Cover Pamela Tan of Poh Sin Studio's Eden installation

From architecture to art installation, interior design to industrial design, these Malaysian female designers are making their mark in industries typically dominated by men

It's telling that when Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects won The Pritzker Prize last year, they were only the fourth and fifth women to win architecture's highest honour in its 41-year history. Indeed, in architecture and other fields of design, the disparity in genders is significant whether it's America or Asia. Despite this, ladies like the late Dame Zaha Hadid and the prolific Patricia Urquoila have created design vocabularies which are unique and exceptional. In Malaysia, these five young female designers are blazing trails in their respective fields, and our design landscape is richer for it.

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Amy Liang, Studio CocoKacang

The rise of the Instagrammable cafés has created a phenomenon and cafés became more than a place to have brunch—they also serve as photogenic venues. The cantilevered stairs projecting on the side of APW’s Breakfast Thieves in Bangsar is a hot favourite with queues forming to get the prized shot.

The stairs and indeed the lovely light-filled cafe came from the imagination of Amy Liang, founder of Studio CocoKacang. Inspired by the site’s historical context, the One Academy graduate of interior architecture created a space featuring skilfully worked rubber wood (a nod to area’s plantation past) and rendered concrete while encapsulating the easy-going vibe of the original Melbourne outlet.

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Since Breakfast Thieves, Liang has been busy with a wide variety of projects including more cafes and retail spaces, all showcasing her clean aesthetic and meticulously detailed hand. She’s also started her own range of stackable wooden furniture and home accessories. This endeavour is a continuation of Liang’s interest in furniture design and predilection for custom designing furniture for her projects. While Studio CocoKacang is only currently still in its sixth year, this one-person design dynamo has accomplished so much in this short time and looks poised to achieve much more.

Tan Wei Ming, Aureole Design

Elegant lights showcasing an understanding of materiality and the subtlety of illumination aptly sums up the work of Aureole Design. Aureole describes the circle of light surrounding a head, usually a halo depicted in artwork, was established by Tan Wei Ming in 2013. Trained in typography and having practiced graphic design, Tan decided to explore her love for lighting and furniture design after being part of a design collective in 2007 producing custom furniture, lighting and interior pieces for projects. 

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Since then Tan’s small but considered range has seen her collaborating with traditional craftsmen or exploring heritage techniques and materials. Her Dǒugǒng collection, carried by Singapore’s The Artling, adapts interlocking wooden brackets found in traditional Chinese architecture to create a design motif repeated in lighting pieces, a bench, a side table and standing mirrors. Geometry features delicate “origami folds” of  Terrazzo and her Line series is a minimalist take on Mid-Autumn festival lanterns. Poetic yet rigorous, Tan's modern take on tradition has created compelling work celebrating craftsmanship with the refinement of fine art.

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Pamela Tan, Poh Sin Studio

Mesmerising installations which blur the boundaries between architecture, design and art are architectural designer, Pamela Tan’s calling card. Founder of Poh Sin Studio, her Eden installation commissioned by a developer to reflect nature won the Bronze award in the Design for Asia Award 2020 under Environmental Design. However, instead of lush greenery, Tan created an intricate all-white "garden of delight" which invites visitor to re-discover how nature can be experienced by magnifying subtle details through its organic structures. Just as complex but evoking a completely different response is Projection: Kite commissioned for the Good Vibes music festival 2019 which won the Merit award alongside Eden. A spatial installation of woven colourful strings, the playful piece allows visitors to experience a visual portal of lightness and transparency.

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Tan, who obtained her Masters in Architecture from the University of Greenwich, chose to pursue work that mediates seamlessly between art, design and architecture. Her work ranges in scale from product design to public installation and has a cerebral slant; after all, her first year MArch studio project entitled 'Mappa Mundi: A Map Maker’s Dream' was selected to be exhibited in London’s The Royal Academy of Arts’ Summer Exhibition 2015.

While Tan's oeuvre is grounded in profound concepts, it is accessible as well as one cannot help but be drawn to their undeniable aesthetic appeal. It's heartening that the local design landscape has space for Tan whose work defies easy categorisation because what lies ahead for this young architectural designer looks as intriguing as her work.

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Farah Azizan and Adela Askandar, Studio Bikin

Studio Bikin was founded by Farah Azizan and Adela Askandar in 2012 and their decision of not using their names for their studio was a deliberate one. The Architecture Association-trained  Azizan and Cambridge alumni Askandar chose a colloquial word that means “do" or “make”. A statement of intent, it also reflects their context-driven work favouring simple, honest materials that age well in our climate instead of imported materials. This philosophy has found an appreciative audience and the duo have busy with a wide range projects from commercial to hospitality across Malaysia including The Row Kuala Lumpur, Commons in Kuching and most recently the eagerly anticipated refresh of The Stories of Taman Tunku.

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The duo's craft driven approach is particularly effective in residential projects and have been highly sought-after in designing private residences. Their transformation of ordinary banal mid-terrace houses or meticulously detailed new builds are nothing short of joyous celebrations of materiality and spatial optimisation. Even amid the unrelenting pace of back-to-back projects, Azizan and Askandar have grown their furniture arm, Kedai Bikin, from a pop-up store to a bricks-and-mortar outlet. Apart from showcasing their quirky local inspired pieces, the store also carries furniture and homeware by regional designers. Kedai Bikin's tagline, "Why fake it when you can make it", can be applied to the trajectory of this unstoppable combo who've not only made it—but made it on their own terms. 

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