Homing in: The Studio behind Shibui Furniture Collective

Written By Junni Chen

15th Dec 2016

Category: Interview

Being a full-time artist is difficult. It requires many things: time, money, and most importantly—space. In this series, we take a hard look at one of the hardest things full-time artists have to obtain: a studio. On #TalkingStudios, we explore different studio spaces in Singapore and ask the creatives working in them: what was the experience of getting a studio like for them? What were some of their challenges? And what advice can they give?

Kim Choy, the founder of Shibui Furniture Collective. Photography (c) Juliana Tan.

“Anyone interested in making their home as a studio space should start small. Take over a tiny corner of the house or the corridor as a makeshift space to try out what you want to do, and move on from there.”

Building a home studio was not easy for the founder of Shibui Furniture Collective. The designer and maker of handcrafted contemporary wood furniture, Kim Choy, started his home studio from scratch, taking up years of hard work and patience. And yet, it is a journey that he calls liberating.

His craft is a special one. Kim works with wood that he sources himself, designing and making them into furniture that strives for an understated, quiet beauty. It is no wonder that Kim chose the term Shibui— “simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty” in Japanese—for his collective.

But craft requires space, and this is especially true for wood-working.

Tools in Kim's studio. Photography (c) Juliana Tan.

For four years Kim worked out of his parents’ home whilst balancing a job as a software engineer. A small corner of a living room became part of his workshop space, serving as a space for storing his lumber and tools. The corridor of a corner unit served as his main workspace for honing his skills. Consequently, he moved out with his present-wife, and started to put together what would later become his home studio.

It wasn’t long after that the once self-described “serious hobbyist” made the decision to become a full-time craftsman. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a hard decision. Kim tells us that “The main driving force which led to this turning point was to prove to myself again that dreams can be achieved.... It was just one night when all these thoughts came to my mind. My imagination ran wild, thinking about working in a studio filled with lots of furniture that I produced.” The result, of course, was Shibui Furniture Collective.

Kim at work, as his pet cat looks on. Photography (c) Juliana Tan.

This time, the challenges of making a small space grew. “I started to learn more on my working patterns and felt many things were not in place, space wasn’t optimised and, in general, it was not as functional as I wanted it to be.”

The journey to start a fully-fledged home studio began. In some ways Kim was lucky: he had ownership over his own space. Yet, carving out a studio within his home proved no easy feat. In our interview with Kim, we ask him how he managed to get his studio off the ground, the challenges he faced, and the advice he has for designers and craftsmen looking to start their own studios at home.

How did it feel moving from your parents’ space, into a home studio of your own?

It definitely felt liberating in two aspects. Firstly, I didn’t have to worry about imposing on my parents anymore. My lumber and tools accumulated, taking up more space at the back of my living room. I feared the day when my dad would ask me—what was I turning his house into? Secondly, the ‘workshop’ at my parents’ place was a very transitional one, because there is nothing permanent to it. The little corner was a public, shared space. I hated the task of setting up and tearing down each time I had to work. If I had 6 hours to do woodworking, I would have to set aside an hour for that.

When I finally had my own space, I felt so liberated because I could finally take ownership and have a lot of control over the things that I wish to do with it. Even though I knew my new studio was going to be quite a rudimentary one at the start, this moving away was very significant to me because I felt like I had  ‘graduated’ from my original space to start a new journey elsewhere.

Could you describe the process of developing your home studio?

At the point of time when I was pursuing woodworking as a serious hobby, my wife and I had also started looking for a house. I told her my plans to set up a home studio because I also wanted to build most of the furniture myself. One room was then dedicated as the studio.

Photography (c) Juliana Tan.

“The studio room was originally separated from the living room by a wall. I requested it to be knocked down, and then rebuilt the wall to house a big glass window. This acts as an additional light source to bring in more natural light to the studio. The glass window also allows me to see what’s happening outside, and my wife can see what I’m doing inside.“

What were some of the challenges you faced when developing your home studio?

There were too many things to consider in setting up a workshop. At that time I couldn’t find anyone with this type of setup to seek advice from. Setups that I saw online and in books were not feasible because they have a bigger space to play around with and could accommodate a good variety of machines in their studio. But a home studio has its limitations: machines that produce loud noise and dust were not acceptable.

Honestly, I didn’t have the patience to wait until I came up with a perfect plan because I knew that things will fail. I could only make it fail less miserably I thought. After I had moved all the wood and tools that I’ve acquired over the years from my parents’ place to the new studio, I adopted a pragmatic way of setting the space up. Big ticket items (like lumber storage) are more static because they are heavy, and they don’t move around often. So with that in mind, I went to set up the lumber racks on the wall and designated an area for lumber storage. Till date, this has not changed and I’m still very happy with this decision.

