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This article is part of a series by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) Singapore to showcase the work of local designers. This story features Mike Tay of Onlewo, and Eugene Yip of Teetfa.

Amidst a row of hardware retailers, construction work sites, and electrical manufacturers, a sunlit two-storey conservation shophouse along Jalan Besar provides pedestrians a welcome surprise. Walking in, one is first embraced with warm, bright colours. The colours then take on the form of attractive geometric patterns, which, in turn (and if one recognises the cultural associations), morph into evocative images familiar to the everyday Singaporean.

The studio-cum-shop is home to Onlewo, a design house run by Mike Tay, whose unique graphic pattern-work has given way to a diverse range of homeware that includes everything from drink coasters to curtains. More subtly, the work of another designer also occupies the space. Under the brand moniker of Teetfa, Eugene Yip designs intricate traditional metal grilles, which line some of the walls of the shophouse and also form the safety railing that envelopes the second floor.

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(1) The sun-lit studio cum shop space of Onlewo and Teetfa. (2) Eugene Yip (Left) and Mike Tay (Right)

It seems surprising, at first, that two designers with rather distinct styles and product offerings would share a common workspace, let alone collaborate.


Mike and Eugene discuss designs at their shared working desk.

However, a conversation with Mike and Eugene immediately reveals that their creations are fundamentally not as different as one may assume. Both Singaporean, the two consider their national identity a cornerstone of their work. Eugene’s grille designs originate from a desire to revive the traditional art of metalsmithing — one which can only be seen in select ‘old towns’ such as Tiong Bahru today.

For Mike, he professes that being a Singaporean “totally” defines the patterns that he produces. From the clean, abstract lines in the ‘My Home’ series — inspired by the architecture of the HDB estate that he grew up on — to the delicate illustrative work that characterises the ‘Little India’ print, Mike’s identity as a designer has been defined largely by the environs he was raised in. This is not just evident in his work itself, but also how he speaks about his motivations and inspirations surrounding it. He says:

“Being a Singaporean, all of us have stories — places that we go, who we meet, (the) kind of food we like… beautiful things are sometimes created by looking on the inside rather than looking out.”

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Image Source: Eugene Yip, Mike Tay (respectively)

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Image Source: Mike Tay, Ministry of Communications and Information (respectively)

Through his perspective as a designer, Mike sees Singapore as a country rich with sources of inspiration. It is a talent of Mike’s, Eugene volunteers, to identify the common elements that seems to evoke a sense of familiarity and the Singapore identity. “For example, the otter family”, he says, drawing my attention to an illustrated otter tucked within a beautiful lampshade design. “Oh, of course.” I croon. And then we all chuckle, for I have proven the point perfectly.

Furthermore, despite the ostensibly Singaporean roots of Onlewo’s designs, it has proven popular even with an international audience. In April 2017, they were one of just six local labels invited to showcase their works in New York City, as part of the ‘Singapore Design Now’ initiative organised by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and AsiaStore. Onlewo’s exhibited collection of fabric clutch bags with handbag designer Ling Wu was so popular, in fact, that their in-house stock promptly sold out, resulting in the need for more to be rapidly shipped over from Singapore. Eventually, the Singapore stockpile, too, was wiped clean by the overwhelming response.

“When you’re fully connected to where you come from, whatever you create, even if people don’t really know anything about the place you come from, they will see that connected-ness,” Mike suggests. In all hopes, Onlewo’s success will be reflected in the wider design industry in Singapore. Eugene expresses his confidence in this sentiment. “Singapore can stand on its own as a design centre,” he says.


If you liked this article, continue to watch this space as we feature more local designers in the weeks to come!

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