When news broke that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had furniture from a certain Swedish giant in their home, it was the source of much amusement but not surprise. After all, the ubiquity of Scandinavian design is deep-rooted across the world.
When Tang Mun Kian was looking to furnish his workspace in Penang, he didn’t want to have a space populated by POANGs or BILLYs but pieces that resonated with his upbringing and the local context.
There really wasn’t much matching these requirements in the market so Tang partnered up with his longtime friends Desmond Phang and Bernard Chong Wei Yong to design and make them.
The trio found this experiment so fulfilling that it led to the founding of MAD3 Studio in 2014. Since then, their common interest and love for handcrafted furniture has resulted in a range of chairs and bar stools constructed using steel frames and PVC cords.
MAD3 Studio’s first collection was inspired by typography and used bright, bold colours of electric blue and yellow, in addition to the basic black and white. Typography was a natural point of reference as Tang, Phang and Chong all have a graphic design background and met while working in the creative department at the same advertising agency.
Although they had gone their separate ways professionally — Tang makes large-scale sculptures and paintings, Phang freelances in advertising and Chong used to head an agency’s creative department – they stayed firm friends.
After the success of the first collection, MAD3 Studio continues to create collections that explore traditional craftsmanship and techniques and incorporate them into their designs.
“Our chairs are inspired by simple lines, patterns, shapes, colour combinations and weaving techniques. We’re inspired by our local craft and seemingly mundane furniture like the PVC string-and-steel furniture,” says Chong.
“This type of furniture reflects the spirit of our nation in the 1960s. They are simple, practical, imperfect, airy – which suits our hot weather – and not expensive to produce. We often overlook these qualities or take them for granted. We like to see this furniture in our living space again which is why we started to recreate these pieces in a contemporary design aesthetic.”
Recently, MAD3 Studio has been exploring woven rattan for lounger chairs and stools. “We’ve been hearing about vanishing trades for years and rattan is one of them. As such, we’re doing our part to explore and see what we can do to revive the craft. This is especially significant for those of us who grew up with rattan. The scarcity of the material and the dwindling number of artisans make the craft appealing to those who appreciate handmade products.”
MAD3 Studio retails its pieces online and in independent stores such as Arcadia and Entrepot in Publika, snackfood in Bangsar, and Naiise Malaysia in the Zhongshan Building.
Although the partners dream of setting up their own workshop – currently, work is outsourced to third-party craftsmen – there are challenges as an independent design outfit.
“Our sales depend on our retailers. When the ringgit depreciated, spending power also dwindled and most of our retailers lamented about sluggish sales. Some local furniture makers never give much thought to design and their products are perceived as cheap. By creating a price war, they indirectly educate the Malaysian consumers to become more frugal and the result is that Malaysians are unwilling to pay the price of what a well-made product actually deserves,” observes Chong.
He reiterates that MAD3 Studio is in it for the long haul. “We’re committed to the idea of exploring local craft as a lifelong project. We want to get better and see where it takes us. Our desire is to have a workshop where designers and artisans can get together and create.”
Chong feels that there is a trend of new designers fusing the East and the West. “Malaysia is a country rich in natural raw materials. The exciting designs to be found here are those that use local materials that reflect our cultural identity. We think the common problem most designers, including us, face is that we only focus on creating great products but are not interested in marketing them.”
He adds: “Designers need to sell in order to create more products. We need a healthy ecosystem and a culture that fosters support and celebrates local designs.”
They are optimistic that things are changing because Malaysians, in general, have slowly started to notice and appreciate local designs that are relevant and speak to them.
“We hope more people will appreciate and support the local crafts and designs so that our artisans can continue to pursue their crafts. When this happens, our design industry will remain robust and we have less need to depend on imported furniture.”