Cover Chris Lee and Annie Li, co-founders of Singapore-based tableware retailer Artifactt (Photography: Darren Gabriel Leow)

Asylum founder Chris Lee and his wife Annie Li’s love of entertaining inspired the start of their new brand Artifactt, which retails beautiful tableware that elevates the simple act of dining

An artifact is an object of historical value. Likewise, Artifactt’s products are curated like art pieces where imperfections that come with handmade goods are celebrated. The Singapore-based brand was started in October 2021 by Chris Lee and his wife Annie Li after they noticed a gap in the local market for affordable artisanal tableware.

Lee is the founder of a multidisciplinary design studio known for work such as The Warehouse Hotel’s interior design and the National Gallery’s minimalist logo, while his wife’s day job is in sales and marketing; Li had also recently concluded an MBA and she was brainstorming for a side project. 

“I always knew that I wanted to start something for myself,” she says, commenting on her entrepreneurial itch. The timing was perfect as people, stuck at home during the pandemic, were cooking more and paid greater attention to food presentation. 

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Aside from products by designers such as Sergio Herman, Ann Demeulemeester and Roos Van de Velde under Belgium homewares brand Serax, many of the tableware and drinkware come from Japan. This is unsurprising as the idea was seeded there in 2018 when Lee participated in the KYO project, which partnered Singaporean designers with Japanese artisans to create relevant modern-day products.

“During the trip, I realised that many of these fifth or sixth generation artisans are finding it hard to survive because what they used to do for a living — for instance, making copper urns for temples — has decreased in demand and they don’t know how to reuse their skills in other ways,” he explains. Eventually, the couple hopes to collaborate with artisans to design their own pieces. While the brand only ships locally within Singapore at the moment, it hopes to ship its tableware to customers abroad soon.      

Here, they tell us more about their products, plans ahead for the brand, and their secret to a good house party.

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How do you curate your products? 
Chris Lee (CL) I think artisanal is the word. The tableware also has to reflect a certain wabi sabi aesthetic. But we try not to be too narrow-minded because it’s good to mix and match tableware. Eventually, we will have a wider range. But at the end of the day, these are things we like. If we want to use it in our house, we buy it!   

Annie Li (AL) The price point is also important. It’s artisanal but we want to keep them affordable. We want to use nice tableware daily, not just put them on our shelves and look at them.  We’ve brought in a series by English potter Helen Beard that is not in line with our normal aesthetic preference but makes for good gifts; not like typical English tableware with flowers, but for example, interesting historic Italian tableware that we have seen.

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Who are Artifactt’s customers? 
CL Our initial vision was to be an online shop because we wanted to be global, to be able to ship everywhere. But a lot of restaurants contacted us and wanted to see the products so now we are publishing a catalogue so it’s easier for them to choose. A lot of people also want to feel and see the products before they buy them, so maybe having a retail store could work. Having a small café in your shop would be ideal for people to experience the products.   

AL Eventually that is our target: to have a little café in the markets that we want to penetrate where we can display the wares in a way that customers can relate to, such as drinking from the coffee cups and eating pastries from the plates. We hope we can penetrate more markets but now due to Covid-19, there are logistical issues so it’s difficult. 

What are some of your personal favourites in the collection? 
CL The one that got us excited at the beginning was a Serax collection by fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester (pictured below). We love her clothes so when we saw her plates and cutlery we had to get them.   

AL We use that range at home daily, as well as the Japanese Kokuteki Collection. It is in a very dark green so when you put the food on it, the food really stands out. There are also the Kinrei and Miroku ranges. It’s very difficult to show the beauty of those products in pictures. In the beginning, I did the unpacking myself. When I took out the products from the boxes, I was surprised. The detailing and the glazing are so unique. I had never seen anything like that before.  

Why do you think good tableware is important?   
CL Good tableware really enhances the dining experience. We have noticed when we invite friends over and put parma ham on a nice plate, everybody goes ‘wow!’ Even when you da pao (ordering takeaway food in Singlish) food, it looks nicer; you are treating yourself to something nice. 

AL Tableware can enhance the moment. It creates memories and experiences.  

Who are the design icons that have had the most impact on you and why?
CL Vaughan Oliver. I became a designer because of him. Vaughan Oliver designed record labels for 4AD in the UK in the 80s, 90s and because of his designs, I thought I could do this for the rest of my life. Also, a lot of Japanese architects, fashion designers, so many. And Kenya Hara. Japanese designs are very philosophical. It’s always about the meaning behind the design.  

AL Because of Kenya Hara, I started to read design books.  

What is the last book you read (design or otherwise)?
AL I read a lot of business books (laughs). But I also listen to a lot of podcasts these days to try to understand how to bring the brand into the future. The one I recently listened to was an interview with Mark Zuckerberg about the metaverse. I recently read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries to help me know how to start and keep a small business sustainable.  

CL The last book I read was fiction — Colourful by Japanese author Eto Mori.   

What’s the one thing you won’t find in your home? 
CL Anything boudoir (laughs).  And I don't have colourful clothes.  

AL I also don't really have colourful clothes. 

CL You have blue and green clothes; I have mainly black clothes.   

What’s your secret to hosting a good party?
CL + AL  A lot of wine!

What’s your idea of a good housewarming gift?
CL Tableware from Artifactt are perfect for housewarming because furniture is too big to give, and you can continue to grow your tableware collection. We are thinking of pre-selecting the products into gift packs [for customers to give to friends].   

  • Art DirectionCharlene Lee, assisted by Cheryl Lai-Lim
  • PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
  • GroomingKenneth Lee
  • Make-UpKenneth Lee
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