The Great Indoors: Reliving the charms of 1950s Malaya
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KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 13 — 1950s Malaya: a time of hope, of people coming together and standing united to work towards the betterment of a newly-independent nation.
That decade, if you ask Kevin Lunsong and Samantha Siow, serves as the inspiration behind their brand, The Great Indoors.
Since mid-2016, they have been rolling out a range of lifestyle goods – from home décor to beauty accessories and stationery – that are reminiscent of that era.
The duo spend most of their time in Shanghai where their brand is based and produced but as their packaging proudly points out, all their products are designed in Malaysia. “A lot of our heritage has been lost or neglected,” says Kevin.
“If we don’t do our part to remind people where we came from, then everyone becomes too focused on only moving forward and not look back. When coming up with a new design, I look for things that are threatened by modernity. It’s one way of documenting them.”
At the same time, Samantha explains, “We wanted to champion local elements and designs.”
They started with the Oh, it’s Borneo! collection, a tribute to Kevin’s Iban ancestry, a modern take on native design.
The range featured table napkins and tea towels that captured East Malaysian elements such as Lada (after the black peppercorn that grows on the slopes of Borneo), Rinago (taking a leaf from Lingkong fern baskets by the Rungus tribe), Jarau (a flower ornament crafted from wood shavings), and Buaya (the man-eating crocodile, Bujang Senang), while the Menua Aku (my land) pillow cover depicts native boats on a meandering river.
Their products evoke nostalgia in a playful manner, and are complemented by fun packaging, witty names and copywriting.
Whimsical as they may be, the items are not just decorative but functional as well. Each has a story to tell, reflecting a microcosm of life in then-Malaya.
Take their Steven Seagull Flashlight Pre-Focused for example. Named after the action star Steven Seagal and fashioned as a weapon, it was inspired by the Rukun Tetangga, a neighbourhood watch movement introduced by Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Finding a manufacturer who could produce the vintage design proved to be quite a mission; they found out that in China, there are only three such brands left in existence.
That makes the chrome-plated torchlight a rare and limited edition, and each comes with an individualised serial number card.
They’ve also reproduced the metric folding rulers that were once essential tools of the trade for carpenters and contractors, naming it Charming Rajah after the Indian art of snake charming.
Other stationery items include the Mucho Macho Clamp that’s described as “hard on the surface, easy on the eye” and the 20-centimetres-long Blue Banana Binding Clamp.
For your home, consider chick blinds; you can choose from several staple designs that include White Rabbit candy, Ovaltine, Milo, or have them customised. Kevin works on the designs digitally and then they get a 70-year-old uncle to paint them by hand.
Remember those ubiquitous Bakelite switches of the 1930s? Meet Mr Turner, which can add a touch of retro to your modern home.
Part of their Straits Settlement collection, the fantastic response to this humble yet iconic item was what turned on the momentum for The Great Indoors to expand their offerings.
What followed was the Peek-A-Bobby hair pins in Midnight Black and Honey Gold, in packs of 10s. There are five different packaging designs, each portrayed by a different female personality who each represents an area in Malaysia and Singapore that was notorious as a red-light district.
“I wanted the pins to represent female empowerment and chose to base the personalities on courtesans, who are very much part of the historical fabric though in a non-dominant way,” Kevin explains, to which Samantha adds: “It was also about capturing the mood of the time, when women were asserting themselves.”
You can choose between Virginia Yang of Gadis Lawa Kampung Jawa, Malacca; Lychee Lee of Singapore’s Geylang Brassy Girls; Pretty Priya of Saucy Dolls from Love Lane, Penang; Tanya Masala of Cheeky Lolitas from Concubine Lane, Ipoh; Suzie Sayang, of the Sassy Darlings of Chow Kit.
It took months for Kevin to get the illustrations right. “I think I drew over 100 women altogether... I’ve never drawn so many in my life...” he recalls with a laugh, adding that initially, they all looked like men!
Samantha’s feedback sent him back to the drawing board again and again, until they got every last detail right.
Inevitably, there were a lot of arguments between the two of them but both agree that it was necessary to get the final product where it is today.
Their synergy and collaborative skills are what drives the brand’s growth. Kevin, who started as a graphic artist in the advertising industry before branching out to interior design and consultancy, leads the design aspect while Samantha, who previously worked in the hospitality line, handles the operational and business sides of things.
She’s also the copywriter, though it’s more often a joint effort, and it’s not as straightforward as simply putting words to paper. “We would play classic Malay songs for hours on end and watch Malay movies to get into the mood. We also read up on the traditional dances and music of the era,” Samantha reveals.
The process no doubt served them well when they came up with their Pieces to Remember range of jigsaw puzzles, which uses old P. Ramlee movie posters as the motif. Kevin researched the images online and recreated four: Aloha, Pendekar Bujang Lapuk, Hang Tuah, and Berdosa.
It’s easy to see how well today’s consumers take to their offerings, with the hipster-loving wave still going strong. But as Kevin points out, “History is not a trend; we started doing things like this way before it became trendy.”
An antique collector since he was in his teens, he used to rent out his collectibles as props for photo or video shoots. Demand grew and then his clients wanted furniture as well, so Kevin took to designing his own.
That grew into an interior design company whose clientele included private residences, F&B outlets (Butter+Beans at Seventeen, Chaiwalla & Co, and The Daily Fix among them), hotels (Capsule by Container Hotel at KLIA2) and fashion stores like Pestle & Mortar.
They currently also count Yum China Holdings as a regular client, decking their fast food outlets with murals that are unique to each store as they’re designed to reflect the respective locale.
“We’re a small start-up; we’re humbled by the feedback we get. We do have some demanding customers but their comments help us improve our products and structure our business,” says Kevin.
“Years ago a client hentam me for a range of pillows, inspired by old-school food packaging, I came up with as they were small and expensive. It made me realise that I was so into the design, I forgot about other things. Feedback like that makes us work even harder.”
To celebrate Merdeka, they have released 18 designs of Papan Tanda Mats that immortalise the monochromatic signboards of yore, ranging from Malayan Airways to Port Weld (the country’s first train station) and as an exclusive to Naiise Malaysia where their products retail, one that says “Kolam Renang Kuala Lumpur.” The latter reflects a time “before condominiums came about, when everyone went to public swimming pools”.
Next, they will work on the second phase of Oh, it’s Borneo! and prepare to expand to the UK. Ultimately, The Great Indoors hopes to be what Kevin terms “the first hipster kedai runcit, Kedai Runcit 2.0, a mom-and-pop shop that sells vintage stuff.”
The Great Indoors’ collections are available at Naiise Malaysia (https://naiise.com.my)’s pop-up store at The Zhongshan Building at Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur in October;
ChinaHouse, Lebuh Pantai, George Town, Penang;
Naiise, Singapore (https://naiise.com).
You can also shop them online at www.thegreatindoors.store.
Vivian Chong is a freelance writer-editor and founder of thisbunnyhops.com