A chair is a chair is a chair. Or is it?

Last Friday, an elegant woven-rattan chair took home the Jury’s Award at the KL Chair Open Design Competition, organised by the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival (KLAF) 2018.

The winning seat also earned the honour of being named the first-ever “KL Chair”, beating 17 other finalists for the title and winning a cash prize of RM15,000.

The KL Chair is likened to the iconic Barcelona Chair designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1929. One of the most recognised chairs of the 20th century, it was designed by Van der Rohe for the German Pavilion at the International Exposition in Barcelona that year.

The KL Chair Open Design Competition was held to find the most creative and functional chair designs that best reflected the city.

Remembering the Barcelona Chair, “We wondered what a KL Chair would look like. I think most people only thought of the red plastic ‘mamak’ shop chair when we asked around,” said KLAF 2018 director Ang Chee Cheong after Friday’s award ceremony.

“We thought that this perception was incorrect, so we organised the competition to find the best design for a chair that represents the qualities of Kuala Lumpur,” he added.

The Jury’s Award winner was selected by a panel of judges consisting of KLAF2018’s royal patron Tengku Zatashah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, National Visual Arts Gallery director-general Prof Datuk Dr Mohamed Najib Ahmad Dawa, Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (PAM) president Ezumi Harzani Ismail, Malaysian Institute of Interior Designers president Chris Yap Seng Chye, rapper Altimet, and artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar.

The woven strands of rattan that make up the KL Chair portray the socio-cultural diversity and integrated nature of Kuala Lumpur.

Additionally, it was designed by three members of the same family – architects and husband and wife Ng Zhia Zhing and Tan Shin Bian, and her cousin Sze Yoong Shern, 25, an architectural student.

“We are very flattered and happy to win because we came together as a team, with the initial intent to do something that represents our city and at same time, is tied up nicely with ‘chair-ity’.

“That’s why we were interested to participate in the first place,” said Tan, 33, during an interview after the awards ceremony.

The trio took one month to come up with the idea, and two weeks to get the chair manufactured.

Tan said they chose rattan because it is a flexible material to work with.

“Rattan is also durable, comfortable and lightweight.

“The same goes to the steel legs, which match our design intent of being very elegant, and which supports the wide and comfortable chair very well.”

Using the woven rattan for the entire seat surface also creates a comfortable, well-ventilated base.

“We also designed the chair to be stackable, which is like the common stackable plastic chairs commonly used everywhere,” said Ng, 32, adding that because it is rattan, it can also be used outdoors.

More importantly, Tan said, rattan is locally available and they wanted to play a role in promoting local craftsmanship.

“In fact, the sifu (craftsman) we found to weave the rattan said his son does not want to take over from him and that his skill will be lost once he closes his shop. He is even willing to teach other young people the skill but there were not many who were responsive to this kind of local craftsmanship,” said Ng.

“So we thought if we can actually do something with rattan, and win the award, we can raise awareness that rattan is a very good material and it can be used in a very modern way,” added Tan.

Winners of the People’s Choice Award for their Black Brick chair design, Azlan (left) and Arian.

Meanwhile, the Black Brick chair design took home the People’s Choice Award and a cash prize of RM3,000 at the same competition.

Designed by good friends Arian Md Zahari, Azlan Zainuddin and Jefri Jasri, it represents the cultural diversity of the people of Kuala Lumpur, who live in a city that’s constantly evolving.

The People’s Choice Award was given to the design that garnered the most votes from the public, who were invited to vote for their favourite chair from June 30 to Aug 8.

“We are very honoured, flattered and humbled by this award,” said Azlan, 39, an industrial designer.

He explained that the design, which consists of colourful layers of rebonded foam and felt, reflects their version of Kuala Lumpur and how it is composed of many different races, including immigrants.

“Black Brick represents a tough medium of Kuala Lumpur, and we try to simulate through our chair how KL has evolved, carved out by years of participation by all the communities.

“If you can see, there are edges on the chair. We want to give people not only the comfort but also the edginess and hardness of what Kuala Lumpur has to offer; not just the beautiful side of the city but also the challenges and hardship of city-living.

“We also want to pay tribute to the unsung heroes who built Kuala Lumpur, which started from the mining industry. So we wanted to give tribute to the first miners,” said Arian, 33, an architect.

“These unsung heroes are not just the local miners but also immigrants, because there are not many stories told about them and this (chair) is also a tribute to them,” added Azlan.

PAM president Ezumi said the competition aimed to discover “the best Malaysian talents who were able to translate the uniqueness of Malaysia into a project that would emulate the diversity and cultures in the form of a chair”.

One of 18 designs shortlisted for the KL Chair title was a seat made literally from mud.

 

“The competition is aimed at inspiring Malaysians to have a deep sense of responsibility and inculcate in them a passion to create designs of excellence. It is also a good experience for these architects and designers to earn recognition not only nationally but internationally,” he said.

Ang commented that some of the designs shortlisted used a lot of vernacular materials like bamboo and rattan but in different ways.

“We also had some thoughts on sustainability, with some using recycled plastic, and others using laser cutting methods, which we think is quite interesting. Another design literally used mud to make it real, because of Kuala Lumpur,” he said (“kuala lumpur” in English, is, of course, “muddy confluence”).

Ang said under the new government, he hopes that more creative projects can be carried out via competition, which is something PAM encourages.

“We try and practise what we believe in and we hope more people will adopt this method to procure talent.

“Overall, the competition saw high standards and quality of fabrication and construction.

“Hopefully, this competition will help a bit towards getting more talented people to start looking at designing chairs,” said Ang.

The competition received 104 entries and the 18 shortlisted chairs were displayed at the KLAF: Box multimedia group exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery. The exhibited chairs were auctioned off during the exhibition period, with the proceeds going to the Make A Wish Malaysia non-profit organisation.

KLAF: Box, hosted in partnership with the National Visual Arts Gallery, was one of the core KLAF2018 exhibitions, running from June 30 to Aug 12. It was curated and produced by KLAF2018 director Ang and his team.

The larger festival, KLAF2018, is organised by PAM and continues until Aug 26.