Singaporean creative Colin Seah on why you shouldn’t follow design trends
The architect-designer behind some of the region’s most exciting hotels and resorts, including the new Prestige Hotel in Penang, believes that trends go against sustainability, longevity, and good design as good problem-solving.
If you’re curious to know where Colin Seah – founder of integrated architectural, interior design and branding firm Ministry of Design (MOD), and award-winning designer of several stylish boutique hotels – stays when he’s on vacation, his answer would shock you.
“Hotels with very normal, very standard rooms,” admitted the two-time President’s Design Award winner, who also won Grand Prize at the Gold Key Award (regarded as the hospitality industry’s highest international accolade), twice.
“Holidays are my time to live, to disconnect,” he explained. “Staying in some hip hotel would leave me stuck in work mode, checking out design details, wondering why things were done a certain way, or if I’d have done things differently.”
On vacation, he reads, watches art-house films, visits museums, enjoys leisurely meals, and takes long countryside drives in locales such as France’s Loire Valley, Portugal’s Douro Valley, or the Scottish Highlands. His wife – and MOD’s director of business development – Joy Chan Seah loves wine and whisky, while he loves cars.
Architecturally trained in the US, Seah cut his teeth at Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind, before spending four years at National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture, researching design pedagogy and serving as design critic.
“My career evolved organically without any real planning,” he said of his first hotel gig in 2004, designing the now-defunct New Majestic Hotel located in Singapore’s Chinatown. “That’s when I set up MOD. After that, more boutique/heritage commissions came in, such as MacAlister Mansion, Loke Thye Kee Residences and Majestic Theatre in Penang.
“Then came commissions by chain hotels and resorts, such as W Retreat in Phuket, Movenpick Resort & Spa in Vietnam, followed by large-scale commercial projects, such as to create the masterplan, architecture, landscape and interiors of the 300,000 sqm Vanke Yan Tai Mixed Use Development in China.”
WHAT SORCERY IS THIS? DESIGN INSPIRATION FROM HARRY HOUDINI
For the recently-opened Prestige Hotel in Penang, MOD was tasked to create interiors for “a property that’s indie but with 160 rooms, that’s not too hipster-meets-Peranakan as that segment’s already saturated, that’s not an imitation of the E&O Hotel’s old-world colonial charm”.
Prestige Hotel’s long, narrow site, with rooms alongside a 150m-long corridor meant to Seah that “circulation was the main issue, with guests facing a long, boring trudge to their accommodation”.
His solution? Paint the corridor in a gradation of grey shades, and install revolving light fixtures that would cast mesmerising shadows to engage guests, while lulling them into a dreamlike state of relaxation.
Riffing off the idea of hypnosis, MOD explored themes such as magic and illusion, before arriving at an “A-ha” moment, which was… Harry Houdini.
“We got inspired by the glass and steel cages he performed his underwater escape stunts in. So we put brass filigree cages to create zones in common areas. The hotel lobby is encased in a standalone glass box; room furnishings, such as TV consoles and bathrooms, are variations on the theme,” Seah said. “Other ‘magic trick’ elements were incorporated, such as ‘invisible’ toilet doors camouflaged to blend in with the walls.
The effect is boldly Art Deco-ish, surprisingly elegant for something with such off-the-wall inspiration.
The company was recently appointed to design their first ski resort for Vanke. The 350-room ski-in, ski-out independent boutique hotel belonging to Marriott’s Tribute Portfolio launches in 2022 at the Winter Olympics in Chongli, China.
“Our starting point is to ‘Question, Disturb, Redefine’,” Seah said, quoting his company’s motto. “To look for areas of innovation within the field. For example, there never seems to be enough space in a ski resort’s room to place wet skis and coats. Creating a ‘mud room’ area at the entrance was a solution so simple and obvious but which no one had done before.”
“We named the hotel ‘Tribe’; because people relate to one another through shared interests. Our target market of younger cosmopolitan Chinese consumers tend to holiday in tribes of six, eight, even up to 20, unlike in other countries where it’s mainly couples, or small families of four,” Seah added.
