Using design as a medium for exploring everyday rituals from drinking tea to watching television, the British designer ONKAR SINGH KULAR (1974-) has developed a series of conceptual products since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2002.
When Onkar Singh Kular designed a pair of socks he added a third one in case one got lost. Embedded in the wood of his picture frame is a spirit level to help check that it hangs in a straight line. He also created a set of mugs in each of 128 Pantone shades of brown so that each family member or co-worker can choose the mug corresponding to their favourite colour of tea. Whenever a relative or colleague makes tea for them, they will be able to tell from the colour of the mug exactly how strong it should be and how much milk to add.
The socks, picture frame and mugs belong to the collection of objects – Machines for Living – designed by Onkar Singh Kular for his Royal College of Art graduation show in summer 2002. His objective as a designer is to create objects which could exist as comfortably “in a gallery as well as the Argos catalogue”. What distinguishes Kular’s work is that the development of each object is dominated by the way it will be used, not by its formal qualities.
The reason why his Three Is A Pair socks are so appealing is that they make us think of the inevitability of losing a favourite sock. Similarly the Perfect Picture Frame conjures memories of all those frames hanging wonkily on our walls and 128 Pantone Mugs provides a practical solution to an everyday problem – how to make a perfect mug of tea for someone else and how to avoid having to drink tea made by a well-meaning person with too much – or too little – milk.
Born in Huddersfield in 1974, Onkar Singh Kular studied furniture and product design at Kingston University and, after an unsuccessful stint in an architect’s office, enrolled on a master’s course at the RCA. He has since exhibited Machines for Living in Tokyo, Stockholm and Eindhoven, where it was seen by Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers, co-founders of the Droog design group, who included 128 Pantone Mugs in their exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair in April 2003.
Kular is now putting the mugs, socks and other Machines for Living objects into production as well as teaching at Kingston and working at the MIT Media Lab in Dublin. Having set up a practice with a friend Noam Toran, he is developing a new series of objects - TV Times - all of which relate to our use of the television.
Q. How did you first become interested in design?
A. I didn’t do too well at school and failed all my exams. My dad wasn’t impressed and gave me a choice, either work in his corner shop selling groceries or go to college and do something else. I chose to do something else.
Q. What was the influence of your design education?
A. It wasn’t until I began studying at the Royal College of Art that I found an environment that encouraged free thinking. The college helped me to develop a more professional attitude to my work. I was also fortunate to have two exceptional tutors in Anthony Dunne and Durrell Bishop who over the two years provided constant support and frequent nudges in the right direction.
Q. How would you describe your approach to design?
A. I’m principally interested in our relationship to various medias; in particular how television and advertising affect our domestic circumstances, I’m concerned with the rich narrative space provided by the act of these experiences. I try to create products or services that in various means explore our relationship to this space. I look at this space as a material to be manipulated and played with.
Q. What are your goals as a designer?
A. To design products that could easily exist in a gallery as well as an Argos catalogue.
Q. Who or what inspires your work?
A. Currently Bruce Nauman’s Double No at Tate Modern and Cindy Sherman’s Clown Portraits. I have started to develop a fascination with clowns. I love the combination of humour and pathos. I would like to create a brand of design with these same values.
Q. Which designers – past or present – inspire you?
A. I have recently become more familiar with Constantin Boym and Laurence Leon Boym’s work. I enjoyed their Buildings of Disaster series of miniatures souvenirs.
Q. Which of your design projects have you found most satisfying – and why?
A. All of them tend to be satisfying at the time until I look back at them and start to pick holes. If I had to choose, I found working on a short film I produced called Truth TV to be the most satisfying. Through the process of creating Truth TV I became interested in television shopping channels, I was fascinated by the manner in which this form of television has the ability to sell products to consumers that they don’t necessarily need. The film allowed me to create a fictional television shopping channel where my Machines for Living series of objects had a space to exist.
Q. Which have been last satisfying – and why?
A. My least satisfying project was when I worked for an architecture firm after graduating from University and they made me build a model of a massive theme park. I was dying to design some of the burger kiosks but they wouldn’t let me.
Q. How did the Pantone Mugs project come about? What makes it innovative or distinctive?
A. The Pantone mugs came about as part of a series of objects I designed for my final show at the RCA called Machines for Living. The mugs aren’t innovative or distinctive in their shape or material, but when people see them they usually smile. That’s because the mugs evoke a common shared experience. What is innovative or distinctive is what happens beyond the smile.
Q. How did your involvement with Droog come about?
A. I took part in a exhibition of RCA graduates in the Netherlands. Gijs and Renny (Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers, co-founders of Droog) came along and saw the Pantone Mugs featuring on Truth TV. They asked if I could produce a range of 128 mugs for their annual exhibition in Milan. I said yes.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. As well as setting up a practice with a friend Noam Toran, I’m currently in the process of finding funding for my next project called TV Times. It’s a series of domestic objects that exist around the television. The objects endeavour to provide a platform for engaging in reflection to why the television as an object and a medium has stamped itself on our cultural conscience.
See more of Onkar Singh Kular's work at kularsoflondon.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain