The toilet is the last place you expect to see on a studio visit. But that’s one of the first things Michelle Lin points out after I stepped into the office of Singapore branding studio The Strangely Good.
Taking a bathroom break here is to board a train carriage inspired by The Darjeeling Limited. Like the set in Wes Anderson’s film, The Strangely Good toilet is plastered with Art Nouveau wallpaper and floor tiles, as well as a window to another world—the perfect getaway for the graphic designer who confesses to dreaming up ideas while handling her other business. This interior also weirdly epitomizes the work and design philosophy of The Strangely Good.
“Wherever I go, I will judge a place based on how they design the toilet,” Lin explains. “The place that people pay the least attention to is the one that is the most important to us.”
In 2011, she started the studio with Akane Oh to introduce Singapore clients to branding their interiors. After a stint at an advertising agency, Lin was seeking a new adventure, while Oh was tired of churning out uncreative work in an interior design firm. The two friends plunged into business together hoping to design top creative work.
But their first job was a reality check. Commissioned to design an “Android Land” for Google’s office in Jakarta, Indonesia, the duo was so caught up with designing that they failed to service the client’s timelines and needs. They were promptly kicked out of this high-profile job before it was even completed.
“It was a high point, but also a good crash,” said Lin.
They got a fresh start with Provisions (P.V.S.), a women’s shoe boutique. Taking a cue from a name set by the owners, the duo created a brand inspired by early 20th-century Western general stores. The letter-pressed print collateral they created is highly ornamental, while the store’s pièce de résistance is a tunnel entrance lined with handmade props ranging from aftershave bottles to soap boxes and biscuit containers. Unlike neighboring window displays in the shopping mall where P.V.S. is located, this unconventional storefront obscures its interior, luring customers into a time warp that opens up to rows of chrome shopping baskets displaying designer footwear.
Such deft handling of eclecticism led The Strangely Good to projects in the local food and beverage industry, where branded interiors have caught on. For Singapore lifestyle giant Spa Esprit, they’ve redesigned boCHINche, an Argentinian grocer and kitchen, and recently completed their pizza restaurant, Skinny Market. Both showcase their eye for weaving narratives out of mixing objects and details, a sensibility honed from the duo’s love for “old and obscure” movies.
“In movies, there are already so many beautiful scenes that can be lifted out because they are stories that develop, and these scenes are constructed to fit those stories,” explains Lin. “We feel that in terms of branding, it is also quite similar.”
Four years on, Lin and Oh are reviewing the future direction of their studio. They’re keen to shift towards a more pared-down and material-centric graphic approach. In their newest self-initiated project, Stacks & Stones, they combined green onyx marble and hardwood to reinterpret traditional children’s building blocks. Lin also reveals they’ve been trying out design thinking strategies and figuring out how to better market themselves. The ultimate aim is to keep their three-person setup small, yet economically productive.
“What we have learnt right from the start is not to be so self-indulgent. We want to also provide business solutions with our design solutions, rather than just coming in to give aesthetics,” says Lin, who’s quick to add that “Aesthetics are a must. No matter what, the space has to look nice.”
Hints of this new approach can be seen in their two-year-old office, which they moved into after launching the business from their homes. Like a Russian nesting doll, it contains one surprise after another, playfully suggested by an entrance gridded with transparent and reflective screens. Their front office, lined with cheap pastel yellow pegboards and an assortment of workshop tools, leads to a checkered-floor pantry that’s wrapped in shiny brass panels—one of which opens to reveal their fantasy toilet.
This “inside out” design turns the conventional wisdom of using the best resources for a storefront on its head. And it sure does look strangely good.