Inside Shibui Furniture Collective with Kim Choy
It is a serene afternoon with the golden summer sun casting long shadows on the asphalt road. Budding trees march along the sides of the road, and the air is scented with the smell of freshly cut grass. It is not often that I venture into the extreme end of the North East region of Singapore, but in my continued search for unique spaces in our urban jungle, I find myself in Punggol, knocking on the door of woodworker, Kim Choy.
In a country where land is scarce, Kim, founder of Shibui Furniture Collective, stays in an apartment building like most of the population. Kim lives with his wife, newborn daughter and a pair of cats in an abode that is less than 970 sq ft. Yet, despite space constraints, he has managed to carve out an area for his workshop. Woodworking started as a hobby for Kim who used to be a programmer. Today, he’s settled on being a professional woodworker, and as our conversation deepens, Kim’s dedication towards his craft is apparent. He speaks about the Mahogany trees along Toa Payoh and how the disposal of trees in Singapore is a worrying issue. He also touches on how a person’s character can be likened to the characteristics of different types of wood, and as he speaks, I see a glimmer in his eyes that shares quite plainly, his love of the subject. Touching on the more practical part of sustainability, Kim is straightforward about the slow down in income. Still, his words carry a strong dose of hope, with plans to grow the business. He counts the Director of Sound and Music of the Digipen Institue of Technology among his clients and has some of his furniture stocked in Japan.
With such an abundance of devotion to his trade, Kim’s work is an ode to perfection. Working full-time, Kim is able to channel most of his energy into his creations, imbuing them with a warmth and meticulous precision that is slowly becoming his signature.
HNW: Tell us about yourself and how the Shibui Furniture Collective came about.
Kim Choy: Basically, I am a woodworker, although woodworking in Singapore can be a wide term for anyone who works with wood or carpentry. I guess, to be more exact, I am a furniture designer/maker. Prior to woodworking, I was working as a programmer and web developer when I picked up woodworking as a hobby. As of now, I have been doing woodwork for 5 years going on 6 and professionally, I would say about 4 years.
The name Shibui (渋い) comes from a Japanese term, loosely translated as “subtle beauty”. It is used for when something has its own beauty, in a quiet form. Sometimes in the workshop, when the sunlight falls on the tools, I pause and admire them. It could be a simple chisel, plane or a saw, something so simple, but each of these tools has a backstory to it and you have to understand the story of its origin and even details like who is the blacksmith that made it. So, I thought it would be nice to have such a term to describe my furniture. It does not have to be loud nor decorative, but if you know how to exploit a certain feature of the wood and put it together in a way that lets it speak for itself, then that creation can be described as Shibui.
I first started working with wood at my parents’ place. Every weekend, I would set up a workshop along the corridor and make a mess there. I was learning how to use the tools to build up my fundamentals. Everything was trial and error and hitting of dead ends, but when I knew exactly what I was doing, I gained more confidence and decided to do this full-time.
What do you think is the pros and cons of having your workshop in your home?
It can be inconvenient. With the birth of my baby girl, I work in the morning or afternoon when she is asleep—usually from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.—and maybe another 1 to 2 hours at night. For now, my working hours are pretty restricted. Noise is another issue. I try to minimise my workshop noise, but that results in me working at a slower rate. I don’t use many electrical tools but with woodworking, a lot of sawdust and wood shavings are generated, and that is something I am trying to work on. Working from home allows me to be more tuned in to work—sometimes when I decide to go in to fix something, a 10-min affair can turn into 45 minutes.
How would you describe the space?
My wife and I didn’t want to stick to a theme, but we had a concept. We wanted the house to be very free and flexible with no built-in cabinetry or feature walls. I want to be able to pick up the pieces and put them aside, or simply rearrange furniture at our convenience. This is especially useful with each finished project, when I need to take photos of it, and need a big space to do so.
My studio has transformed a lot, and become more professional than when I was just a hobbyist. It was a very messy, garang guni (rag and bone man)’s room, but now everything is well-arranged and within reach. When I have ad-hoc workshops, I want the participants to be pleasantly surprised at how such a small living quarters can hold a functional workshop. Holding workshops in my home also helps the participants to feel more connected, since what they are building is essentially for the home too.
What are some of your most memorable creations?
The first thing I built and used was a coffee table. It was not a fancy project. In fact, it was completed using all the joints that I had been practising with, and I completed it along the corridor of my parents’ home. It was functional and sometimes doubled up as a bench too. It served me for 3 to 4 years, but after that, I could not bear the look of it, so I tore it up.
