Kedai Bikin: Making a case for Malaysia’s design heritage

Adela Askandar and Imaya Wong are part of the creative force behind Kedai Bikin. – Pictures by Choo Choy May
Adela Askandar and Imaya Wong are part of the creative force behind Kedai Bikin. – Pictures by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 19 — ‘Why fake it if we can make it’ — with a tagline like this, you know that Kedai Bikin is all about originality and the proof is showcased at their new flagship store in Bangsar.

It opened last December, three years after they debuted as a pop-up at Publika’s Art Row and wowed with their Designer series of furniture, a collection that paired rattan, steel, concrete and recycled timber to a refreshingly raw appeal.

Biji-Biji Initiative encourages creative use of discarded materials
Biji-Biji Initiative encourages creative use of discarded materials

Just as popular was their updated take on the cord chairs that were once a staple of Malaysian homes, restyled with hand-bent steel frames, hand-woven rubber or PVC strings, powder coating, and solid timber armrests.

The creative minds behind Bikin are architects Adela Askandar and Farah Azizan, co-founders of architectural and interior design consultancy Studio Bikin, which has an impressive resume of residential and commercial projects under their belt, ranging from private homes to urban retreats and lifestyle outlets like restaurants, fitness centres and event space. Furniture design was already part of their repertoire, as they often customised pieces for their clients.

The idea of opening a retail outlet, however, didn’t occur to them until Publika offered them a space. They came up with their collection within just three months, and invited fellow architects and designers to showcase their pieces too. Among them was Ng Seksan, renowned landscape architect whom Farah worked with for six years before she set up Studio Bikin with Adela.

Concrete tap knobs shaped like mooncakes are among Ah Lam’s creations
Concrete tap knobs shaped like mooncakes are among Ah Lam’s creations

Bikin’s debut made such an impact that even after the four-month pop-up ended, orders continued to pour in. The duo had to carve out a small space in their office to serve as a showroom of sorts and held a sale there, to great response.

“We realised we had to do this properly and when Imaya (Wong) joined us, she helped define and shape what Kedai Bikin is now,” says Adela. Imaya is the Managing Director of Kedai Bikin who oversees the day-to-day operations besides playing multiple roles that include marketing, branding, communications and graphic design.

Kedai Bikin found its home when the space below Studio Bikin’s office became available. Besides their own designs, the well-lit space is filled with home and living products by local and Asian artisans. An all-black Granddaddy Lounger, a bestseller from the Designer series, greets you near the entrance, under a mod chandelier-like lamp by Thai artist Saruta Kiatparkpoom. The fine art graduate repurposes off-cut steel pieces from her father’s factory into lamps and candle stands, all welded by hand.

Discarded seat belts are put to beautiful use by Biji-Biji Initiative
Discarded seat belts are put to beautiful use by Biji-Biji Initiative
Thai brand Aurora recycles PVC into these dual-sided mats
Thai brand Aurora recycles PVC into these dual-sided mats

Carryalls and totes hand-woven from colourful plastic strips and sourced from Tibet are strung up near a display of vintage Chinese earthen jars. There are cabinets stocked with cushions in a variety of covers, Bidayuh baskets, ceramic tableware by Melaka-based Bendang Studio, and totes and mats made of 100 percent recycled PVC by Thai label, Agora.

Brass and copper shower heads hang above a small collection of concrete door and tap knobs, unique innovations by a local plumber-electrician named Ah Lam. Towards the back of the shop, Bikin’s complete collection of contemporised cord chairs in multiple colours and finishing form a feature wall.

You can customise the combination of colours and when the cords wear out, send the chair back to Kedai Bikin to be re-strung. Adjacent to that is a bedroom setting highlighted by batik bedding, an in-house design made by a batik manufacturer in Kelantan that took six months of product development.

From a pop-up at Publika’s Art Row, Kedai Bikin has grown into a standalone store in Bangsar
From a pop-up at Publika’s Art Row, Kedai Bikin has grown into a standalone store in Bangsar

Varied as they are in form and function and each having its distinctive aesthetic, there is a running theme across everything you see at Kedai Bikin. “Our vision is for Kedai Bikin to be one of the best home and living stores in the region, that offers ethically-produced and sensibly-sourced products,” Adela reveals.

At the same time, Kedai Bikin wants to promote better awareness of Malaysia’s cultural and craft heritage. To that end, they source for well-designed traditional products that have the potential for contemporary uses.

Kedai Bikin is set up like a home — you walk through a living room setting into a dining area and then a bedroom
Kedai Bikin is set up like a home — you walk through a living room setting into a dining area and then a bedroom
Kedai Bikin turned old school into a new cool by contemporising classic cord chairs (left). Copper and brass shower heads by plumber-electrician Ah Lam (right)
Kedai Bikin turned old school into a new cool by contemporising classic cord chairs (left). Copper and brass shower heads by plumber-electrician Ah Lam (right)

The Bidayuh baskets they bring in from Sarawak are a case in point; back in the day, they were used during padi harvesting and today, they make lovely additions to the modern home, to store laundry, as waste paper baskets, or containers for potted plants.

“There is a lot of unrealised talent locally,” says Adela. “We just need to polish up their products to an international standard and make them marketable.” What Kedai Bikin does is offer advice to the craft makers, to give their creations a 21st-century boost.

That may mean suggesting new colour schemes, materials or specifications. In doing that, they are helping people see the value in traditional artistry and appreciate the finesse in the workmanship which, in turn, helps sustain fast-disappearing industries.

