Design with attitude

Design with attitude

If there is one event that illustrates how award-winning designer Chris Lee thinks, it is from his early 20s.

A late-blooming desire to study design had taken a hold of him, but he had no art portfolio to prove to the sceptical course manager at Temasek Polytechnic that he, aged 22 and considerably older than most first-year students, had both desire and talent.

The electronics engineering course dropout had to think fast. He realised he did have a portfolio of sorts.

It consisted of Valentine's Day cards with lettering cut from magazines and other such handcrafted gifts he had given his then girlfriend. It was not of the same depth and breadth as the work of a proper art student, but it would have to do.

She was in Canada then but as luck would have it, she had kept the items organised enough that her mother could find them and pass them to Lee.

Those handicrafts must have been good because the polytechnic - after a great deal of persuasion on his part - allowed him to enrol.

Two decades later, seated at the conference room of his agency, Asylum, Lee tells that story, chuckling at his own cheek.

Call it daring, playfulness or, yes, cheekiness but it has taken him from engineering dropout to head of one of Singapore's most innovative and lauded design firms, one of the few that can handle anything inside a commercial space, from furnishings to lighting to logos, from name cards to uniforms to websites.

Chances are, you will have seen something touched by Asylum and, indirectly, by the 42-year-old's personality.

Examples abound in the monograph published by Asylum, which, true to Lee's impish nature, contains accolades penned by him ("This is a great book, inspiring from the first page to the last"; "It's unbelievable how they can be so funny and emotional at the same time with their designs.")

The book, All You Wanted To Know About Asylum But Were Too Afraid To Ask, showcases one client, frozen yogurt chain Frolick, known for its desserts and its badges, adorned with double entendres such as "We Stay Hard Longer Than Ice Cream" and "Size Matters. Eat More" - and these are the ones printable in this newspaper.

There is a more serious side to Asylum - Lee did not win the President's Design Award in 2009 for bawdy quips - and it is a side seen in projects such as the Fusionopolis building (clear and memorable direction signs), the Loof rooftop bar (for which it did most of the graphic design, including menus that invite patrons to use them as umbrellas in case of a downpour) and the logo for the School Of The Arts Singapore.

Much of what Asylum does is labelled "branding", which in Lee's view, is to humanise a company. But it goes further.

That humanisation means an infusion of personality - often, an outsized, theatrical one. That step sometimes means changing the intended course of a product.

Take the Frolick frozen yogurt chain, for example. "They told us that yogurt with fruit was about healthy living. But for their target customers - people aged 16 to 25 - health is a distant, distant concept. It's a snack, people want to enjoy the snack. It needs to have an attitude and we then gave it a fun personality. That is how we work with the client, talking about the objective before working on the solution."

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