Royal Selangor turns to Taiwan's National Palace Museum for its latest design inspirations, writes Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
WALKING along the hallowed corridors of the National Palace Museum, China's major art museum in Taipei, ears straining to catch the animated voice of our affable Taiwanese guide as he regales us with the history of some of China’s famous dynasties, I can’t help but marvel at the ancient artefacts on display behind their shiny glass casings. The designs are ingenious, a testament to wondrous ancient know-how.
In the semi-darkened exhibit room, I see my fellow colleagues' eyes shining in wonder, similarly drawn to the relics of history spanning more than 5,000 years of Chinese history, from the Shang right through the Qing dynasty. The museum houses more than 670,000 pieces of priceless artefacts, including Chinese ritual bronzes, ceramics, jade, lacquer ware, enamel, decorative carvings, embroidery and tapestry. Honoured as the “treasury of Chinese culture”, it is also known to be one of the largest in the world.
Thus it comes as no surprise that in Royal Selangor’s search for a reputable Asian institution to collaborate with, the Malaysian brand, founded in 1885 and renowned for fine craftsmanship and innovative pewter design, chose Taiwan’s National Palace Museum.
The fruit of their collaboration resulted in the recently launched The Imperial Collection — a range of home and personal accessories that highlights the beauty of Chinese art and culture. The Royal Selangor designers have produced an exquisite collection that offers a fresh interpretation on some of the world's greatest artworks dating from the Southern Song dynasty to the Qing dynasty, items historically-inspired that look right at home in today’s contemporary setting.
The collection comprises tabletop and decorative items such as tea set, tea caddy, tankard, tumbler, coaster, plaque as well as personal accessories such as pendant and cufflinks — with each piece marked with the Royal Selangor touch mark and the National Palace Museum logo.
About three years ago, the company decided that they should work with an Asian institution for an Asia-inspired range.
Royal Selangor’s charming executive director, Yong Yoon Li says they hoped that from referencing Oriental arts antiquities, they’d be able to come up with products that would cater for their global market — the US, the UK, Australia and
Asia. But it didn’t happen. “We couldn’t find an institution that had enough products or enough references to inspire our designers, until we discovered the National Palace Museum,” says Yong.
With the museum being such a huge institution, Yong was unsure how their proposal of a possible collaboration would be met but “... surprisingly, they had heard of us and agreed to work with us a few months after our initial meeting.”
Yong returned from Taipei armed with suitcases full of reference books and archive materials from the museum. He wanted all the materials to be perused and meticulously studied by the Royal Selangor designers. “They went through all the books, and months later, they made the trip to the museum to see what other artefacts they could find that would complement the pieces they wanted to work with.”
A design shortlist was produced, comprising designs of lacquer ware, metal work and plenty of decorative work. “I left them to their own devices and under my cousin Chris, the chief designer, they decided for themselves what they wanted to use as inspiration and what the concept would be.”
As it was potentially a new collaboration (and a new range), they opted to create a collection that would sit comfortably with their consumers. Says Yong: “We went with the Ming and the Qing dynasties as these are probably the most recognisable dynasties with people of today. We didn’t want to start off this undertaking with an obscure period, like the Bronze period, for example, because it would be harder to translate for our pieces. Maybe one day...”
“Challenges? I don’t think we had any that’s worth mentioning,” muses the 42-year-old Yong, when I ask him of the difficulties they faced with this particular undertaking. The museum, he says, despite their rigid observance of certain things, was, as an institution, very forward-looking.
“They could see the commercial-viability of the collaboration so they were quite open. They had a lot of input too — from designing the leaflets to boxes and packaging, right down to the colour selections and logo.”
In terms of the aesthetic design, it was left to Royal Selangor to weave their artistry; the only condition the museum placed was “... that we should not ‘bastardise’ the artefacts. These pieces are, after all, wonderful pieces of art,” says
Yong, adding: “We ensured that we stayed true to the original language.
“Through our designs, we hope to make the rare and treasured museum pieces accessible to any home and create a new appreciation for Chinese art and culture with modern consumers throughout the world.”
“I like to see the designers challenged — either the market place challenges them to solve a problem or they challenge themselves by pushing their boundaries,” says Yong, a former design engineer in the automotive industry. “It’s easy to get complacent. What really separates the men from the boys when it comes to design is not so much coming out with crazy ideas, it’s more about how to realise the ideas. That’s the tricky part. This is what we need to do well to strengthen that part of the process as a brand.”
Can pewter, as a material, shake off its “old soul” image, I ask Yong, as the minutes tick and my chat nears its end. He smiles before languidly picking up an exquisitely designed pendant, classic in form, from the table in front of him.
“Look beyond the material; beyond the metal. It’s all about the design, which is why we invest a lot of time in our design. Pewter can take wonderful impressions.”
ROYAL Selangor‘s teapot: Emperor Qianlong was known as a great collector of art and antiquities, and often applied his seal to works of art that he reviewed. The seals of “His Majesty at Seventy“ and “His Majesty at Eighty“, mark the anniversaries of his reign and reflect his gratitude for a long life. The inscriptions of these precious seals are featured boldly on the sides of Royal Selangor teapot, which comes with four porcelain cups and a wooden tray with pewter handles decorated with foliage motif taken from the box where the seals are kept.
Sculpted pewter panels: One of the most precious porcelain artefacts of the museum is a Qing dynasty gilded azure vase made by the imperial kiln of Jingdezhen. Comprising an inner and outer vase, this masterpiece is a tour de force of ceramic production. When the top of the outer vase is rotated, the inner vase turns, revealing four beautifully painted gold fish and plants on the inner vase, seen through the open panels. Royal Selangor‘s plaque captures these paintings in four pewter panels mounted on a wood backing. Framed with a gilded border, the sculpted pewter panels highlight the beauty of the hidden masterpiece.
Tankard: Inspired by great productions from the Ming dynasty are the tankard and the tumbler. Royal Selangor‘s lidded tankard features a beautifully sculpted dragon and swirling cloud motifs derived from a finely made cloisonne incense burner while the tumbler highlights the elaborately carved camellia and peony flowers from a rare red lacquer vase.
Coasters: The four uniquely-shaped coasters featuring floral motifs are inspired by the rhythmic form of a Qing dynasty enamel copper plate. The coasters are decorated with motifs of plum blossom, daylily, peony and morning glory.
Tea Caddy: Borrowing elements from a three-legged Longquan incense burner, Royal Selangor‘s “Li“ tea caddy takes on the bulbous form and intricately carved finial of the porcelain piece from the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties. Another tea caddy is decorated with cloud patterns derived from jade boxes of the same period.
Photo frames: Decorated with an auspicious pattern created by repeated shapes of the traditional Chinese coin derived from a white porcelain box made in the Dehua kilns during the Southern Song or Yuan dynasties. In the photo frame design, the patterns are pierced through and stand out against a dark wood backing.
Pewter pendant: Inspired by the beauty of a begonia-shaped jade ornament from the Southern Song dynasty, Royal Selangor has replicated the design as a pewter pendant. Sculpted with a pair of chi-tigers, a form of ancient dragon, the classic ornament is transformed into a modern pewter accessory.
The Imperial collection is available from Sept 22 at Royal Selangor stores, authorised dealers and online at www.royalselangor.com