At its core, LAANK is an interior design company that believes that good design should also be practical, create an experience, and tell a story. For the team that worked on the Seeds café, comprising of Cherin (LAANK’s founder), Jason, Kent, and Alexandra, this project was one that definitely required plenty of consideration about its usage, user interaction, and the connection it created with both the students who work in the space as well as with the people who came by. Beyond that, however, the team also found that it was a chance to remind others, and themselves, that good design can change lives and make a difference—all it takes is plenty of heart. We speak to them to find out more.
How did you guys find out about the project and what encouraged you to embark on it?
Cherin (C): Actually, a friend of ours knew the crew from Rainbow. They were looking for an interior design firm that would be happy to help—one that could do a good job and create something nice without looking too cookie cutter. Our friend introduced us and we all felt it was a right fit.
What were your roles in the project?
C: Kent’s a technical designer, so he makes sure the design is achievable, and he puts that into documentation, down to the smallest details. Jason’s in account servicing and he’s also the decorative guy. He did the logo with the green plants by hand. Alexandra’s the interior designer and she did all the design development. I’m the creative director that oversaw the project. We all sat down with the clients at the beginning to understand what the school was about, what they needed, and where they would like to take this project.
What was the concept behind the interior design and how did you guys come up with it?
Jason (J): As a grounding idea to “Connect The Seeds”, we designed the café around human interaction and elevating the human touch. This thought was carried through in five basic pillars: firstly, connecting people to staff, and people to people by creating interaction with functionality. The space allows for audiences of different purposes but there are no hidden areas. Secondly, connecting with design, with an ever-evolving modular display. Thirdly, connecting in contribution through displaying students’ artworks, and on-the-job training. Fourthly, connecting to others via collaborative spaces/showcases and opportunities. Finally, connecting advocacy by being relatable and memorable to visitors.
What were some considerations you had when you designed the space?
C: We wanted the café to have a long lifespan, not just a hip café for a while. We designed it so it can withstand the test of time and be interesting enough to draw people. We kept the overall palette quite neutral and the design features not too ‘2017-trends’-like. We also didn’t want to look too showy with design details everywhere, but convey simplicity and authenticity. In the event that they’d like to expand, we also designed it in a way that can be adapted without being too high in cost.
Alexandra (A): I think there were a few balancing points that we had to figure out—how do we select materials that can be enticing to the public, yet easy to maintain for the staff? How do we maximise the capacity of the café without obstructing the training flow of the students?
Kent (K): We also needed to consider ample space circulation with comprehensive flow; appliances that need the least supervision and are low risk in usage, with low maintenance; and last but not least, to prevent and minimise any causes of accidents within the space.
J: Budgets. (laughs) But at the same time, to avoid an “IKEA”/ “do-it-yourself” feel to the place. It had to be a proper café. It has to be a café first, then a charity organisation.
How would you like people to feel when they come into the space?
C: One of the main objectives was to not have people come by thinking that they’re in a café by Rainbow Centre but really, to just have a nice time, chill out, and be comfortable.
J: Warm, inviting and definitely not a charity place. They have to go “Wow, this is cool!” and order lots of coffee just to sit there longer.
We understand that the team worked together with the students on a plywood painting session. How was that like?
C: I thought it was quite special, not just because we could do this for the school but also for the team. It was nice going back to things you used to do—just picking up a paintbrush and painting.
A: It’s not every day that we get to get hands on with a project, let alone be involved with the students who will eventually inhabit the space. In the midst of working with the students, we were able to connect with them and understand their viewpoint as eventual users of the space. It was also a nice experience that allowed us to leave a mark on something purposeful.
K: It was quite a rewarding and inspiring feeling to witness how they interpret their insights onto canvas, and to see the world through the eyes of a child.
J: Very fun, and was a bit of a stress reliever to be using hands to paint. It’s a medium that we have not touched in a long time. It just helps ground the team to realise how fortunate we are with what we have and how we can make a difference to others.
Can you share a little about the materials and decorations used in the café and the ideas behind them?
J: The bulk of the café was made out of plywood clad in veneers. It helps keep costs low and add warmth to the place. The most interesting feature would be the underside of some of the shelves and stools—we used the paintings made by students to build those.
K: For the kids, that was like leaving a footprint in the sand, giving a piece of themselves in the café’s design.
A: The use of warm plywood timber with a brightly lit interior also helps to create an inviting space to catch up and enjoy a cup of coffee. We wanted to use a subtle, muted palette in the materials and decorations to allow the students’ works to be the items that stand out in the space. This also brings us back to our concept where we wanted the space to a place where people can connect with each other. Rather than showcasing extraordinary materials, we wanted to create a humble space that encourages interaction between friends, strangers, and people. We hope that the students’ works being displayed in the space helps to demonstrate the spirit of the café.
