It wasn’t too long ago that Ong Shunmugam expanded its design universe beyond fashion.
The local label introduced its homeware line, Suvarnabumi, with an array of porcelain tableware last year. These first offerings bore all the traces of designer Priscilla Shunmugam’s eye for colour and pattern, as well as her appreciation for Asian heritage. Her new line of rattan furniture doesn’t stray too far from that winning formula.
There are 13 pieces in all, ranging from furniture like chairs and a dining table, to home accessories like baskets and trays. Each one was dreamed up by Shunmugam while she was stuck in lockdown in London, and brought to life in Malaysia, through the skilled hands of local craftsman.
It was also in Malaysia that different varieties of rattan were specially grown for the collection. “This was a conscious decision because Malaysia-harvested rattan is of a better grade than what you might get in Vietnam, China or the Philippines,” shared Shunmugam.
Quality was indeed underscored throughout the design process; Shunmugam’s team in Malaysia monitored each step of the production of the furniture pieces, partly in efforts to be transparent about their craftsmanship.
Shunmugam also paid mind to the history, traditions and cultural roots of rattan, but her surprising use of the Southeast Asian material are unlike anything you’d find elsewhere. “We tried our best to take a different path by ignoring the common references of rattan furniture and upping the design value in a way that feels instinctual to us,” said Shunmugam.
The results, among others: rattan chairs upholstered with elaborate Chinese jacquard, a dividing screen with panels of Indonesian batik, as well as a dining table adorned with a handwoven indigenous Iban pattern. The unconventional mix of materials called for new crafting techniques altogether, but the work of the Malaysian craftsman paid off beautifully.
Rattan furniture has become popular in recent years, especially in the West where the natural material is seen as “exotic” and used liberally in Instagram-worthy, bohemian-inspired home interiors. But, other than its unique design informed by various cultures, Shunmugam’s new collection stands out from these other offerings because of her researched approach to the material.
“We spent some months try to understand the many strands of the full picture — the cultivation of rattan, the manufacturing challenges, its social importance, and the overriding importance of rattan to some of the most marginalised people of Southeast Asia,” said Shunmugam.
“A combination of forest clearing, forest conversion to cash-crops and Western conservation practices are changing the industry on multiple levels. It feels like we’re looking at both imminent biological and cultural loss. We felt that was potential for us to come in and contribute our design values to the industry.”
Preserving Asian cultural heritage is at the heart of Shunmugam’s brand, whose fashion collections have often drawn from her Chinese and Indian roots. We saw that same respectful consideration for other cultures in her porcelain dining set, which was formed from a host of Southeast Asian influences. Now, with her new furniture collection, Shunmugam could just revive an interest in rattan craftsmanship in Singapore, where only a few skilled craftsmen remain.
The Suvarnabumi rattan furniture line is now available for pre-order on the Ong Shunmugam website.
All photos shot by Ivan Tan, styled by This Humid House; courtesy of Ong Shunmugam