“Dream on/Dream until your dreams come true” - Aerosmith
It is easy to be intimidated entering the premises of Black Design studio on Mohammed Sultan Street. Like its namesake, the place is decked out in monochrome, with rows of sullen Mac computers, ebony tables and white scribbles on blackboards. The air-conditioning feels like it’s turned up a little too high, and it is a feeling that persists as Jackson Tan, the director of both PHUNK and Black Design, sweeps into the room. He is tall, lean, and dressed simply in a (what else?) black T-shirt, looking very much at home in his cool, minimalist workspace/studio. As he greets us with a slight smile and a warm handshake, however, all inhibitions are put to rest, and we slouch over our packets of green tea at the table.
A Lasalle graphic design alumnus, Jackson started PHUNK, an art and design collective, with three of his friends: Melvin Chee, Alvin Tan and William Chan. Through the years, the studio, with its unique brand of “controlled chaos” as Jackson so aptly put it, has achieved huge success in the region, collaborating with big-name brands like Nike and Levis. Long time collaborator MTV showcases PHUNK’s work regularly on the channel, with most of the packaging for its award shows and idents designed by the studio. Awarded ‘Designer of the Year’ in 2007 by the President’s Design Award, PHUNK stands as one of the leading design agencies in Singapore and in Asia. But PHUNK is more than just a design studio. Crossing the various realms of art, film, publishing, fashion and design, its work, in the words of its founders, is a mix between creativity and commerce. In recent years, PHUNK has displayed its work in galleries, places like the Singapore Art Museum, and fairs like Art Stage Singapore. The studio has evolved into a purveyor of art, and continues to challenge the boundaries of design and artistic creativity.
Black Design is Jackson’s private project, and he arranges to meet us there as PHUNK’s studio-cum-gallery is under renovation. He is charmingly self-deprecating and eloquent; interspersing good-humoured jibes at himself with perceptive sound bites and easy laughter. There is a laidback and down-to-earth quality about Jackson that makes interviewing him feel like a chat between friends, and we almost forget that we are talking to one of the few people who redefined the boundaries of art and graphic design in Singapore. At the end of the interview, he thanks us, grins, and personally shows us to the door. Not one to try to impress, Jackson impresses us anyway, and as we descend the stairs of his studio, my friend turns to me with a smile, and says, “That was pretty awesome.” And awesome he is.
What is PHUNK about, and how has it evolved through the years?
The official definition of PHUNK is an art and design collective. But this definition is constantly changing, because we reinvent ourselves along the way. We started in 1994, and before that we were fellow graphic design students in Lasalle. We went to school – well actually, most of the time we didn’t go to school, we just tuanged school together. (laughs) We hung out in arcades playing pinball machines and billiards, things that teenagers did then. We loved music and comic books, so we went to a lot of record shops and comic book stores; we were geeks, basically. We wanted to start a band – that was the original intention of PHUNK – so we went to the studio to jam, but then we realized that our music…sucked. (laughs) We designed better covers for our albums than the music. So what we did was take that rock and roll ethos and DIY spirit, and transfer it to PHUNK. PHUNK still functions very much like a band. We don’t work like a design studio. The way we work and the way we create is like how members of a band work together.
After we graduated we spent the holidays fiddling with the Mac. At that time the old Mac was just out, so we were doing a lot of experimental graphics with it. There were no commercial reasons to do those things, we just liked to do it, and we did a lot of our own posters, our own stuff. One of the things we thought about doing was coming up with a street wear label, like Stussy or X-Large; and when we were reading this British music magazine called Straight No Chaser, the word “phunk” came up. We thought replacing the ‘f’ with ‘ph’ sounded pretty cool (this was back in the early 90s), so we just took that on as our name. (laughs) We learned how to do silkscreen printing, and started printing T-shirts at my house with our own graphics and the word ‘PHUNK’ on it. We knew nuts about running a business, we just printed some T-shirts to look cool and wear to Zouk. (laughs) People said they looked nice and we felt really happy, but we never sold any shirts. The word ‘PHUNK’ remained, though, and we went on to start a free magazine called Trigger. It was a street mag and it lasted only two issues because we knew nuts about publishing as well. (laughs) We didn’t know how to do ad sales, we just wanted to do a really good magazine that was paid for by advertisers. We printed about 15,000 copies and distributed them to shops around Singapore; and within a few days they were all snapped up because they were visually very nice, and actually after we did that we were spotted by MTV, who wanted us to work with them. So we became a design studio, and we worked with them on packaging MTV, and this has gone on for 10 to 15 years. We then went on to collaborate with a lot of different brands on different products; various design projects across all disciplines.
