Melvin Ong, Founder of Desinere

A recipient of Maison & Objet Asia 2014’s Rising Asian Talent award, Singaporean product designer, Melvin Ong, founder of Desinere, speaks with us on what gives him inspiration, his aspirations, and what’s it like being a designer in Singapore.

How do you feel being awarded Maison & Objet Asia 2014 Rising Asian Talent?
I was very surprised when I first found out! I feel very fortunate to be chosen as my studio is still quite young.

What’s it like being a product or furniture designer in Singapore? 
It’s not easy. There are many challenges, mainly to do with the manufacturing of my products. It’s tough to find people to manufacture my designs. Some local metal craftsmen that I’ve approached have turned me away as I’m not producing my items in bulk. This means I can’t take advantage of economies of scale also.

If I manufacture my products overseas, then shipping is a struggle also. So I had Itty Bitty, my rocking chair, manufactured in Bali, I managed to keep the cost quite low, but shipping them back to Singapore caused the cost price to double. You just can’t avoid it.

Itty Bitty, Rocking Chair

Is that why you came up with smaller items?
Yeah, I got a bit frustrated as I felt restricted by what I can or should design. So, I decided to take a more hands-on approach. My smaller items are mainly handmade.

Who do you look up to in the design industry?
When I was still studying I looked up to a Japanese industrial designer, Naoto Fukasawa. I was drawn by his design philosophy — designing things without thought. This means you design what comes to you naturally. An example of this would be like hanging your clothes behind the backrest of a chair, and yet the backrest of the chair was not originally designed for that purpose. He’s a very intuitive designer.

Currently, there are many people I look up to, mainly small design houses and firms. There are fewer “superstar designers” these days.

What gives you inspiration?
I always try as much as possible to work with a different material as I don’t want to get too comfortable working in one medium. When I was studying in London, materials specialist, Chris Lefteri, was my tutor. He thought me to design using a material-centric approach. It’s a good learning process for me working with different materials.

Your works feature various material like wood, metal, concrete, paper and leather. Do you have a “favourite” material?
I work with paper a lot. And while I’ve been wanting to move away from it, I keep getting request from clients to using paper in my designs for them.

What is one material you want to work with next?
Marble. Actually my uncle is a marble tile supplier. I’m trying to work with him to get off-cuts to work on a marble stool!

Of all the products you’ve created, which are you most proud of?
I think I definitely have an emotional attachment to my rocking chair. I first did that chair as a student at NAFA in 2007. So the design is very old. When I look at the original design, it actually looks very ugly! When I first revisited this design, nobody wanted to do it for me. The craftsman I approached in Ipoh said that he didn’t think that the design would work. So I went back to the NAFA workshop to rework it and developed the first two prototypes on my own. Subsequently I brought them to Bali to have them made. 

What advice would you give designers who are just starting out?
Firstly, don’t be too idealistic. It sounds great to run your own studio and be a director of a company, but it’s a lot of hard work. Secondly, you really need to have passion. People say this a lot, but it’s so true. Lastly, don’t limit yourself. You’ll definitely have to do projects that you may not want to do; projects you need to work on to sustain yourself. 

What is in the pipeline for Desinere? What will you be creating next?
This year there are a lot of collaborations lined up for me as other than working with different materials, I want to work with different designers. If you just stick to one type of product, after awhile, you’ll stagnate. I want to keep things fresh as it’s interesting to see say, how a fashion design will approach product design or furniture.

The two local designers I’m currently collaborating with are Elyn Wong of Stolen, and Ivan Lim of Green Banana. I’m working with Elyn on some jewellery pieces, and with Ivan on incorporating Rok, my concrete paperweights, with a terrarium concept.

Rok, Concrete Paperweight

For more information on Melvin Ong and his works, visit