An Exhibition in Singapore Challenges the Meaning of Repair

R for Repair shines a spotlight on the throwaway economy by pairing ten local designers with ten broken objects in need of a fresh lease of life.

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R for Repair, a new exhibition at the National Design Centre in Singapore takes people’s broken objects and pairs them with local designers to be given new meaning through repair. The exhibition showcases photographs of the objects with their owners alongside the repaired item.  Courtesy khoogj

The rim of the porcelain teacup, once lined with golden trim, has faded into white. The cup is part of a tea set that belongs to a woman in Singapore. Her mother used the set on special occasions, forbidding her from touching it as a child lest she break it. She broke the handle as an adult, and she couldn’t bear to throw away the family heirloom. So, when the call for broken objects came in, she sent it in to be fixed.

The call was part of a new exhibition at the National Design Centre in Singapore that seeks to change the definition—and inherent value—of repair. R for Repair was commissioned by DesignSingapore Council and curated by Singaporean designer and educator Hans Tan, who wants to elevate the act of repair from a simple act of subsistence to aspirational design practice.

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A broken swatch in its home prior to being repaired. Courtesy khoogj

“We’re always so obsessed with designing new things, we often forget about what’s been designed,” says Tan, who also teaches design at the National University of Singapore. Inspired by a brief he gave to his students, asking them to repair an object while also adding value, Tan pitched a similar idea to DesignSingapore Council. With their support, he put out an open call inviting the public to submit a broken object along with a short story for context. From the 30 or so that he received, Tan chose ten objects that explore and challenge the meaning of repair. The exhibition includes images of the owners at home and the exact place where they kept the objects, as well as the stories behind them.

Meanwhile, he invited ten local designers and paired them each with an object based on their area of expertise. “We asked them to give us their interpretation of what repair could be,” Tan says. Industrial design studio Lanzavecchia + Wai, for example, salvaged the face of a Swatch whose strap had come undone and encased it into a hand-crafted wooden block. By framing the watch—a memento from the owner’s childhood—into a bespoke casing, the designers elevated the object’s function into a statement piece for the home.

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Industrial designers Lanzavecchia + Wai repaired the broken swatch and encased it in a handcrafted wooden box. Courtesy khoogj

Kinetic Singapore, a creative agency that was paired with broken spectacles, took a different approach. Instead of fixing the glasses to fit the owner, they “repaired” the owner’s face to fit the glasses by sculpting a 3D model of the owner’s face, then stretching it to fit. “The idea was to repair our perception of repair,” says Tan.

Atelier HOKO—a design-led research lab that explores the lost relationships between people and things—pushed the brief even further and left the teacup as is—or close. “All things are created and destined to be broken someday,” the lab’s founders, Alvin Ho and Clara Koh, said. By smoothing the point where the handle joins the cup and preserving the handle in a paulownia wood box designed for storing treasured items, Atelier HOKO embraced impermanence and introduced a new relationship between the object and the owner.

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Design firm Atelier HOKO was tasked with repairing the broken teacup but took a more poetic approach by preserving the broken handle in a Japanese kiri box, which traditionally house treasured objects. Courtesy khoogj

R for Repair falls into a growing category of design practices that advocate for the creative use of the existing, be it materials, waste, or found objects. When the exhibition ends on February 6, the altered objects will be returned to their owners, which begs the question: Is there room for a dedicated design practice that focuses on reinventing clients’ broken objects? “It’s quite viable,” says Tan. “It’s creating a new product typology.”

The call to action for designers is clear. As for the public, Tan hopes the exhibition will inspire a change in behavior. “Not too long ago, the first reaction was not to buy something new,” he says. “Things changed really quickly, and before we knew it, we got sucked into this consumerist culture. I wanted to give repair a different spin.”

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