product designer. I knew it was commonly available in the region, but I didn’t know how or why. So I had to do my homework and invest time into good old fashioned product and market research. 

I knew I was going into this as a learner, and maybe that was the key. I was reading and reading, simultaneously teaching myself things that I didn’t even know I wanted to know. Not having a furniture design or product design background was a challenge, but with the right frame of mind, you can attempt anything. 

We understand that you designed most of the pieces while in lockdown in London. Was it difficult or you preferred the isolation to create?

I function best when left alone. So perhaps this is one silver lining of lockdown for me! 

Can you take us through your design process from sketches to actual products?

I always design from a personal and instinctive place. My lack of design pedigree means that I tend to work with materials that I feel familiar with and confident of. Having grown up with rattan all around (the sofa set at home, my rocking chair and Dad’s recliner), I started researching that as a starting point, looking at what rattan was like in the 1980s, then worked backwards and forwards to detect design and product evolution. I tend to design with words rather than images, so I was doing more reading than forming a mood board. I also began researching rattan as a material and trying to understand its delicate history with nature and ecology in the region. 

I then began drafting with my colleagues, factoring in their individual skill sets to bring together the right placement of fabrics, the right proportions, the right colour palettes and of course, to be my eyes and hands since I was making decisions in remote. 

How would you describe the collection? Who do you have in mind when you began designing?

I think it’s typical Ong-Shunmugam — excruciatingly hard to slot in any pre-determined category, definitively original and therefore, bound to be copied! On a more serious note, I designed it with unapologetic femininity. Conscious that women are typically an afterthought when it comes to furniture offerings, I wondered what would happen if I flipped that around. 

With the pandemic still looming, do you see the future of design changing over the next few years? What are some of these changes?

Without a doubt. Designers are paying close attention to the changing shifts in consumer psyches and purchasing patterns, because it’s crucial to know where the priorities are and will be. If we were once experience-rich but time-poor, how are we reflexively changing our lives? Now that we have a literally captive audience, what are designers doing with this attention?  

I think it’s all about trying to strike that tricky balance between being ahead and being reactive.

What are some of the most exciting opportunities in Singapore in terms of design and interiors?

The generally compact nature of space in Singapore presents some annoying limitations as to what you can fit into your home, but that also makes it really fun to work around it. I also think that money doesn’t always go hand in hand with taste — and vice versa, and the market really needs to self-correct. There is also a proliferation of copies (or reproductions as they are sometimes called), so I think anyone with a strong idea really has the chance to change a lot of minds. 

You have done porcelain tableware, now rattan furniture, what’s next?

Ceramics! Coming soon by year end. Stay tuned.