C: We tried to use materials that will be low-maintenance as well. Decorations wise, bearing in mind that they’ll be collaborating with different internal and external vendors, we made sure the space was neutral and that the shelvings were versatile so they could revamp and do events next time. The plywood was actually donated by the contractors. There were a few contractors that tendered for the project but I think the one that was appointed at the end of the day was the one who had his heart in the right place. This guy was really generous, contributing his time, plywood, and paint, and on top of it, he gave a really good price for the project. I think this was the same with the branding consultants we got on board for the project—Alvin from PHUNK Studio is a homie and he talked for the longest time about doing something like this. It was nice working with all our friends.
Any memorable moments you can share?
C: It has to be the plywood painting session. I think it’s because that’s what put soul into the project. At the end of the day, a café is an operational business so the things that went into it were a lot of logistics, but the story that we were trying to tell was a bit more soulful. This time round, it’s quite special as this café is for the kids. Even internally, as we were brainstorming, there was that “A-ha!” moment. Since we were going to customise the furniture and a lot of plywood was going to be used for the store, we thought, why don’t we have the kids paint the underside of the seats so it’s a part of them?
A: After seeing the plywood being made into actual furniture, it dawned on me that the people who use or see it would think of it as just another artwork, but for all of us who participated in the process, it’s definitely something that we will carry with us for a long time. I hope the students are incredibly proud of themselves for contributing such amazing work to the space as well!
What were some of the challenges/limitations that LAANK faced while working on this project?
C: We were extra careful with cost. For whatever we were making the client spend on, we considered whether it was really something worthwhile for the space. The challenge was also in making it not look like it’s a ‘charitable’ place. We really wanted for the people who come by to appreciate the artworks of the students from a neutral standpoint. We don’t want them thinking, “Let’s buy a painting because I just want to help.” We want to help them see it almost like a gallery.
J: Balancing the budgets was the challenge, of course, and we had to scrap an idea of opening up one whole window to allow for an outdoor seating area. The feature shelf wall had to be accurately built also, as it needed to allow modular shelves to fit in and out. The kitchen space was a bit of a challenge too as we had to cater for a variety of equipment and yet have enough space for prepping the food.
A: I think trying to balance out the space was a challenge. By using light materials, we had to make sure we didn’t imply too much of a minimal aesthetic; there was also the consideration of how to maximise the space without overcrowding it. I think in the end we managed to find a balance in between all these and crafted a space that conveys a clear message without being too loud about it.
What are your favourite parts of the café?
C: I don’t have a particular part of the café which I really like, because I think it’s more of the journey and progress of the entire project. I’d probably say the seats with the students’ painting on the underside.
K: My favourite part of the café would be the communal table area with the feature wall and the display of the students’ works.
A: I love what we did for the back wall—an interchangeable display wall to showcase the students’ works. I’ve seen the work being showcased and I’m incredibly awed by how much dedication the kids have for what they’re passionate about. I think we could all take something away from that.
What’s your biggest takeaway from this project?
C: I think I can speak for the team when I say that we’ve done so many commercial jobs that when we finally did this one, we realised that our work is not just about doing work for paid clients and that it doesn’t just stop at great interior design. We have a skill set that can make a difference on a social level. It’s not the first time we’ve embarked on such a project but it was definitely the first time we involved the whole company, even coming together to paint with the students. I thought that was quite fun for us.
J: I discovered that our painting skills suck. (laughs) But when you realise that a project has the ability to make a difference, it makes all our other stresses seem insignificant for that moment.
K: I was able to recognise the impact of an individual’s help and assistance to improve someone else’s environment. It was self-awareness from a hands-on experience.
A: Working on this project has made me look at a space that no other projects have offered so far. There were a lot more considerations and constraints we had to take into account while designing the space and it was really a heartwarming experience to be able to overcome every obstacle with the team, as well as the people at Rainbow Centre.
What are your hopes for Seeds café?
C: Personally, I hope to see it become a space buzzing with a lot more social activities. Right now, I feel the problem with similar organisations is that they always keep the kids behind the curtains, and there aren’t many opportunities for them to talk about their artwork or be part of certain events. I’m sure there’re challenges to that but I’d like to see that social line a little more blurred, and I hope this space does it for them.
J: We hope this space attracts public support, and they visit it because it’s a really nice café with good coffee. On another level, we also wish for the space to provide the students with a very ideal and real environment for training, somewhere they feel happy to be. We hope that this becomes a great example that will inspire other schools to have their own cafés for training and functional purposes, and that we can also help to adapt and evolve the design.
K: I hope for the unrelenting success of the Seeds café program, and for more people to get involved with their objectives.
A: I found the idea of the café being a training space to prepare students for the real world very purposeful and I hope with the space that we’ve crafted, we can help to provide a suitable training ground that becomes memorable for the students as well.
This is a special Shentonista project for Rainbow Centre and the Seeds café, run by the school. Artwork from the students have been incorporated into and are showcased in the space; the café also provides students with disabilities or special needs the training and experience in skills that can serve them after they graduate.
Seeds café is located in Rainbow Centre, 501 Margaret Drive, S(149306), and opens from Mondays to Fridays from 07:30AM to 4:00PM, and Saturdays & Public Holidays from 08:30AM to 5:00PM.