Good design sparks conversation – something that LASALLE product design student Evan Tan achieved with his final-year project that featured a most unusual demographic: community cats. His project aims to make the lives of these community cats easier with three distinct designs, which he has named Acts.

Habits of Resting provides a safe space for community cats to sleep off the ground.

Act 1 – Habits of Eating is a corner for cats to eat in peace, with semi-opaque screens at the sides for privacy. Act 2 – Habits of Resting provides an elevated space for cats to sleep on, safe from wet or dirty floors. Finally, Act 3 – Habits of Curiosity lets the cats indulge in multisensory play with ropes for scratching and mirrors to look into. These colourful installations, while not yet permanent, have already been welcomed by the cats that have had the chance to interact with them. More importantly, the vibrant designs anchor the sense of community spirit that comes with caring for neighbourhood cats, and invites others into the conversation.

Can you tell us how you got the inspiration for the project?

So, during the Covid-19 lockdown, I took in a stray cat named Blackie. It was a neighbourhood cat I have been taking care of together with other community feeders for about 10 years, but when the lockdown hit, we realized Blackie was sick. So I took him home and had him for about a month. Towards the end of the month his health began to deteriorate very rapidly, and we had to plan for him to be put down to end his suffering.

The inspiration came from the day I was scheduled to go to the vet – I took Blackie downstairs one more time for the other community feeders to say goodbye. And to my shock, besides the community feeders, there were also other residents gathered around, petting Blackie and saying their well wishes. It was a shock initially because – well, he was just a cat living in the community space and I didn’t expect people to really notice or appreciate his presence. And it got the residents talking and sharing about their memories of this particular cat.

Habits of Curiosity features ropes that can be used as scratching posts for cats. These can be changed out as they wear down.

So when it was time to start my final year project and I had to choose a topic, this instantly came to mind, and I thought: Why not design something for stray cats as a dedication to their lives, as well as to the community feeders who have taken care of them and the unseen work that goes into all this care? What inspired me was this unspoken sense of community bonding that the stray cats have brought to our void decks and community spaces that have in some sense, deteriorated and lost their communal spirit in modern times.

What research did you conduct prior to the designing?

It was an extensive year of researching before ending up with the final design and production. I actually shadowed the cats – quite a number of strays – to understand how they live within our community spaces and their daily habits: the way they sleep, rest, eat. This was all part of the research that I did, including research with various stakeholders where I did interviews and surveys. So it was quite extensive research for a one-year project, but research never stops and there’s always something new to learn. I discovered new things about how cats live within our society and even how stray cats enter our community. I also linked up with random community feeders around Singapore and followed them on their feeding sessions to get an understanding of how things are done differently. I live in the East side, so what’s done there may not be the same as what’s being done in other estates and there may be different views of strays.

Habits of Eating has an elevated platform for the food dish and translucent privacy screens on either side.

What was the process of conceptualising, designing and producing your project like?

I think the end design was not what I expected it to be at first. I had thinking of doing something very functional, but in the end, I decided to move towards a more discursive direction. So the designs are something that don’t look like they belong within a community space – they are not urban, functional fixtures like the concrete tables and chairs.

I wanted the design to stand out within a community space and let the residents question why such a design is here, what the intended purpose is, and just go through the process of discovery. So the design itself went through, I think, at least three to four phases of change, and that’s how the final design came about. When I was pretty sure about it, I began sourcing for production and making the prototype by getting a local metal smith to laser cut, fold and weld sheet metal. I then took it back to my school workshop and did the powder coating, spray coating and 3D printing for the final portions.

What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?

At the start of the project, the main challenge was getting people to understand the whole idea. As a brand design student, I have to ask myself: who am I designing for? The answer was not just cats, but stray cats, when we’re usually more used to designing for humans. However, I wanted to challenge myself, and I think to some extent I succeeded.

Evan Tan is a product design student at LASALLE College of the Arts.

Another challenge I faced was deciding how the designs would be different, and not just another cat home made out of cardboard like what you see on the Internet. It needed to be something very unique to Singapore. This required intensive research. The production period was also very short, and what we could use for a mockup was limited.

I think the key to my project was proving that the designs work in terms of structural integrity, and stray cats do actually use them. I went around to experiment with setting up my design in different parts of Singapore, and the cat you see in the images is actually a stray that I befriended that day itself.

What are your plans moving forward?

For now, with the COVID-19 situation, plans are at a standstill. I’m also taking my time as I want this project to raise more awareness out there for stray cats. If there’s the opportunity, I would definitely like to implement the design as a fixed structure in more estates. At the moment the plan is for it to be a revolving design installation to raise awareness.