Designing a better future

Photo: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore

From a young age, Chee Su Eing loved to draw, sketch, paint. She also loved browsing through interior décor magazines. “I would often tell my mum, ‘Let’s rearrange the furniture!’” she recalls. Today, her longtime passion for art and design has led her to the pinnacle of her industry. Last June, Chee, who is founder and director of D’Perception, an interior design practice with over 200 staff and seven offices across the globe, was named president of the Design Business Chamber Singapore (DBCS).

It is a milestone for both Chee as well as women across the industry, as she is the first female president in the association’s 36-year history. To its credit, DBCS has had an all-female Secretariat for several years now. However, a woman at the helm goes a long way towards Chee’s personal endeavour to nurture a collaborative culture in which everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve their career goals.

DBCS estimates that women make up at least 40% of the design industry in Singapore today. Supporting and retaining women in the workforce has taken on more urgency, given the pandemic of the last two years. Covid-19 has been harder on women than men, triggering many to downshift their careers or drop out altogether as women typically bear more of the caregiving and domestic burdens.

“The pandemic has given me the impetus to build a more flexible and empathetic workplace for the team, making work more sustainable in the long run,” says Chee. “To build a robust design ecosystem, we need a good representation of females.”

She believes in the role of mentors, both female and male, to help women bring their voices and talents to the table. In her professional journey, she has been inspired by DBCS’s previous leaders, namely Lawrence Chong, Tai Lee Siang and Andrew Pang. They helped to pave the way in shaping DBCS to celebrate good design and embrace collaborative platforms for design and business communities, with intentionality to bring about social impact, she notes.

On a personal level, she draws inspiration from the work and life of stained glass artist Elenora Koh Bee Liang. Chee admires how the gifted single mother overcame the odds to build her art glass practice. “She conceptualises each piece of work with spiritual inspiration and approaches the background history and ethnicity with a delicate hand,” says Chee. One of the artist’s most notable commissioned projects is the restoration of 72 stained glass windows at the historic St Joseph’s Church at Victoria Street. Chee is also an advocate of using good design to tackle social issues like inclusivity and sustainability, and is hoping to use her platform to rally businesses and communities to use design for social good. “Design is an increasingly complex field, and it’s being asked to address more and more complex problems,” she notes.

Chee has been at the forefront of this, having designed over 10 daycare centres for dementia and eldercare. The first was a dementia daycare centre for AWWA, a charity. Chee and her team conceptualised a retro theme to create a sense of the familiar and planned the space to be fluid and safe to navigate freely.

Within the communal space, they created nooks and corners. Each had a different design to evoke different emotions. They also avoided using starkly contrasting colours, like black and white, as dementia patients sometimes mistake the colour black for holes. This re-imagined daycare centre was awarded the Singapore Good Design Mark in 2015.

Another lauded project was an eldercare centre for St Luke’s, a Christian healthcare provider. Chee and her team converted an HDB void deck at Nee Soon into a facility that would promote community engagement. The goal was to make it inclusive for both dementia patients as well as seniors without dementia. They worked in old-school elements and also created a hip café-like kitchen to cater to caregivers, who are often overlooked.

A more human-centric approach to design is something the DBCS is shining a spotlight on. It is also championing design-led innovation that weaves in elements such as empathy and sustainability. This is being done through its Singapore Design Awards, which was revamped last year. The chamber has partnered the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to provide seed funding to the winners to produce prototypes from their ideas.

“Programmes such as the Singapore Good Design Award (SG Mark) and Singapore Design Awards have been enablers for us to engage, as well as impart to, different communities that every voice matters and that lives can be greatly improved through intentional design,” says Chee, who still finds time outside of work to indulge in a passion from her younger days — painting. Whether it is water colours on a canvas or the interior architecture of a property, Chee’s flair for thoughtful creations is paving the way for a better future.