So after doing 10 years of PHUNK, whatever we said we wanted to do at the start, like T-shirts and collaborations with youth brands, we’ve accomplished. And then it was like, “now what”, you know? (laughs) We took some time to think about it, and realized that for the first ten years, we were always influenced by external stimulus, things outside of us. We were influenced by Western music, kungfu movies, anime etc. We did work that was mostly requested and commissioned by other people and organizations. We then decided that for the next 10 years we were going to concentrate on looking inwards, and do more personal artwork. We want to share our visual universe. We actually have an imaginary universe with our own characters and stories that we’ve been constructing for the last 4 to 5 years. We now work more with museums who display our work, and galleries that represent us. That’s the story so far.
From what you’ve told me it seems like you guys have been through quite a lot in terms of business failures, etc. What made you guys stick together, and stick to the vision of design for PHUNK?
What made us stay on with PHUNK was the fact that from the start it was never about success or failure. It was about having fun. From day one we were always having fun.
Whether it was in the bedroom doing work on a small desktop or playing pinball machines in an arcade or playing in a band, it was always about having the company of these other three people and doing things together. That’s what it is. Until today we’re still having fun. The only reason why we want to be successful and make money is so that we can continue doing this. So that it can sustain our fun.
How would you say you’ve changed since you started PHUNK?
It’s made me more of a team player. We started from being fellow classmates to business partners, and now I would say we’re more like family.
What were the major challenges you faced?
One of the major challenges was that we were never certain that whatever we did would materialize or be well received. The stuff we did and still do…had never been done before and there was no precedent of anybody in the world that had a career like ours. We’ve basically shaped a career and a lifestyle around the way we want it to be. What time we want to wake up to work, how we want to work, who we want to work with…nobody has also really moved from graphic design to art like we have, or at least nobody has done this in Singapore.
What do you mean by working like a band? How has this contributed to how your work turned out?
I guess the way we work with our clients is very different from the usual relationship between a design studio and a client, where the studio works for the client. We work with them. When we work with brands, for examples, it’s always Levis and PHUNK. Most of our clients understand our style and the way we work, and we mostly function like collaborators.
So you’ve managed to keep your artistic integrity.
Actually that’s what they want. We sometimes have really funny situations where clients say a certain piece that we do for them is “not very PHUNK”. (laughs)
When it comes to art, it’s really hard to have the same kind of aesthetic. How’s it like working with 3 other designers and how do you work out internal issues?
I think when we first started all four of us had very different styles. Even though we had common interests, we were very much different. But as the years went by, we became more and more in sync, to the point that it’s almost scary. I think the 3 other guys know me better than myself and vice versa. We can finish each other’s sentences. When I think of a visual idea, their visual image of it is very close to mine.
Singapore is obviously a very small country with a small arts scene. Do you feel you have been limited by your surroundings?
Obviously, when we first began there was nothing. But we found that interesting, because when there’s nothing you set the precedence. When there are other things that have came before then there’s a cultural baggage. So we’ve never thought of it as a negative, we’ve always thought of it as a positive. You become a change maker.
How do you feel about the Singaporean art scene?
Emerging, it’s an exciting time to be working in Singapore as a creator.
What is the difference between the reception of your art in Singapore as compared to overseas?
We do receive more support overseas. In Singapore there isn’t a culture for owning art; when we buy houses, buying art is usually the last thing on our minds. In places like New York, when you’ve got a small house you buy a small piece of art, and when you’ve got a big house you buy a big piece of art. There is definitely a bigger market there for our work.
When you began, how did you straddle having fun and responsibilities like paying the bills and monetary ambition?
Be idealistic in your dreams but realistic in your plans to achieve them. Dream big and take small steps towards it. Never compromise your ideals for money. If you do what you love, you will have the most fun you can imagine and the money will also roll in naturally.
What advice do you for future designers and artists?
(laughs) One advice I would give is to never take advice from older designers. But I think what’s important is to just follow your heart and be true to yourself.
MTV World Stage Live in Malaysia 2010, designed by PHUNK
–Profiled by Natalee Ho, special thanks to Andrea Quek and Ong Huiyao