What are the cultural signposts in Asian homes? What defines and separates our living spaces from Western ones? How do South-east Asians savour life? What makes our nesting traditions and rituals so specific and so stalwart that they can resist technology or modern life? These are the questions that steered the Suvarnabumi universe, a lifestyle brand by Priscilla Ong Shunmugam, founder of fashion brand Ong Shunmugam.

Since launching with tableware last year, Priscilla’s Suvarnabumi universe has recently expanded its offerings to include a rattan furniture collection. “We are not looking to replicate or mimic, and not going for kitsch or low-hanging fruit,” says Priscilla, who designed the collection during the lockdown in London. “It is safe to say that the design lens we use for womenswear is the same lens we apply here.”

Of course, we wanted to find out more so here goes: 

WHAT COMPELLED YOU TO CREATE THE SUVARNABUMI UNIVERSE?

Two things: curiosity and a sense of timing. Fashion brands with the right DNA sometimes get restless to explore new territories, and I think we fit right in there. I love to create and am not precious when it comes to categories. But the real push came when I realised that enough years had passed for me to develop the foundations of a design language. Also, as a business, we were in a stable position to experiment. 

WHAT MAKES YOUR SUVARNABUMI UNIQUE?

We create with South-east Asians at the forefront instead of as an afterthought. It is a counter-offer to the majority of options in the high-design value homeware market.

WHY RATTAN AS THE PRIMARY MATERIAL FOR YOUR DEBUT FURNITURE COLLECTION?

I always design from a personal and instinctive place. My lack of design pedigree means I tend to work with materials that I feel familiar with and am confident of. When deciding on which new avenues to explore in the realm of homeware, my instincts zeroed in on rattan because, like any child of the ‘80s in South-east Asia, it had such a ubiquitous presence in my life. Today, the world’s interest in rattan comes from a place of desire. It ticks all the boxes in terms of being on-trend and perceivably eco-friendly and certainly carries tropical and idyllic notions.

“When deciding on which new avenues to explore in the realm of homeware, my instincts zeroed in on rattan because, like any child of the ‘80s in South-east Asia, it had such a ubiquitous presence in my life.”

CAN YOU SHARE SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE RATTAN FURNITURE MARKET?

Firstly, it’s incredible how uniform the options are in the market – be it from a seller in Brisbane or Miami or even locally. A quick search on Instagram or Pinterest shows you the same peacock chairs or bar trolleys with only minor tweaks to colours and finishes. 

Secondly, the unapologetic copying of designer pieces, flowing from the same Paul Frankl, Franco Albini and Gabriella Crespi influence. Did rattan design plateau in the last 40 to 50 years? Despite it being such a valuable commodity that Malaysia and Indonesia banned the export of raw rattan since the ’80s, why weren’t Asian furniture designers interested in it?

Connecting all these dots gave me a sinking feeling – the same way I generally feel about the evolution of South-east Asian design. So it was just a matter of turning that feeling into positivity and deciding to do something about it. 

WHAT ARE THE UNIQUE FEATURES OF THE SUVARNABUMI RATTAN COLLECTION?

We’ve merged rattan with traditional textiles and indigenous Iban weaving in a single product. For some pieces, we’ve used stamped batik and for others, batik prints. I decided it was too risky to use hand-drawn batik for upholstery as the dyes may not withstand the necessary cleaning processes that are inevitable over time.

I’m going to see if I can get around this soon because I think it will be another technical triumph to merge some of the most valuable forms of batik with equally intricate rattan structures. In keeping with our ideological departures from common cultural signposting, we’ve chosen to liberate the use of these motifs beyond their symbolic implications.

I’m always interested in traditions that can travel without baggage. In tandem with our distinctive edit of post-modern design expressions, we dug deep into our archives of batik from Pekalongan, Indonesia, and decided to let these textiles shine alongside other natural materials equally endemic to the region. 

CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE MALAYSIAN CRAFTSPEOPLE WHO MANUFACTURED THESE PIECES?

My production manager was stranded there because of the lockdown, so we spent a fair amount of time looking online for rattan manufacturers. We soon found a family of craftsmen who were not put off by our rather unusual brief. Of course, we had to be mindful of crossing into unchartered waters and had to be very careful with our language and instructions.

And, although the craftsmen we work with in Malaysia have been in the trade for close to 50 years, our pieces jolted them out of their autopilot mode. As I am not a product or furniture designer, there were some things I wasn’t even sure were technically feasible until we tried and failed – and tried again and again. I think the work carries these scars and you can tell the products took time and thought.

HOW WOULD YOU STYLE THE RATTAN PIECES IN YOUR HOME?

I would make them fight it out with other equally beautiful and robust pieces and watch how they hold their own. I would also move them around the house, trying them out in different configurations from time to time. I am particularly proud of the dining table and the screen. Quite ambitious structures, they have turned out so regal and handsome. They will be heirlooms for anyone who cares enough for them.

IS CREATING A COHESIVE UNIVERSE THE FUTURE OF BRANDS?

Not necessarily. Without a deep design reservoir to tap from, you could seem opportunistic or risk showing your laziness. I think consumers are very savvy and spoilt these days. They know when they can get something off Alibaba or Amazon at half the price.