SINGAPORE: Thirty years ago, Florence Ng set off on an apprenticeship with a glass artist in the US. A year later, she came back to Singapore with a small glass kiln and some raw materials and a determination to mould a living out of the craft.
Ms Ng, now 59, was one of the first in Singapore to break into the glass art scene. She started a glass studio in 1986 with the intention of popularising the craft locally. “All I wanted was to gather people from different walks of life to play with glass,” she said.
She may not be as well-known as Dale Chihuly or Liuli Gongfang, but Ms Ng's works can be found in iconic buildings such as the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, Fortune Plaza in Beijing, as well as a 19-metre-tall crystal pyramid for Brunei’s Jerudong Park.
Working with contractors, property developers, architects and interior designers or homeowners, she has produced everything from outdoor glass sculptures, to intricately designed interior glass panels and even lighting fixtures.
Some glasswork by Ms Ng and other Synergraphic Design arists from the earlier days (Photos: Lam Shushan)
HANDCRAFTED IN SINGAPORE
“During the early days, we did have this setback where we were not viewed for our creativity. People thought: ‘Oh if you are not made in Italy or Europe, there’s not much value’.
“But I think over the years, we have come to develop our own style and products, so we have in a way achieved an identity for ourselves and we are much respected for that,” Ms Ng said.
While the bulk of her business includes the more common glazing works such as cutting and polishing glass, they also have the capability to design and produce more intricate glassworks using techniques like sandblasting and kiln forming.
Clockwise from top left: 1) A man operates the sandblasting gun, donning safety gear. 2) Silica carbide is blasted out from the gun to form textures on the glass surface. 3 and 4) The finished product. (Photos: S Shiva)
Sandblasting is a method used to create textures and patterns on glass panels, which can be used for interior finishes. To produce this, fine silica carbide is blasted out of a gun at a pressure of 100 pounds per square inch (PSI) to carve out certain shapes and textures in a glass panel.
The glass kiln is a hot oven that gets heated up to 760 degrees Celsius in order to get the glass into a semi-molten form. From there, the glass can be manipulated to form functional items such as dishes, plates and other lifestyle accessories.
“We are like a huge research and development centre. Researching, prototyping stuff. Our finished products could be an artwork or a functional product,” Ms Ng said.
The kiln heats glass up into a semi-molten form so that designs can be carved out from the glass panel. (Photo: S Shiva)
BUSINESS NOT ALWAYS AS SMOOTH AS GLASS
However, it has not been a smooth road for Ms Ng, as she recalls having to constantly adapt to various trends in the field which have come and gone over the years. Her daughter Sara Ang, 26, who joined her business in 2012 after graduating from university, shared some of her observations.
“Decorative glass such as kiln formed glass was very popular at a time in the 90’s. However, certain techniques are not so popular these days, like sandblasting and stained glass,” she said.
Furthermore, they used to be able to charge a premium for certain items such as laminated glass but the advancement technology has allowed other companies to produce them cheaper and faster.
“What was considered decorative glass has now crossed into normal interior glass. There are still jobs but it’s definitely not as easy as before,” Ms Ang said.
“In a way ,we did lose out but we can’t keep looking back. We just have to keep creating new designs and to try to change the way we do things,’’ her mother said.
Ms Ng's sculptures for Seagate for the entrance of their new R&D centre in one-north. (Photos: Courtesy of Sara Ang)
Still, Ms Ang is keen to press on to continue her mother’s legacy. “If we just let the company die off then it’s such a waste because our experiences and skills cannot be passed on to younger Singaporeans,” she said.
Having graduated with a business degree, Ms Ang is in the early stages of planning the next move for the company. One of her plans is to tap on her mother’s skills to create a breeding ground of other Singaporean talent, where she hopes to start her own “mini Singapore brand of products”.
“I have, in the past three years, seen how hard she works … which is why I want to free her up from the responsibility of running the business to let her have more time to do what she really enjoys doing - to create more art."
Ms Ang hopes to take her mother’s business to the next level. (Photos: Ray Yeh, Lam Shushan)