On the second floor of Burbage House in Shoreditch, I find architecture and design practice VW+BS. With various creative companies stacked like pancakes over its five or so floors, it is just the kind of place you would expect to find a design studio. The company’s initials stand for Voon Wong (architect) and Benson Saw (product designer). BS isn’t here yet, but nevertheless VW is eager to get started, so we settle down at the back of the open-plan workspace.
We kick things off by talking about the practice’s latest work, a periscope-shaped office in Wong’s native Singapore. VW+BS was presented with a listed 19th-century shophouse that had been given an art-deco twist in the 1930s. Responding to its layers of history the practice designed a building in an inverted L-shape that sprouts up from the rear of a very narrow plot before angling 90 degrees to emerge above the shophouse. It’s inventive, no question but also illustrates VW+BS approach to problem solving. “It struck us that our intervention could add another layer to that history,” says Wong. “Respecting history does not mean you have to replicate it.” Neither deferent nor overwhelming, the design has the calm assurance that runs throughout most of the practice’s work.
The project also highlighted the differences between UK and Singaporean planners. “I find a lot of planners ill-informed. They are conservative and they don’t know what they are talking about,” says Wong, although despite these strong words, he sympathises with a section of local government that he believes is often undermanned. The Singaporean counterparts, he explains, are more concerned with tangible data such as height controls and plot ratios rather than fussing over context. “Once you tick those boxes you are kind of free.”
As we talk, Benson Saw enters and is greeted by members of the eight-strong staff before joining us. The Malaysian-born designer does not speak at first and instead listens quietly to his colleague. Earlier this year the practice opened an outpost in a red shophouse in Singapore, so at least one of them can be on location.
An increasing amount of VW+BS work is happening in the Far East so they often find themselves on opposite ends of the globe. The pair reckon they see each other around five times a year but remain in constant contact via various communications gizmos. “Its not so far really. Four inflight movies and you’re there.” Wong pauses. “Plus there is only one chair so we can’t share the office.” Wong is the joker of the two, casually quipping throughout my visit. Saw is more reserved.
Heading east is wise given the stagnant European economy: many big-name practices are seizing opportunities in China. But VW+BS isn’t Woods Bagot and press coverage hasn’t reached saturation levels. Nevertheless, VW+BS are in demand. “From what I can suss out, people want a different take on things,” says Wong. “There is good work out there but the community is quite small. It is always the same people doing the prestigious projects.” VW+BS are inbetweeners, occupying the space between architecture and product design. This mish-mash of different disciplines has produced interesting results but they are reluctant to say how far it defines their work. “Perhaps it means our stuff is leftfield? I don’t know,” says Wong.
What is certain is their belief in the symbioses between product design and architecture. Through prototyping and research, VW+BS has explored a much wider palette of materials and technologies than a purely architectural practice. A good example is its Setcast tableware, made from bone china. “I can’t say we mastered it as a material, but we knew nothing about it when we started,” says Saw. “I would like to carry it a bit further. Not just with bone china. For example concrete is quite similar, so we would like to look into and see how far we can go with it.” Old-fashioned materials clearly tickle their fancy and right now a product range combining marble and wood is on the drawing board.
But it’s not all about classical ingredients. The shell-like Loop lamp comes in either steel or aluminium, for example. Not so long ago a copy popped up for sale on the world wide web, which makes me curious as to where Saw stands in the great fakes debate. Rather than froth about ethics and morality like some firebrand preacher browbeating his flock, the former engineer is philosophical. “It wasn’t that easy to get the Loop lamp right,” he says. “It takes them five years to copy it. And anyway, we are selling to a different market.”
Much of VW+BS’s architectural work has been in the domestic realm, but it is now keen to dive into more commercial waters. Hotels are of particular interest and, working with a Malaysian client, the practice has designed a hotel in Bali. Adhering to the Balinese vernacular, the five-storey building has a pitched roof over its rectangular rooftop pool, with rooms opening out onto another pool running the length of the building. It looks good (and it has to be – Bali is not exactly understocked in the hotel department). But Saw believes their experience in designing homes gives them an edge. In future, he says, hotels will have to respond to their guests on a much more personal level. “This is an ongoing question, I think. The boundaries between work and leisure are blurring and we have to explore how to address this.”
The hotel was submitted for planning at the end of last year and since then VW+BS has been negotiating not just with the local authority but also the village chief, an experience not that far removed from residents’ associations back in London. “Except, if you ignore them, they curse you,” Wong laughs.