I like my current dining table. Especially in Singapore, most of our activities are done on the dining table, if we don’t have a study table. My dining table is quite spacious and seats 6 to 8 people. It is a pretty significant work of mine, because when we first moved in, it was not done yet. We ate on the floor while I spent a month or so working on it. We spend a lot of time at the table—some days, I work on my measurements alongside my wife as she does her own work. Our dining table is one of my earlier projects and the legs are starting to get a bit shaky, but it’s a piece that has a lot of sentimental value.
What does “self-taught” mean to you?
I am a multimedia computing graduate from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, but after completing my course, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I swore and complained during every coding class, and told myself that I would not have anything to do with programming after serving my National Service. I found work as a web specialist but in the course of that work, I dabbled in programming. It was then when I realised that there is a huge difference between learning and wanting to code—out of interest. I’d go to work at 8 am and rush through my work, so that I would have time from 3 p.m. till 6 p.m. to self-study programming. Then I’d stay up to 3 or 4 a.m. in the mornings after going home to study some more. I managed to programme a system to automate my work and built an app for my then-company to use. Through that experience, I learnt that self-teaching was a sustainable way of education. Later on, I told myself that if I could teach myself to code and make a career out of it, the same could be applied to my woodworking.
When I first went into woodworking, it was purely a hobby. I tried looking for courses but those in Singapore were inclined to carpentry and interior work. Hence, I relied a lot on books and videos. On paper, everything looks so seamless and easy. I thought that if I were to buy the same tools and the same quality of wood, it would work. But everything failed. So I started from the basics like learning how to plane wood and sharpen the tools. For a few months after my day job, I would spend hours in the toilet sharpening my blade. I hit a lot of roadblocks and it was time-consuming, but I feel that one must endure some suffering in order to truly learn. In retrospect, I could have enrolled myself in a woodworking school in the States or the UK, somewhere with more structure, but I have no regrets. I feel that the perspective of a self-taught craftsman versus one who is taught in school is different. One might be inclined to a particular way of doing things, and learning woodwork in school might expose you to various machinery, but my fundamentals are definitely strong.
Who are your clients?
So far, most of them are expatriates. At the moment, Singaporeans lack an appreciation for carpentry, but I am optimistic that it will change with time. Currently, I observed that our lumberyards do not mill or harvest our rain trees and mahogany trees properly. We don’t store them properly and just run them through machines or even cut them into thick slabs and sell when the wood is still wet. Some of my clients are from the States or Australia and are used to a woodworking culture. When an American client comes to me, they have an idea and are quite specific about what they want. Singaporeans are vague; they ask for different ideas only to go silent when we talk about price.
Has this been a sustainable business?
Not really—especially in the last 3 years. But it is not unexpected. I think the early years are really critical as a start-up—for me to take on projects that I like and produce works that represent me. Until I can find a larger space to churn out more creations, and have the right machines to cut down production time, then maybe I will be more sustainable. Right now, everything is truly handcrafted, so pricing-wise, the client has to understand.
Who is your inspiration?
I have a few, one being Nishioka Tsunekazu, who is also known as “the last temple carpenter”. I learnt about him when I started venturing into Japanese woodworking. His name was always referenced when I read up on big-scale joineries and materials used for shrine construction. So I researched and tried to understand his way of thinking, and found it to be particularly inspiring in my design process. He has influenced how I look at wood, with “individualism” in mind rather than a generic product. Wood is a living being just like humans, and each has its own characteristics and differences. It’s very important that I know how to make full use of them.
Danish furniture appeals to me because of their functionality and democratic design. Finn Juhl would be one of my favourite Danish designers. His work is timeless—take one of his signature pieces the “45 Chair” (designed in the 1940s) as an example. The design has stood the test of time and it is so versatile that it can be put in any setting and still look elegant.
I’m also inspired by the Shaker design philosophy. I like how they valued quality materials and craftsmanship for their furniture. Their designs are very functional in form and proportioned to look so simple, but at the same time, convey their community values and principles well.
Plans for the future?
I am looking into different workspaces, somewhere bigger but not too far from home. The only space available is an industrial unit, but that is about 10 times of my current space, and I have no idea how I will utilise that. In the future, I would want to have a showroom. A balance of 100% pure handmade furniture and some manufactured with the help of the machines. I want to be able to have a workshop at the back where people can watch the manufacturing process. I also hope to run workshops more regularly, and to be able to give free seminars and talks as well. To cultivate a wood culture in Singapore, we must first educate children and adults.