Angular lines reminiscent of tribal tattoos feature on columns, walls, partitions, art installations, even on collateral such as luggage tags.
“I don’t like trends. They’re immaterial for MOD. We dig deeper to find customised solutions to meet our clients’ needs. I think in terms of sustainability, problem-solving and longevity.” – Colin Seah
“Everything’s holistically infused,” Seah said. ”That’s how I approach things. I come up with a ‘North Star’, with everything else built around that concept, down to the smallest detail.”
The four-month-long winter season would impact the building materials and processes, and the time available for onsite construction.
“We visited many Chinese factories to source pre-fab piping panels, bathroom kits, and room kits to reduce building time, and had to consider factors such as placement of fireplaces, and installation of air locks at entrances to keep out cold exterior air,” Seah elaborated.
“Even though apres-ski culture differs around the world – in Japan, it’s fine dining and onsens; in Europe, it’s casual bar culture – what’s important for any ski resort is to provide a sense of a warm welcome. We designed pockets of spaces for groups of six to eight, and included 20-seater communal dining tables, to create the conviviality Chinese consumers like,” he explained.
ARCHITECTURE, “THE MOTHER OF ALL ARTS”
Then there’s a hot spring resort project in Taiwan for InterContinental Hotels Group, slated to open in 2022.
“It’s in an earthquake zone, on a very hilly plot. Aside from aesthetics and functionality, we had to find solutions for walls that can withstand unexpected rockfalls, and so on. It’s amazing, what I have to learn in the course of my work,” he marvelled, adding: “Architecture really is the mother of all arts. It requires awareness of the environment, of the people using the space, of commercial imperatives, an understanding of how the world works.
“In the beginning, man built for safety and shelter, like animals. Today, a building has so many roles to play: As a symbol of society’s aspirations, as an embodiment of spiritual, religious or artistic ideals, to push aesthetic boundaries, to meet an ever-evolving range of commercial needs.”
You’d think a top creative like him would enthusiastically reel off the latest design trends, when asked. But Seah takes an opposite stance.
“I don’t like trends. They’re immaterial for MOD. We dig deeper to find customised solutions to meet our clients’ needs. I think in terms of sustainability, problem-solving and longevity. Nowadays, the speed at which information is transmitted across the globe leads to the rapid spread and dominance of certain ‘flavours of the month’, narrowing the range of what’s considered cool or acceptable, stifling creativity and diversity. That leads to waste, to consumers always demanding the next new thing. It goes against sustainability, longevity, and good design as good problem solving,” he said.
“Architecture really is the mother of all arts. It requires awareness of the environment, of the people using the space, of commercial imperatives, an understanding of how the world works.” – Colin Seah
Another thing that gets to him, is how social media has led to “too much focus on ‘imageabiity’; how good things look on Instagram. Then the tactile, auditory, olfactory senses aren’t catered for. Say you have a stylish restaurant, but it’s noisy because of too many hard surfaces; the chairs aren’t comfortable; strong cooking smells waft from the open kitchen. That’s bad design.”
One cannot help but muse out loud that an invite to the Seah residence would be a real sensory treat.
“Joy and I put in a lot of effort when we have guests over,” Seah admitted. “Our house entrance is like a spatial palate cleanser where a visitor feels he’s leaving the outside world behind. Our sound system is such that he’d hear the same music, played at the same volume, as he moves through the living and dining spaces, and even the guest bathroom. Different areas are scented differently, and feature a carefully assembled collection of art pieces. We even curate the food we serve! It’s all about creating an immersive, holistic experience that engages and delights all the senses, whether for work or play.”
Since he’s designed everything from mirrors, chairs, homes, offices, retail spaces, hotels, resorts, and million-square-foot mixed-use developments, what would Seah like to take on next?
“First, a small resort within natural surroundings that really promotes rest and relaxation, with special spaces for ablutions, meditative worship, socialising and solitude, with lots of depth and thought paid to every single aspect. Second, an institutional space within an urban area, dedicated to art and culture: It would have performance and exhibition spaces, and feature very thoughtfully curated programming.”