Ministry man

Colin Seah talks about the mantra that drives his company Ministry of Design to redefine design and the hotel room concept work he's done for Depa.

Colin Seah
Colin Seah

Colin Seah talks about the mantra that drives his company Ministry of Design to redefine design and the hotel room concept work he's done for Depa.

From fashion photography to interior architecture, Colin Seah has tackled design on a mix of scales. Starting out with work on urban planning for a Swiss town, Seah has worked with some major architectural figures.

With his own company, Ministry of Design, some of his most recent work includes a hotel room concept for Depa, which reflects his interest in layering spaces.

The concept curving clear glass walls that can turn completely translucent, frosting over to allow visual privacy between spaces.

Seah sees it as a commentary on the typical pressure for hoteliers to provide high-end hotel rooms that seem to always need to be larger in size. He sees his design as a counterpoint to that, where 'luxury is not having more space, but having more spaces'.

What is your first memory of being interested in design?

Memories are a very elusive thing for me, not many things leave their mark on mypsyche... but the clearest early design image I have is of the front porch to my family home, where as a toddler, I would arrange the family's footwear in ascending order of size, making sense of the chaos of shoes. I think my parents found it very amusing.

What is your formal training in the interior design field?

I finished my architectural training in the United States. The rigor of the 5-year studies laid an invaluable foundation from which I feel extremely comfortable handling design at a variety of levels, from buildings at the urban scale to small objects you can hold in your hand.

In the years leading up to school, I was very involved in fashion photography and theatre set design as well. However, formal training aside, I feel that the most valuable form of training happens when you experience life richly and question the things around you.

Tell us about your first design job...

When I worked at OMA, I was part of a design team that was handling an urban design for a Swiss town.

The scale was enormous; I think it was 5km long and involved scores of disused train yards. As you can imagine, it was rather a leap in scale and a bit intimidating for me.

Each pencil line could represent an entire roadway. It was then that I began to appreciate the impact designers and the decisions they make can have on people and their environments.

Can you give us a brief rundown of your career thus far?

My first formal foray into design was with fashion photography, which was very glamorous and very right brain. I was also designing stage sets at the same time, but found the temporality and lack of a functional basis difficult to reconcile with the effort expended.

It was a desire to exercise both left and right brain design that led me to architecture and interior design.

I spent a number of years working in the US and Europe for architects like Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind, before returning home to Singapore. Seeking a pure environment away from the practice, I joined the teaching faculty of the Architecture Department at the National University of Singapore.

Three and a half years ago, I founded the Ministry of Design, focusing on spatial design through architecture and interior architecture projects. Our work also includes a multi-disciplinary dimension, incorporating graphic, product and collateral design for the spaces we design.

What projects have you got lined up regionally?

Our presence in the Middle East is rather recent and we are currently exploring the magnitude of opportunities here. In other parts of the world, we are in discussions for a number of hospitality projects in Bhutan, Thailand and India.

Our local projects also include a number of luxury projects such as boutiques, restaurants, houses and an exciting urban office building.

Would you say that your 'style' can be described in a few words?

Just 3 words - question, disturb, redefine. This is my firm's mantra. We continually seek to question the status quo, disturb convention and redefine relevant answers for the contemporary context.

We do not have an aesthetic style, but instead have an approach that could yield a number of styles.

We find that more relevant in a constantly evolving design scene.

Where do you get your inspiration from for each individual project and how do you keep your ideas fresh and innovative?

At times, we draw from the inherent cues and inspiration inherent in the characteristics of each project - the site, the client, the functional challenges.

Sometimes the cues are from elsewhere, and we have to ask the right questions first before we can even start. Like for the Concept Hotel Room - Invisible Spaces for Depa, we had to ask ourselves what the luxury hotel room was about at an essential level, then from this starting point redefine it completely.

To remain relevant and continually fresh, we do not take on projects that are too similar in character with our previous work and we also consciously choose to work only with clients that are interested in exploration.

We are insistent that we stay true to our mantra - question, disturb, redefine!

What is your favourite project that you have worked on?

Whatever I am currently working on always becomes my favourite project, I only take on work that I am completely passionate about ... and whatever we are working on also proves to be the most challenging because we are constantly aiming for greater levels of perfection.

What three objects define or illustrate your design personality?

My sleek MacBook Pro, the clarity of design and ease of its user interface is perfect.

A sensuous clay drinking vessel from a Malaysian potter. I can't quite call it a cup, its so much more than that. It sits on three legs and the glaze is so rich. It fits perfectly in my hand.

My black leather Moleskin journal. It is a beautiful object, which also allows me to create beautiful things within its thick pages.

And finally, if you could have worked on the design of any project worldwide what would it have been?

It would be amazing to design an entire resort complex, from the master plan all the way down to the plates on the tables. This would really fulfill the multi disciplinary vision of Ministry of Design.

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