The workbench was an issue. When I was doing woodworking at my parents’ place, my workbench was just a plank of wood placed on top of some scrap pieces of wood, and I’d work seated down. I knew I needed a workbench if I wanted to do serious work. I could either buy one from overseas (because there are none available here) or build one myself. I was on a constant search to find my dream workbench. There were so many models to choose from if I wanted to source overseas. The 17th century French Andre Roubo and the Scandinavian style caught my attention, but I met my first barrier when I found out it was too costly to get them shipped over. But all the time spent researching on workbenches gave me a better idea of different workbenches and what they offer.

Kim demonstrates how he works at his workbench. Photography (c) Juliana Tan.

During this period when I was ‘benchless’, I began switching from using western tools to Japanese tools. The way they work influenced me a lot; and I realised the Japanese way of woodworking seemed to take up less space. I realised I don’t really need a powerful workbench to start doing serious work, and I ended up building a Japanese style low workbench.

Because I was trying to learn as much as I can while setting up the studio and doing most of the work myself, it took me more than six months to move in and started churning out furniture for myself. As my work grows in terms of complexity and scale, I have to always bear in mind how to grow my space without cluttering it too quickly and ensuring that I still have the right amount of space to work in.

Kim's neatly arranged tools. Photography (c) Juliana Tan.

Photography (c) Juliana Tan.

“I didn’t like swing doors because it takes up unnecessary space.... To solve that, I bought some metal hardware to make a sliding barn door myself. The door was an experimental project based on Japanese traditional way of finishing wood for sidings. The technique involves burning the wood till it chars, and then removing the charred parts with a brush and water. It is finished with a coat of natural oil. This way of finishing helps to preserve wood and makes it fire-resistant because charred surfaces resist fire. The charred wood also helps to repel bugs because of its scent.”

How do you continue to develop your home studio?

Things changed when I went full-time and started my own home studio. I started to learn more about my working patterns and felt that many things were not in place. Space wasn’t optimised and, in general, it was not as functional as I wanted it to be. I later acknowledged this shortcoming, but told myself that the studio will be a work-in-progress and that I shouldn’t try to complete it in one go. So the studio developed very slowly, and developments are based on my own reflections after completing projects. Sometimes, during the project period, I may realise that I don’t have the right tools, and I will add them to my arsenal of tools if I can afford it. Up till today, my studio is still a work-in-progress; I only buy or build something if it really warrants a need.

You live and work in the same space. What does work-life balance mean to you?

My work is always in sight so it’s always on my mind.

Depending on how I see it, it can be good. I’m constantly engaged with my work. But it can also be bad because it’s hard to distract me if I’m too into it! Being a one-man show, work does get overwhelming and crunch times are inevitable. I tend to ‘borrow’ time from family to do more work. I’m trying to find a balance for that—to have more hours for my family. I’m sure it’s going to take a lot of discipline to adhere to strict working hours. As I am becoming a father soon, there is the realisation that quality time in a work-life balance is not enough because the quality of family time can be quantified by how much time is being invested into it. I would like to see it in a way like how I got better as a furniture craftsman. To improve my skills, I can only let time do its work because more practise needs time. The same applies to my life and to my family.

Photography (c) Juliana Tan.

Images (c) Kim Choy. To view the full ablum of polaroid pictures, visit our Facebook page

Were there difficulties when negotiating between both your work space and family space? How did you work through it?

I was lucky enough that I didn’t face many difficulties in space negotiation! Perhaps the key to it is to strike a balance and ‘ask’ for just the right amount of space. When I was staying with my parents, my workspace spilled over to family space. They wouldn’t mind as long as I didn’t pose any inconvenience. They also saw my passion and respected that, allowing me to grow my workspace.

Subsequently, when I got married and moved out, my wife is the only one that stays with me. She gets to see the entire process of all my work and understands that my scale of work is at the mercy of space. Sometimes when I need extra space for storage, my wife would allow me to use the guest room. As long as I watch out for cleanliness, she’s generally fine with it. There has to be a lot of mutual understanding and support from the family to live with a workspace within a family space.

How should you start making your home your studio space? Do you have any advice for people looking to start up their own home studios?

Anyone interested in making their home as a studio space should start small. Take over a tiny corner of the house or the corridor as a makeshift space to try out what you want to do and move on from there. Starting out small has a lot of advantages, because there are lesser blind spots and when things don’t work out, there are lesser variables to consider. Many people romanticise the idea of working in a full-fledged studio when they just picked up a craft and go in chasing after that instead of the craft.

A home studio is more than just a physical space. It demands commitment because it needs to be maintained well, so that it can co-exist with home and family.

For more of Shibui Furniture Collective, head to the website or Instagram to get more updates on Kim and his craft journey. Some of Kim's works are also on show at Art-2 Gallery in the exhibition "Everything Is __________." till 30 December 2016.

Special thanks to Juliana Tan for photography. Visit her website to view more of her work.

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