:phunk is a true tiger of a studio. Furiously prolific, the team has rewritten the rulebook for 11 years on the trot. Daniel West talks to partner William Chan about girls, vectors, and colon.
Rock music's rebellious spirit has driven Singapore-based :phunk studio since day one. Having met at Lasalle College of Art and Design in 1994, Jackson and Alvin Tan, Melvin Chee and William Chan wanted to break away from the restrictions of academic life.
"We were just teenagers," William Chan remembers. "Our priority wasn't being great graphic designers, but partying and getting laid. We found the idea of being rock stars attractive, so we merged the two and called ourselves a visual band." The group formed a T-shirt firm under the name of :phunk. But as the company's predicted sales failed to materialise, the collective ended up wearing most of the stock. The name stuck, however, and :phunk was born.
Aside from the musical connotations, there were also a number of subtexts to the company's chosen moniker. The ubiquitous colon was an ingenious metaphor for dialogue between :phunk, their public, and the partners themselves. More importantly, the name was sourced from a British flyer, originally designed by Ian Swift.
This appropriation and reinvention of global pop culture has since become the studio's calling card. Situated at the crossroads between east and west, :phunk consists of a team of truly 'glocal' creatives. Understand the unique balance of cultures that coexist within Singapore, and you'll understand :phunk's unusual approach. Yet as much as Singapore has contributed positively to the collective's design philosophy, it has also been an environment, even a dogma, to react against. The group's curious love for (and antipathy towards) Singapore is freely addressed by Chan. "William Gibson described Singapore as Disneyland with a death sentence," he says. "This is one of the cleanest countries in the world and everything is just soâ€¦ proper."
Given the boys' attraction to the more rebellious end of the sonic spectrum, it was natural they would react against such a covertly oppressive environment. Traces of this tension are visible in pieces such as Grotesk, but Chan stops short of admitting a conscious political position, preferring instead to emphasise a group dynamic that borrows heavily from a rock 'ethos'.
"We've always worked in a very free manner," he reveals. "Whoever has the best idea takes the lead. In fact, :phunk is hardly run like a company at all." Perhaps this equality explains such stability over their 11-year history, avoiding those 'artistic differences' that often dog the best studios.
While the majority of :phunk's early work was print-based, it has quickly diversified. "We get bored of things pretty easily," says Chan, "so we're always looking for a way to move on; moving from 2D to 3D, hosting parties, and now directing music videos and commercials."
It's by no means a vacuous claim - :phunk has designed everything from murals to mugs, posters to pedal bikes for some of the biggest clients in the book. :phunk has amassed an equally wide-ranging personal portfolio, including the launch of one magazine and a successful type foundry, two self-promotional books, a monograph, and countless appearances as guest speakers, exhibitors and curators from Beijing to London.
Rebels to ambassadors
The rise of :phunk has been so meteoric that the entire Singaporean design scene has grown exponentially with it. "Six or seven years ago, Singapore had a design trade but no design culture," says Chan. "Now you have more people publishing their own work, and I guess in some sense we started that trend." A bold claim, perhaps, but consider the direct role :phunk has played in fostering creativity.
Invited by the Design Council Singapore to promote the nation's finest graphic talent, :phunk created an elegant and effective solution. Cleverly playing on the 20x20m gallery restrictions, :phunk curated 20 Singaporean designers to fill the area. Each was given a 20x20cm box, copies of which then travelled around on a conveyor belt. The result? A gloriously post-modern marriage of Phaidon's 10x10 series with Yo Sushi's industrial design.
:phunk's proactivity by no means stops at the doormat, as its Transmission 02 book proved. Themed around the concept of utopia, it featured contributions from the likes of A2 Graphics, Deanne Cheuk and FAT. The contents page reads like a Who's Who of contemporary design. Remarkably, the majority of these collaborators contacted :phunk having seen Transmission 01 - the self-promotional volume designed to "showcase work to potential clients".
More impressive still was the invitation for :phunk to represent Singapore in the Place project. Established by wellrespected Barcelonians, Vasava, contributors were asked to respond to their locality. The studio had transformed from rebels to ambassadors, but the motivation was refreshingly genuine. "We never turn down the opportunity to collaborate," says Chan. "It's always really fresh for us to try something we've never done before."
As the corrupting influence of success threatens every performer, it's reassuring to find that the :phunk team don't take themselves too seriously. :phunk studio's work is peppered with a variety of send-ups, ranging from mildly self-effacing to unashamed piss-takes. "We're basically a bunch of middle-class wankers," says Chan. "Many of our contemporaries thought we lived a decadent lifestyle. Our reaction was to say, 'We can do whatever we want, however we want'."
This phrase was immortalised on the cover of the studio's monograph, Decade of Decadence. The accompanying bikini-clad model that adorned the cover was appropriately tongue in cheek. "We thought: what have we always wanted to do, but never had the chance?" Chan says. "So we decided to get a Brazilian model to wear undies with our faces on."
This was pure :phunk; four guys having a laugh on expenses. Any pleasure was, of course, tempered by the rigorous demands of the shoot. So consuming was the task of casting Brazilian models that the entire team was required to art-direct on the day.
But such frankness does have an upside. It transpires that the studio takes a more mature perspective on copyright infringement. When asked what line :phunk takes on intellectual privacy, for example, Chan is quick to reveal an illuminating case study.
One of the studio's most memorable designs is the iconic Kiss poster, which casts the partners as the infamous glam rock gods. Most designers would snap a set-square if they heard one of their designs had been turned into a T-shirt without any formal agreement, but not :phunk.
"We thought it was really cool," says Chan. "One of our mottos is 'stealing from thieves'. That's how we learned; through imitating masters such as Peter Saville and David Carson. In the internet age, controlling stuff is less important than how you use it." The team's approach may seem laid-back, but that's just part of its charm.
:phunk has a ten-year retrospective pencilled in for November this year at the Singapore History Museum and there's no doubt that the team will rise to the stage like born performers. Based at the fulcrum of world commerce, :phunk is basking in deservedly rapturous global applause.