Priscilla Shunmugam’s sublime rattan furniture collection
Lockdown and border closures won’t slow her down. Designer Priscilla Shunmugam has had one productive 2020. In September, the renowned fashion designer further expanded her homewares brand Suvarnabumi with an imaginative rattan collection unlike any we’ve ever seen.
She took a quintessentially Southeast Asian raw material and crafted an elegant furniture and accessories line that respects that rich lineage — in her signature Ong Shunmugam way. Who else would’ve thought of marrying the Malaysian-harvested rattan with Indonesia’s batik, China’s jacquard and indigenous Iban weave patterns?
And to think this immaculate series was entirely conceptualised, designed and produced during the lockdown. We caught up with celebrated designer Priscilla Shunmugam to find out how it all materialised.
Talking specifically about your homewares collection, you went from tableware to furniture — that’s a big leap. What prompted you to explore rattan?
Priscilla Shunmugam: I don’t have formal product design training, so it’s important for me to start from a place that’s instinctive. No matter how trendy or lucrative, if I don’t know a material or don’t have a strong feeling about it… I won’t go there.
For this line, I also had to look at the practicalities. My team and I were all affected by lockdown and border closures. So whatever we wanted to embark upon, it had to be something that we could pull off logistically.
Then, of course, I looked at my own personal interest and comfort levels. As someone who was born in the ’80s and grew up in Southeast Asia, rattan was a big part of my upbringing. It was ubiquitous… the sofa set at my parents’ home has always been rattan. I even remember my rattan rocking horse as a kid and my grandfather’s chair. Even the feather duster had a rattan handle. So I started doing some market and product design research to try and understand what’s out there and if there are any gaps.
That’s when I got really excited — Asia to Europe and America, our rattan is definitely quite popular around the world. It’s all over Instagram and Pinterest. But, be it Brisbane or Miami, everything looked the same! I felt like rattan was being ignored from a design point of view. When I started connecting all these dots together, I could see the space for me to come in.
I don’t want to trivialise my design process. But at the same time, I don’t want to exaggerate and pretend that I spent years designing. No, it was very quick. I couldn’t accept that the only designs out there were French bistro chairs and the peacock chair. This cannot be the end of the road when it came to the evolution of rattan furniture.
I managed to turn that frustration into something positive, which is usually what I do. Designing this line felt very natural.
Would it be safe to say this particular collection comes from a deeply personal place?
Priscilla Shunmugam: I grew up with rattan. I was surrounded by it and it was always a part of my childhood. It reminds me of my parents and home. It reminds me of how far I’ve come since I left home.
When I design, those emotions are simmering under the surface. Maybe that’s why my work looks the way it does.
I’m not designing from a designer’s point of view or to be cool and trendy. I’m not being self-conscious.
It’s a more emotional thing. I design from a very grounded, natural, and familiar space.
I understand this entire collection was designed, prototyped and produced during the lockdown. How did you and your team pull that off?
Priscilla Shunmugam: We had an office in Guangzhou, China and I had a production manager based there. She went back to Malaysia for Chinese New Year and COVID-19 happened. China and Malaysia closed their borders and she was stuck in Malaysia.
To make this collection happen, I knew that I needed at least one man there on the ground at all times. She’s like me — we both know fashion inside out but furniture was a whole new territory. But I decided to treat this as a learning experience. We just had to go in with the right attitude. And that’s as far as I take credit for because then we found these incredible craftsmen!
Yes, everything was designed, sampled and produced during the lockdown. I was in London and was sleeping at 6am for six weeks because of the time difference. Many decisions to be made while she was on site and I wanted to be a part of it all. She was my eyes. We definitely have technology to thank for this collection too!
You worked closely with Malaysia rattan artisans to realise this beautiful range. Tell us about that experience.
Priscilla Shunmugam: We found a family business where four generations have worked with rattan. The current boss is rather young in his early 40s and when he kind of saw our brief and designs, he immediately got excited. That was the key to pulling this off! Typically when you work with very established veteran craftsmen, the common hurdle is their unwillingness to change.
When we started the prototyping phase, we had never done furniture before. But as it turns out, when it comes to producing clothing and furniture, it’s all about measurements, dimension and proportions. We found some common ground. Even things like weave and frame colour, motif placement are all concepts we’ve already dealt with in fashion.
We were definitely learning along the way. The sweetest part was that the craftsmen uncles, who are all in their sixties and seventies, were kind of teaching us the ropes. Through patience, their willingness to educate us and help us figure out a way, the products just became stronger and stronger.
If we didn’t have these craftsmen who were so keen to do this with us, we would not be able to pull this off.
There was very little pushback or drama. I have to pay tribute and give credit to them. Because an idea is nothing without execution.
Also, I found myself asking why furniture designers are so opaque about who makes their products. We made sure to take videos and pictures because we want everyone to see who makes our furniture. It’s really sad… the craftsmen aren’t even used to being photographed. They really don’t understand how precious, valuable and gifted they are. Our value system is so warped that the craftsmen are at the bottom of the food chain. It makes me feel uncomfortable. With the power of social media, we want to share all of it on our Instagram.
Much like your fashion label Ong Shunmugam, the bright thread of multiculturalism stands out in Suvarnabumi’s Rattan line too. Talk us through it.
It’s a cornerstone of my work that flows from me being mixed race — my mum is Chinese, my dad is Indian and I was born in Malaysia. I was brought up with Hinduism, Buddhism and Catholicism side my side. I got a multifaceted perspective towards culture, race, religion, aesthetics, customs, food and sensibilities. I’m used to having so many different things around me in harmony.
I know in my heart, I look at things differently. When people see categories, I don’t. Also, I can see through a lot of the tokenism. It’s a natural byproduct of my upbringing. My designs are never formulaic or calculated. I look at what I know and find pairings that look good to me.
Where to now?