We cannot run away from our past, they say – and that applies to design, too.

Elements of culture and tradition greatly influence design, says William Harald-Wong, an urban identity designer who works “at the intersection of brand, culture, city and community”.

Wong’s projects include design and branding for clients such as Muzium Sultan Abu Bakar in Pekan, Pahang, and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. The museum won a gold award at the Design for Asia Awards in Hong Kong in 2015; it was Malaysia’s first gold in the award’s 12-year history.

For these and much of his other works, Wong says that he actively falls back on his roots for inspiration – though this strategy was a difficult sell before.

“For a long time, Malaysian corporations wanted to be seen as global, modern and progressive, so even the idea of incorporating Asian culture and tradition in their designs was dismissed,” says Wong, 61, who received the lifetime achievement award from Malaysia’s Design Development Centre in 2011.

But these days, people question the effects of globalisation and the influences and wholesale adoption of a foreign culture, he says, adding that an example of this is how Malay culture, dress and even language is being influenced and shaped by Arab culture.

New design of Muzium Sultan Abu Bakar by William Harld-Wong

The restored Muzium Sultan Abu Bakar. A shallow infinity pool and water fountain for children replaced the hot tarmac of a car park in front of the building. Photo: Azraie Azahari/whwdesign.org

“Malaysia, like many Asian countries, has begun exploring indigenous identity. Contemporary design is actually a fusion of East and West. We take the best of Western aesthetic standards and practices like brand strategy, layout grids, and typography, but the result is more Eastern in concept and feel,” he says in an e-mail interview.

Muzium Sultan Abu Bakar logo inspired by tradition

The museum’s logo is inspired by the waves of the South China Sea and traditional Malay woodcarving, which are combined with a form based on the bangau, the decorative guard for the mast on traditional fishing boats. Photo: William Harald-Wong

Architect Eleena Jamil also incorporates local culture and tradition into her designs, albeit subtly.

“We try not to replicate local culture and tradition in a direct manner. Instead, we like to think that we do it in quite subtle ways.

“For example, we get a feel of local culture by choosing certain materials but using them in new ways so that the architecture feels contemporary,” Eleena says in an e-mail interview.

She says it’s important that the buildings her firm designs are immediately recognisable as belonging to the place where they are situated.

“We try to avoid designing a building that looks like it could be placed anywhere in the world. For us, a building that is familiar yet contemporary in the way it responds to modern needs and lifestyle is the way forward in creating an identity for Malaysian architecture,” says the 40-something.

Eleena was behind the design of the Bamboo Playhouse, a play pavilion for visitors at Perdana Botanical Gardens, Kuala Lumpur. It was shortlisted for an award at the 2015 World Architecture Festival.

In designing the playhouse, she started by looking at traditional structures like the wakaf, or pavilion, common in traditional Malay houses.

“What we did was to take the ordinary wakaf and see how we could use the form in ways that are extraordinary. The result is a multi-level, playful and dynamic structure that still retains some of the traditional forms of the wakaf,” she explains.

The past is also an important factor in Kedai Bikin, a line of Malaysian-crafted furniture and home accessories designed by Studio Bikin that features modern remakes of pieces of furniture that were classic in the 1960s and 1970s.

Among those that stand out are the rubber-stringed Merdeka Chairs and Grand­daddy Loungers that many of us will recognise from our parents’ or grandparents’ homes.