A close look at a chair from Kedai Bikin’s Rattan series
A close look at a chair from Kedai Bikin’s Rattan series
Ra-Tha’s silkscreen printed canvas clutches (left). Saruta Kiatparkpoom also produces these candle sticks under her label, Pin (right)
Ra-Tha’s silkscreen printed canvas clutches (left). Saruta Kiatparkpoom also produces these candle sticks under her label, Pin (right)

Take their Rattan series of chairs, which sport classic 60s silhouettes and feature hand-woven rattan woven into traditional patterns such as the “tofu”, “pulut” and octagonal mesh. The shapes and materials are familiar to Malaysians but when combined with white hand-bent steel frames, take on a fresh outlook altogether.

“Rattan furniture shops find it difficult to survive as a lot of people see the products as old-fashioned and are thus reluctant to pay for them. You can’t expect the same price ranges as yesteryears! Rattan-weaving is now an endangered skill, we need to support it.” Imaya adds that since Kedai Bikin started rolling out these chairs, in the last year and a half, they have tripled the orders to their rattan supplier, enabling him to grow his business and hire more people.

It doesn’t stop there; under their Bikin Social initiative, Kedai Bikin supports NGOs by buying up their products, including special collaboration items, and reselling them at the store. They started with Asia Community Service (ACS), which aims to empower young children and adults with special needs towards a more fulfilling, independent life and increase their employability.

Sourced from Tibet, these bags are handwoven from plastic strips (left). Thai artist Saruta Kiatparkpoom fashions off-cut steel pieces into stunning lamps (right)
Sourced from Tibet, these bags are handwoven from plastic strips (left). Thai artist Saruta Kiatparkpoom fashions off-cut steel pieces into stunning lamps (right)
These versatile Bidayuh baskets can fit many uses (left). The Granddaddy Lounger is one of Kedai Bikin’s bestsellers (right)
These versatile Bidayuh baskets can fit many uses (left). The Granddaddy Lounger is one of Kedai Bikin’s bestsellers (right)

Their Stepping Stone Centre in Balik Pulau hires those with special needs and treats them as regular employees who are provided with on-the-job training and salaries. For Kedai Bikin, they have come up with a Special Hands collection of hand-woven fabric that can be worn as shawls or used as table runners. ACS even dyes their own yarn, and recycles magnetic cassette tapes that are cut into fine strips and woven with cotton for a shimmery effect.

“We choose the NGOs not by their causes but those who have existing production capabilities,” says Adela. Working with these non-conventional manufacturers, she adds, means things move at a different pace. “We wanted the Special Hands fabric to be reworked into laptop sleeves for a corporate client, so we placed an order for 40 pieces. For ACS to be able to deliver that within the time frame we set was already an achievement!”

These are not dumbbells but concrete door knobs (left). These pin cushions were handmade by an octogenarian in Perak, and were commissioned from Chop Kongsi in Penang (right)
These are not dumbbells but concrete door knobs (left). These pin cushions were handmade by an octogenarian in Perak, and were commissioned from Chop Kongsi in Penang (right)
These pin cushions were handmade by an octogenarian in Perak, and were commissioned from Chop Kongsi in Penang
These pin cushions were handmade by an octogenarian in Perak, and were commissioned from Chop Kongsi in Penang

Kedai Bikin purchases the goods from the NGOs rather than sell their things on consignment or commission. “We practise fair trade,” says Imaya. “We don’t squeeze them when it comes to prices.”

Besides ACS, currently you can also shop Umie Aktif’s handmade Tangan Kechil range of “cat food”, felt plush toys that are handmade by urban poor women, many of whom are single mothers, in Chow Kit. “Since it’s the year of the rooster, we asked them to create a range using that as the theme. They came up with tote bags with patchwork roosters,” says Adela, adding that handmaking these items are a form of therapy for the mothers and they are given a free hand with the creations. Umie Aktif gives 70 per cent of proceeds from sales to the women.

The Batik Bedding took about six months to perfect
The Batik Bedding took about six months to perfect
This rooster-themed tote was handmade by urban poor mothers in Chow Kit, under the NGO Umie Aktif
This rooster-themed tote was handmade by urban poor mothers in Chow Kit, under the NGO Umie Aktif

A recent addition to Bikin Social is Biji-Biji Initiative, a social enterprise that promotes sustainable living and reusing discarded materials in creative ways. Kedai Bikin currently stocks a range of their bags that are made of seat belts.

Kedai Bikin is always looking out for new collaborations, artisans and NGOs to work with but Adela admits their capacity is limited. “We are self-funded... we don’t have the financial ability to travel regularly to source or meet the people want to work with. Yet it’s important to go on the ground, visit their facilities, and get a feel of their products.”

That said, Kedai Bikin has definite plans to expand their range and reach this year, from working with a Johor-based NGO to rolling out new products such as their Bikin Baby high chair. You can also expect new collaborations and their existing collections in new, Nature-inspired colours.

Umie Aktif’s Tangan Kechil range of ‘cat food’ comprise schools of tiny felt fish
Umie Aktif’s Tangan Kechil range of ‘cat food’ comprise schools of tiny felt fish

Kedai Bikin also sees itself as a platform for promoting up-and-coming names and bringing creative minds together; by mid-2017, they hope to launch a bi-annual talk and exhibition highlighting new designers while inviting senior craft practitioners to share their knowledge.

From Studio to a pop-up and now a standalone Kedai, Bikin has shown that like their tagline, they always make it.

Kedai Bikin is at 8 Jalan Abdullah, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur Opens 10am-7pm daily Tel +603 2201 5503 www.kedaibikin.com

Follow them on Facebook (KedaiBikin) or Instagram (@kedaibikin)

Vivian Chong is a freelance writer-editor, and founder of travel & lifestyle website http://thisbunnyhops.com

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