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Small is beautiful to Robin Tan and Cecil Chee of Wallflower Architecture + Design

Left to right: Robin Tan and Cecil Chee 

Unlike other architects who get a kick out of designing skyscrapers and mega structures that mark a city skyline, Robin Tan, 55, and Cecil Chee, 51, prefer creating smaller and more intimate buildings.

''Do we like designing big buildings? Sure, more people will see them but they don't stir anything inside us,'' says Mr Tan. The duo who first met as architectural students at NUS, designed flatted factories during their stint at JTC.

Mr Chee adds, ''there's the beauty of crafting when it comes to smaller projects.''

Wallflower designed the interiors of Foodfare Changi Airport T4. 

In 1999, they struck out on their own and set up Wallflower Architecture + Design, after working at Bedmar & Shi. ''It was cockiness, the thinking that ''hey, we can do better than that'' in terms of what we see in design and solutions,'' says Mr Chee.

Their first projects were simple renovation works, from a neighbour's conservation shophouse to their friends' apartments. ''It was a far cry from the mega projects from JTC and the good class bungalows from Bedmar & Shi, but we enjoyed it tremendously. There was the sense of gratitude of people placing their trust in us and the satisfaction of validating that trust,'' says Mr Tan.

Over time, projects grew in size, and they began to attract clients with bigger budgets and higher expectations. ''Clients are more sophisticated,'' says Mr Chee.

Check out this two-storey bungalow they designed in East Coast and this semi-detached house with a movable bamboo facade. 

Their portfolio today is a balanced mix of private homes, and commercial interiors such as restaurants.

What kept them going for the last two decades was the ability to work with a dedicated group of people who share similar culture and values, getting validation from clients and recognition from fellow architects.

Of course, there are low points too. In their early years, they learnt that running a design firm involved more than just drawing and providing solutions. ''We were foolhardy, without knowing how hard it is to start a business,'' says Mr Tan. Three years in, they ran into cashflow difficulty but managed to pull the firm through.

Forever House has two distinct cantilevered volumes. 

Secret Garden House is a luxurious, tropical, contemporary family home. 

The duo say that Wallflower has no set design style. ''Design styles usually carry with them certain principles, beliefs, opinions of what the goals of design are, and techniques for how to accomplish them,'' says Mr Tan. ''For our houses, we have to recognise all the opportunities presented by our tropical climate, our close urban living condition where each house can be as close as 4m from each other, and the yearning for individuality, open spaces and privacy.''

Mr Chee feels architectural language and interior expression should be aesthetically congruent. But it's a different story for commercial interiors. ''A lot of it is about creating a frontline image. For example, even before you've tasted its food, a restaurant's interior sets certain assumptions on quality, price, sophistication (or lack or it), and mood control. But the longevity of the aesthetic will determine if it's a classic or just a trend,'' he says.

Having known each other for over 20 years, they say they are able to make up for each other's weaknesses. ''We are on the same frequency and share the same critical eye,'' says Mr Chee.

So can Wallflower function with only one of them? ''Yes, but the end result will not be as good,'' says Mr Tan.

This story was first published in The Business Times. Click here to read the original story. 

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