For the public seating at National Gallery Singapore, Lekker upcycled old replica furniture by sectioning and marrying selected parts to newly designed components – a fitting approach for an institution where preservation meets contemporary contemplation. Stephanie Peh extends our Cubes Indesign issue 78 coverage of the Gallery with this story.
1 March, 2016
Photography by Jansen Teo Photography (courtesy of Lekker)
Rightfully so, the furniture in a gallery or museum often pales in comparison to the art itself. In most cases, public seating conveys a neutral aesthetic – it is either purchased off-the-shelf or manufactured from scratch as a quiet extension of the building. Yet these do not seem like fitting methods for the recently opened National Gallery Singapore – an institution that has been lauded for its approach to the conservation and progression of the two monuments it inhabits.
For the creation of its public seating scheme, the Gallery opted to upcycle a collection of old replica furniture – manufactured in the 1950s to mimic original furniture created for the former Supreme Court and City Hall. The revamped benches were to serve as ‘talking points’ within the Gallery, yet they needed to possess aesthetic harmony when placed in various spots within the repurposed buildings.
Lekker was appointed for this complex task, and approached the conundrum by cutting and sectioning the old furniture, and joining the pieces with modern components. “This was a design language that, to us, emphasised an appearance of ‘merging’ – as if the new was a flexible medium that was absorbing the old,” says Joshua Comaroff, design consultant at Lekker.
The process was not without challenges. After all, the approach commanded the combination of varying production methods from the past and present into single pieces of furniture. In an institution where the achievements of past Singaporean artists, as well as modern Southeast Asian art are housed, the Gallery’s approach to art faces a similar dilemma, warranting different approaches to the exhibition of art.
According to Comaroff, this can cause abrupt juxtaposition, but not necessarily in a negative manner. He says, “Our take on this, however, is that it is a rather beautiful way of understanding an inclusive institution and society. We see beauty in difference and contrast, and allow this to coexist without forcing one narrative as dominant. The historical and contemporary elements of our benches and their different materials are supposed to reflect this unique sort of beauty.”
Lekker removed the backs and arms from the seats of the replicas to create straightforward distinctions. The pieces were then re-matched to modern solid-surface and metal components. “We settled on forms that are blockish but rounded and formed from extruded profiles. We found that this communicated the status of a contemporary object, while not eclipsing the beauty of the replicas,” explains Comaroff. The modern components are volumetric, and juxtapose the intricate detailing found in the replicas. “Luckily, this also worked well from an ergonomic standpoint,” he adds.
The chairs were finished with white or gold highlights that create ambiguity between the old and new components. This is emphasised by the thickness of the enamel paint coating that only reveals the grains of the old furniture on closer inspection, such as when the observer takes a seat. “As opposed to the typical conservation approach of restoring ‘heritage’ items and hiding modern elements, we wanted to see what would happen if they were brought together in a very intimate way. This is how we understood studioMilou and CPG’s design for the Gallery, and also the mission of this institution to bringing an artistic history into the present,” explains Comaroff.
When asked if they are hoping that the public seating would prompt manners of public introspection, Comaroff says, “We are aware that the seating is competing for attention with a rather powerful setting, and some extraordinary artwork, but the backstory of the benches is interesting, and we do think that they embody some knotty complexities involving the status of historical objects.”
While the replicas entrusted to Lekker are “fake” old things, they were treated with a fitting artistic license. “They embody their own decades of history, and a formal language that is no different from the ‘legitimate’ heritage furniture. Given this, we do hope that some of the historical ironies and contradictions in this situation may be legible… At least, the future of old things in a new nation is cause for some consideration,” he adds thoughtfully.
A selection of prototypes that emerged from this project will be on display at Maison & Objet Asia 2016, from 8 – 11 March at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.
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