Material Things
Tatler Singapore|Oct 2020
With intimate knowledge, these artisans bring new life to their chosen materials, creating infinite possibilities with works of art that are as decorative as they are functional
Hashirin Nurin Hashimi And Hong Xinying
LEATHER

JOSH LEONG

Founder of Josh Leong Shoes and Heirloom by Josh Leong; co-founder of Palola

The story of Josh Leong’s shoemaking journey can be told through his leather artisan apron. Over the years, the garment has acquired a patina where the material falls across his lap—the spot he rests his shoes on as he hammers in nails and stitches welts and soles by hand.

This result of time and experience is also why leather is his material of choice when it comes to the shoes he makes. “Leather is one of the few materials that’s not just ultra-durable but it gets more beautiful and comfortable with use. It develops a unique patina and its own character depending on where it’s been, how it’s been used, and who used it,” expounds the founder of Josh Leong Shoes, which specialises in hand-welted made-to-order and bespoke shoes, Oxfords, loafers and Derby shoes included, using full-grain leather sourced from Italy, France and Germany.

Leong didn’t plan on becoming a bespoke shoemaker; he “fell into” the business serendipitously. In 2014, the former tennis coach decided to turn his leather-crafting hobby—he made small accessories such as wallets and pouches from scrap leather sourced from furniture upholsterers—into a full-time career. He made his way to Florence, the cradle of traditional Italian leather craftsmanship, and enrolled into a trade school. And when he started learning how to make shoes, something just clicked—and the rest, as they say, is history.

The year he spent in Italy, Leong apprenticed under master shoemaker Angelo Imperatrice and bespoke shoemaking brand Stefano Bemer. Upon his return home, he started his eponymous brand, and a year later in 2016 launched casual footwear brand Heirloom by Josh Leong with a range of made-in-Italy leather sneakers and driving loafers. He also co-founded women’s shoe label Palola, with leather artisan Jeremiah Ang, to offer ready-to-wear and made-to-order leather ballet flats, loafers and pumps from its CityLink Mall boutique.

For Leong, shoemaking is both an art and a science. “What drives me is the challenge of trying to perfect every single step, of the more than 100 required in the process.” As with any shoe he designs or makes, Leong ensures that there is as little compromise as possible between aesthetic and comfort. His knowledge of the shoemaking process and understanding of quality materials helps him achieve the tricky balance between form and function. “When a client steps into a pair of shoes I’ve made, their feet should feel supported in the right places, without any pain or pinching. The leather should wrap snugly around their feet, and gradually begin to mould to the unique shape,” says Leong. “The business of bespoke is so much more than a client coming to me to purchase a pair of beautiful shoes. At its core, I’m in the business of giving my clients the confidence to stand tall and face up to the various challenges that they may face in their lives.”

GLASS

FLORENCE NG & SARA ANG

Founder and director of Synergraphic Design

“Glass is captivating. It is alive in the way that you can control its transparency, reflectivity and form,” says glassmaker Florence Ng. “It is strong yet fragile, making it a challenging material to work with; it captures impressions of fluidity, malleability and softness.”

Ng founded Synergraphic Design with a former business partner in 1986 and it has risen from humble beginnings as a retailer of glass panels for doors and windows to working on wall features for various hotels and residences in Singapore, and expanding its reach beyond our shores. “I wear two hats: one as an artist and designer, the other as a business owner of a glass studio,” she says. “I like to take traditional methods, like stained-glass techniques, and add something else so it becomes more contemporary in style.”

Her daughter Sara Ang, who joined the family-run firm seven years ago, continues to be inspired by her mother’s indomitable spirit. “The passion for glass that my mum and her craftsmen have cannot be rivalled; they have dedicated decades of their lives to learning about the material. My goal is to find ways to make glass art and design more sustainable,” says Ang. “No project was deemed ‘too small’ for us; each time we took on a challenging project, we honed our capabilities even more.”

Besides crafting decorative glass for commercial and residential projects, the firm is known for its artistic work such as glass sculptures for various commercial projects and public spaces. It also recently teamed up with local manufacturers Office Planner and OPSH to create furniture with glass elements, while launching multifunctional products such as the Bianca Board, a magnetic, stain-resistant tempered glass whiteboard that can also be used as a projector wall, lovingly named after Ang’s one-year-old daughter, who is also Ng’s first grandchild.

What are some of the techniques that you work with?

Florence Ng Glass techniques can be broken down into three types: cold, warm and hot. Cold techniques do not require heat; these include bevelling, sandblasting, chiselling, printing and grooving. Warm techniques involve a kiln, which heats up the material to a softening temperature, so that the glass will slump downwards over a purpose-carved mould. Hot techniques involve molten, hand-blown glass that can be sculpted into three-dimensional pieces such as bowls, vases and sculptures.

You can choose to work with these various processes when designing products and furniture. I’ve been working with these techniques for so long, but new technology keeps improving; we have to keep upgrading our machinery in terms of speed, colour resolution, and so on.

Traditional carving is a manual, time-consuming process. We use graphics to simulate sand-carving to make it more affordable, faster and better; we combined these techniques to create depth in our glass artworks for the Gardens by the Bay. Verre églomisé is also in trend—it’s the French term for the art of glass gilding. We put 18-karat gold leaf detailing on the back of glass panels; and we’re very good at it! We created decorative glass panels for The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore and also for a home in Nassim Hill.

Tell us about some of your most memorable projects.

Ng I was commissioned to create wall art for the lobby of the Maybank Tower in Singapore, and they chose the design, Resplendent Wealth, created with Singapore artist Goh Beng Kwan. The builder for the project had a 19-member committee who could not figure out exactly what they wanted for the monument; they contacted me when they decided to make it in glass.

I made a prototype for the architecture firm C Y Lee and recommended that they build the monument in an interlocking form, inspired by Lego bricks, that allows for easy maintenance of damaged bricks and for lights to be installed within. Based on a tangram puzzle, the monument has seven colours in gem-like hues. Titled the Partners Monument, this was completed in 2007, it’s still standing there beautifully as it was designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons.

What are your future plans for the brand?

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