KUALA LUMPUR, May 10 — Designers in Malaysia have a hard time making a go of their careers. Compared to Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, the appreciation for good design and art has not quite taken off yet.
Finding a designer who is a millionaire in Malaysia is like finding a needle in a haystack. It is difficult to focus on creating something while having to promote, brand and market the work all by yourself.
Enter DESIGNation. It is a platform created to promote and showcase the craftsmanship of local designers. “In Malaysia, there is a huge gap for design. I saw that there was no platform for them to promote their work or to be recognised,” said Michelle Alice Tan, founder and curator of DESIGNation.
The 25-year-old launched DESIGNation (www.designation.co) last year during Malaysia Day. Initially, she wanted to launch it on her birthday which falls on Merdeka but it was too rushed. Within a month, Tan approached local designers, designed everything for the company and developed the website all on her own!
Sri Kartina Tjandra, 26, her business partner only joined her as business director in October 2014. Kartina is in charge of the business part of DESIGNation while Tan manages the content, liaising with designers and generally taking care of the creative side of things.
Tan is also the curator for the products that come in. In January this year, DESIGNation opened its physical store at Art Row, Publika featuring Malaysian designers like Momage, Wood and Steel, Nala Designs, Ahnya-Chi, The Alphabet Press, Kedai Bikin and more. Each piece of furniture, stationery, home decor item or accessory is curated by Tan who has a sharp eye for exquisite design.
“For DESIGNation, there are a couple of things I look out for. Firstly, the designer has to be Malaysian or has lived in Malaysia for a period of time. The design also has to be original and be of high quality. It has to meet international standards in terms of design,” said Tan.
In the beginning, Tan only had nine designers but now DESIGNation has 25. More designers will be coming onboard but currently, Tan and Kartina are swamped with the overwhelming amount of work.
As a start-up, DESIGNation grew rapidly in a period of less than a year. “We are looking to hire people to help us out. If the person has an art or design background, that would be preferable but if they don’t, it is fine because we can teach them. As long as they have a good personality, we would be happy to have them,” said Tan.
Despite her young age, Tan has a good head on her shoulders. While pursuing her tertiary studies, her then-lecturer got her involved in thinklab©, where she learned about organising design conferences that focus on intellectualising design.
After two years as Head of Conference at thinklab©, Tan worked in EPIC Homes, a social enterprise that builds homes for the orang asli. Before she started DESIGNation, Tan was Design Thinker-In-Residence at Genovasi, Malaysia’s own design thinking school.
Her choice of career pathway is definitely unconventional but the experience she gained from these social enterprises gave her the breadth of knowledge and savviness many people her age do not have.
“My parents expected this (starting out DESIGNation). They knew I am a rebel,” said Tan. Her parents are very supportive and encouraging about Tan starting out on her own.
Tan’s father established an aerospace engineering firm on his own so he would sometimes give business advice to his daughter. What’s interesting to note is that DESIGNation was built entirely out of Tan’s own savings.
Instead of outsourcing to someone else, she set up the site on her own using a service called Shopify. The name DESIGNation struck Tan one day when she was trying to come up with a name. “The name had to represent design in a broad sense. It cannot be too catchy because its focus is not just on the company but also the Malaysian designers onboard. It had to be something more generic and all-encompassing to showcase the designers,” explained Tan.
Initially when Tan started, she approached designers. Now that DESIGNation has become known among the design industry, designers themselves are approaching DESIGNation.
How it works is that DESIGNation would help brand, promote, market and sell the work by consignment basis. For some designers, DESIGNation would stock up the products. The pricing would be the same, let’s say for a Nala Designs product at DESIGNation and also at Nala Designs. However, not all the products by the designers will be sold at DESIGNation. Only selected items curated by Tan.
The design industry in Malaysia is small so through word of mouth, designers get to know about DESIGNation and vice versa.
Before the site was up, people already knew about DESIGNation. “I announced it on social media that I was working on a site. On Malaysia Day itself, I finished the site by 5am. The first day it crashed! Some people could access it and some people couldn’t so I had to fix it,” recalled Tan.
DESIGNation is ideal for designers who do not have enough funds and time to sell their work because Tan and Kartina provide visibility through their site, the physical store, social media presence and also documentaries on the designers themselves. “We are selling their work on their behalf so that they can focus on making the products instead of selling them. Some of the designers have full-time jobs so they don’t have time to market their products,” said Tan.
So far, the response at DESIGNation has been positive, with many newlyweds, home buyers, expats and tourists buying from the store. “We will provide them (the designers) reports and customer feedback and they are really happy to hear that people love their work,” said Tan.
The reason why DESIGNation decided to open a physical store is so that people can touch and feel the products for themselves. Things like furniture is best experienced at the store. However, some buyers take chances especially if they cannot come to the store. There was an order from Sabah — a lady who ordered a table. Fortunately, the delivery arrived in good condition so all is good.
In terms of upcoming plans, Tan is hoping to add more designers and also looking at fashion design to add to the repertoire. This month, DESIGNation will be collaborating with Room 203 to provide coffee and cakes at the store. “Hopefully, we can also offer other types of food in addition to the coffee and cakes,” said Tan. Events, workshops and even talks by the designers are all in the pipeline.
“Our long-term goal is to have DESIGNation stores outside of Malaysia. We are also working towards becoming a design hub to congregate designers who have ideas and want to make something out of that. We will help with the branding, have a 3D printer to turn the idea into reality — like a design incubator for aspiring designers,” said Tan.
The ambitious Tan also wants to create her own line of products. She already has a couple of ideas in mind and it is all a matter of execution now. Knowing Tan, with her steel-like determination and ability to kickstart a company in a month — it won’t be long before all is revealed.
Art Row, Publika Shopping Mall
Lot 54, Block B3, Level G2
Jalan Dutamas 1
50480, Kuala Lumpur
Opening hours: 12pm-9pm daily