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The original Singapore designer chairs!

As a tribute to Singapore’s golden jubilee, we feature four of our nation’s most familiar and well-loved chairs. You may have listened to childhood stories, watched your favourite TV shows or sipped kopi sitting on one of these chairs.


 

UNICA PLASTIC STOOL
red plastic chair, kopitiam, singapore,
Patronise any coffee shop in Singapore today and chances are, you’ll sit on one of these plastic stools. Lightweight, yet compact and sturdy, the Unica stool was made for use in modern-day coffee shops and food centres where space is usually tight.
It was designed in the 1990s by industrial designer Chew Moh-Jin of Design Counsel, and produced by local plastics manufacturer Singa Plastics. Back then, plastic chairs were flimsy and wobbly, so the brief was to develop a sturdy and robust stool. The hole in the centre of the seat serves two practical purposes – for easy lifting and, more importantly, when the stools are stacked at the end of the workday, they could be secured by threading a chain through it, and locked. “People are surprised that the stool was designed some 20 years ago in Singapore. It looks contemporary because it has a simple aesthetic form,” says Moh-Jin.
Since its introduction, more than a million of these stools have been sold. It’s no wonder, then, that the Unica stool has become synonymous with local makan and kopi culture.
Singa Plastics Limited
1 Fourth Chin Bee Road, www.singaplastics.com, tel: 6265-0922

PAK AWANG CHAIR

Made of solid teak and inspired by the organic, sleek lines of Mid-Century Modern Scandinavian furniture, the Pak Awang chair typically comes with curved armrests, tapered legs, a spindle backrest and removable cushions.
The seat got its name when it was popularised by the 1960s local Malay TV sitcom Pak Awang Temberang (“Mr Awang’s Antics”), which featured the chairs in the living room set. The show was such a hit, it spun off a furniture trend in Malay homes. Back then, newlyweds would have a set custom-made by local Shanghainese craftsmen for their first homes. A full set consisted of a three-seater sofa, two armchairs, a coffee table and two side tables.
“People liked the Pak Awang chair because it looked light, modern and fit well into small HDB flats. It was also very practical as the cushion covers could be removed and washed,” said Sharifah Maznah Syed Omar, who owns vintage furniture shop Second Charm. In its heyday, this seat was such a mainstay that many shops sold pre-packed cushion cover sets, especially during festive occasions such as Hari Raya and Chinese New Year.
Second Charm
Block 21 Kallang Avenue, Mapletree Industrial Building, #05-165, www.secondcharm.net, tel: 6294-2919

KOPITIAM CHAIR

Way before there were hipster cafes, the traditional kopitiam (or coffee shop) was the place to gather and discuss the news of the day over a cup of kopi-O and a slice of kaya toast. Here, customers were likely to be perched (typically with one leg up) on one of these chairs.
Made from pliable, hardy beech wood, the chair has a contoured spindle back and moulded plywood seat. While the chair is part of local culture, it has its origins in faraway Eastern Europe. It was (and still is) produced in the Czech Republic and Poland, where bentwood technology originated. To keep costs low, the seats were knocked down and flat-packed before being shipped in bulk. The first kopitiam chairs arrived in Singapore in the late 1930s. They were then assembled in workshops, locally branded and sold.
“The kopitiam chair was well-liked because it is lightweight, comfortable and so durable that it can be used for decades,“ says Lilian Goh of Lim Teck Lee Group, which has been selling its “Cock” brand kopitiam chair for over 70 years. The company even had its signature floral motif designed, trademarked and embossed on the seat.
Lim Teck Lee Group
2–6 Circular Road, www.limtecklee.com, tel: 6532-6868

 

RATTAN SHELL CHAIR

If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, you probably would have taken a childhood photo on one of these chairs. Fondly called the shell chair, it was a familiar sight in many homes and photography studios.
Rattan was widely used in furniture-making in the tropics because it is lightweight, long-lasting, flexible and could be worked into many styles. Taking inspiration from clamshells, craftsmen started making these seats in Singapore in the 1950s, selling them to both locals and expatriates. “Both young and old enjoyed lounging on it because it’s so cooling,” says 66-year-old rattan maker Chen Foon Kee. They were individually made by hand - by winding and weaving rattan reeds in concentric circles, starting from the centre, “much like spinning a spider’s web”. Foon Kee, who took over his father’s rattan shop in 1970, recalls how he could deftly make six of these seats a day to meet demand. The chair cost just $7 in those days, which probably explains why it was so commonplace. The humble seat serves as an enduring reminder of our childhood days. For some, it has lasted for years with generations growing up on it, as it made its way from five-foot ways to HDB flats.
Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture
Block 122 Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-68, tel: 6278-2388

This article was first published in our August 2015 issue. You can download it here.

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