Colin Seah, Founder of Ministry of Design, gives his take on the evolution of his firm and how to design 'an experience'
Eight years ago, Ministry of Design was launched as a one-man-band in Singapore by University of Arizona graduate Colin Seah. Seah had been teaching at the National University in Singapore when he was approached to work on the New Majestic Hotel and jumped at the opportunity to immerse himself back into the world of design. And thus, Ministry of Design was born.
Fast forward and the practice has three studios in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing totalling 30 staff, and a wide portfolio of projects from a 10-storey commercial block on Singapore’s city fringe to a witty take on the standard eraser. The ethos of the firm is to ‘Question, Disturb & Redefine’, moulding projects that speak to their local context but are equally accessible to a global audience.
In the following interview, Seah gives us his insights into the moments that have shaped his practice, what it’s like to be a young firm working in Singapore, and how to design ‘an experience’.
The evolution of Ministry of Design
When an opportunity to design the New Majestic Hotel came about it was truly a crossroads moment and because I had been itching to get back to design, I took on the project and established MOD as a one-man firm. The first few hires were all ex-students of mine and over the years we’ve grown to three offices with thirty staff.
We believe that MOD is only as good as the people in it! Everyone in the firm plays a role towards shaping and defining MOD; what MOD is, never remains static. We look for team members who share our passion to ‘Question, Disturb and Redefine’ design, are open-minded and would be people we'd love to hang out with outside of work.
We also look for team members with strengths which complement MOD; we want team members who are better than us in the things they do well! Underlying this are the three Directors who all posses different but complementary strengths.
When the economic climate in Singapore became volatile during the financial crisis, we had to look outwards to greater Asia for work. That precipitated our move to China and also gave rise to opportunities to design large-scale projects both there and in other countries such as Korea and Malaysia. We find larger projects provide us with the opportunity to deal with greater complexity and to design richer experiences.
Procuring work as an emerging practice
Procuring work in Singapore is both tougher and easier compared to 10-15 years ago. It’s easier because the market is much more varied and provides more opportunities with all kinds of projects being developed; from small independent developments to the usual major high-end developments.
However it’s also tougher because the market is very competitive as there are many more small practices emerging. Younger architects no longer feel a need to apprentice for a substantial period before coming out on their own.
During the early days, commissions tended to be for isolated design scope, say only interior design, or only architecture. However, we pushed clients to consider MOD for a more holistic scope of work, where we would cover the breadth of design under a single vision, ranging from master-planning, architecture, interior design, landscape design and even branding/collateral design.
Commissions of this nature have become more frequent; for instance, we are currently working on a W Resort in Thailand and handling masterplanning, architecture, interior design and landscape design direction.
Designing ‘an experience’
From our very first project, the New Majestic Hotel, MOD’s work has revolved around designing ‘lifestyle-driven’ experiences, be it offices, hotels, mixed use developments, etc. MOD sees forms and space as environments which can provide memorable experiences.
Typically we try to understand the DNA and psyche of the relevant target market and pair that with the aspirations of the client. Pairing these up gives us the entry point to design an experience.
I think most designers have some level of inherent aesthetic preferences and this surfaces subconsciously. The way we try to approach a design solution is always to be conscious about our decisions and question its relevance to the specific project.
I became an architect because … I love creating immersive experiences
For inspiration I look to … other creative fields such as fashion, movies and literature
The one project I wish I’d worked on is … a private race club with a track for driving enthusiasts
My favourite artist is … currently I really like the work of some local artists, like Chun Kai Feng
In my spare time you’ll find me … cooking for friends