What would a building have to say on the subject of love? For five years, this unusual question has brought together poets and graphic designers to give a voice to The Substation, an independent arts center housed inside an old power station in Singapore. Each month “The Substation Love Letters Project” has issued a free postcard featuring the commissioned poem and accompanying graphic interpretations, to talk about what love means—from the point of view of the Substation itself.
This idea was dreamt up in 2010 by then newly appointed artistic director, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, as an affordable means for the center to address the public. Instead of producing a marketing flyer, The Substation’s team (namely Annabelle Aw, and later, Chris Ong) worked with local poet Cyril Wong to curate a thematic series of love letters. Each year, the center seeks out 12 Singaporean poets to muse on love in a variety of languages, and then invites a graphic designer to visually interpret them.
“We wanted to give out postcards from the aspect of the building as a person,” explained Ong.“It was an incentive of sorts to walk away from The Substation having something, a piece of the building in that sense.”
Inspired by the inaugural theme “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” design studio MAKE paired each month’s poems with a different heart icon in a bold pattern. The next year they followed up with postcards that looked as if they were torn open to reveal the messages related to the theme of unrequited love, “I Want You When You Say No,” printed in a metallic finish.
“We decided to design it from the ground up… to play with patterns, colors, and typography,” explains MAKE’s founder, Daryl Ho.
Coincidentally, it was for the third edition on the theme of breaking up that MAKE departed from its modern, typographic approach by bringing in illustrator Julia Liu. Her black-and-white line drawings inspired by each poem were paired with fluorescent circles that, when tiled together, formed a larger image on the theme, “A Taste of Me Before You Go.” Liu recalls being asked to give a “bittersweet and somber feel” to the design. “The poems were tragic, melancholic, and so my illustrations were deliberately done with quite a heavy hand,” she says.
While the center’s budget limited Ong to working with just one graphic designer per series, he injected a fresh perspective for the 2013 edition by commissioning designer Kaleb Loh, who collaged “environments” that express each poem for that year’s theme, “Lie to Me If You Love Me.” Using images from royalty-free sources as well as his own snapshots, he combined objects and people to create surreal interpretations of each poem. He used the same method to generate patterns for the following year’s theme, “If You Love Me & I Know It,” a series of poems about the paradoxes of love.
“The most fun part was being able to do whatever I wanted, which is rare, very, very rare,” said Loh. “There’s not usually a lot of freedom once the idea is set. It’s nice because unless it’s an issue of legibility or layout, it’s an aesthetic thing thatt’s almost fully my call. So if it’s ugly, it’s my fault!”
In The Substation’s ongoing commitment to freedom of expression, the poets had no say in how their work was interpreted. So while the series was also originally conceived to encourage collaboration between poets and designers, this didn’t end up happening. In hindsight, says Ong, the creative processes were simply too divorced. Nonetheless, the postcards were very well received by the public. The monthly print run of 500 postcards were mailed to the center’s patrons, but the bulk were made available exclusively at the center itself, which sits at the edge of Singapore’s arts and heritage district. According to Ong, many editions quickly ran out and the poets often asked for more of their own postcards to give out.
The project came to an end in 2015 just as Noor Effendy Ibrahim stepped down as artistic director. A final poem written by poet Cyril Wong was letterpressed on the remaining stock of old postcards from the previous series. Designed by Loh in collaboration with traditional letterpress Typesettingsg, overprinting on old cards not only controlled the budget and reduced waste, but was also a poetic way to conclude the series, says Ong.
“All these past postcards, a lot of people actually wanted them. It’s one great way of putting the final message on these postcards as a way of replying to the public.”