Phunk Studio is a Singapore-based art and design collective comprising of Alvin Tan, Melvin Chee, Jackson Tan, and William Chan. They lay claim to having exhibited around the world, representing Singapore at the Gwangju Biennale 2005 as well as the London Design Festival 2006. More recently, they were selected out of many other design collectives across the world to collaborate with HTC in creating a hand-etched, limited edition HTC One (M8) – only 64 of these are available in the entire world.
We caught up with Alvin for an interview at the PHUNK studio, and Jackson joined us mid-way. Stay with us, we have something special for you at the end of this post.
Popspoken: Can you tell us a bit more about the collaboration with HTC?
Alvin: We’re very excited because it’s the first time we’re putting our art on metal, it’s a new material, so it’s very interesting. Normally when you think of art, you think of going to a gallery, or a museum, but this is a phone that you carry around with you in your pocket.
Was it difficult to come up with a specific design, since there are four of you?
Alvin: We first came together many years ago, and we were teenagers, so of course we fought all the time. But through that, we learnt about the different thinking processes behind each person, and we’ve really grown to be almost telepathic now. So nope, we don’t fight anymore, we’re more like brothers, and it’s very easy for us to work together.
So your creative processes, and even how you guys think, are very similar?
Alvin: Yes, our pop culture influences, our readings, our aesthetic senses, they’re all very similar. We once went to New York to present our work in a gallery – when we were there, we went shopping separately, and then came back to realise that all four of us bought the same exact shirt from APC.
Would you worry that this would hinder your work? Because you would think that the advantage of having a group is that everyone brings their own element into it, and you vibe off each other and manage to find a good balance through different perspectives.
Alvin: That’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves for many years. We’ve always been trying to define a style for ourselves, and through the years, we’ve realised that our style is a mixture – a rojak style. It’s just a jumble of different thought patterns, and that’s what’s unique to us. So even though we’re very similar, we’re still diverse.
If you were to be stuck on a desert island, who would you want on the island with you? Who would be an interesting person you would want to pass time with?
Alvin: Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. I really like his approach to life. This is how he starts his day – every morning he goes out to the jetty, he takes off his shirt, and he jumps into an icy cold lake. He gets out, then he screams, and he starts his day like that. The energy that he has really draws me to him.
Other than your work at PHUNK, I heard that you have your own sunglasses line as well?
Alvin: Yeah, it’s called Mystic Vintage. I have two other partners who run this with me, we started designing our own frames because we started wearing glasses when we were very young, and we always wanted to wear our own frames. We started collecting vintage frames, talking to old opticians – this was back in the 70s – and we took all these influences and made it modern, and we started producing it.
So you guys juggle your art and design work with each of your own sidelines… sounds like busy work. How much of your time is devoted to each of these things?
Alvin: I’d say maybe 50% of our time is spent on design, 40% on art and 10% on our own hobbies.
That’s a really substantial amount of time spent on art and design. Which brings me to my next question – just imagine for a second that we had an apocalypse and the entire society is recreated and restructured such that there are no more creative jobs, nothing to do with arts and design. In this new society, what career would you foresee yourself going into?
Alvin: Wah, can I kill myself? (Laughs) Maybe a pilot or an astronaut, or an astrological scientist. I’d be a scientist who studies about the seas, and cosmic stuff.
If PHUNK becomes really famous in the future and you guys are A-list celebrities, what cause would you want to champion? What would you like to lend your weight to?
Alvin: I would do things for kids. I recently supported this group in Cambodia called River Kids Charity, a friend of mine was collecting things from Singapore and we created a little campaign for them called Dreams Come True. I designed the branding for the campaign.
Why do you find yourself gravitating towards helping kids, instead of any other segment?
Alvin: Because kids will grow up to be adults, and we want to give them the foundation to be able to handle themselves later in life.
Let’s talk about food for a moment. I know you guys are very discerning when it comes to art and design, but how about food? Are you very particular about that also, or not at all?
Alvin: Yes, food is at the top of the list actually. That’s why our office is here, because there’s a lot of good food in the area. We are foodies.
Ah, so this is a good question for you – which dishes best embody each of you guys?
Alvin: Let me think. This is a tough question (laughs). William is Katsu Curry, because he really loves this dish, but he’s also a critical person, so he’s spicy like the curry. I’m Rojak. I think I’m slightly ADD, and also I like too many things? So I tend to dabble in a lot of things.
Jackson would be… Boon Tong Kee chicken rice. He’s the most proper amongst the all of us, and he’s a very structured, organized and tidy person… very Boon Tong Kee. As for Melvin, he would be… Muifan because his personality is quite mysterious, and Muifan is mysterious as well. It’s not something you can order everywhere, not every zichar stall has it.
(Jackson joins the interview)
Jackson, apparently you’re best embodied by Boon Tong Kee chicken rice.
Alvin: And Melvin is Muifan. Guess what is William.
Jackson: Katsu Curry! (Laughs).
And Alvin already told us he was rojak, but what would you say he is?
Jackson: That’s a difficult question. It’s the most difficult question I’ve been asked in an interview! (Laughs). I’ve known Alvin for a really long time and every year he’s evolving. So it’s really hard to come up with a dish that keeps evolving the way he does. It’s really a tough one.
My last question! Given that you guys are creative types – I’m asking this on behalf of all the clueless guys in Singapore – what’s your most creative, spoil market way to propose to a girl?
Alvin: This is what I did – I went to a crop circle to propose to my ex-fiancé. We’re both very into art, and into temporal spaces, spaces that don’t exist. So we went crop circle hunting in a countryside in England. This crop circle came out a day before the proposal, I didn’t even think of the proposal until the crop circle surfaced, and I just decided to do it. It was on the spur of the moment, and it was quite epic and dramatic, because of the scenery and everything.
Jackson: So am I supposed to cite a real-life example of what I would do also? Cannot la, too spoiler. (Jackson’s girlfriend was also present in the studio) Okay, for me I guess the most important things are that it has to be a surprise, and you need to have friends to document it.
Okay, but do you think Singaporean girls are complaining too much, or do you think it’s a legitimate concern?
Jackson: From a Singaporean guy’s perspective? (Laughs). I’m not sure… I guess it’s really a case-by-case basis, some guys really do go all the way, but some just ask their partners to apply for HDB flats.
Alvin: It’s really about personality; it also boils down to what the girl’s expectations are.
What a diplomatic answer!
Alvin: No it’s true though, some guys do a lot of stuff but if the girl doesn’t like it, if she’s not that kind who likes huge gestures, then it might be counter-productive, it won’t work either.