Time spent volunteering with Touch Home Care under Touch Community Services opened Kevin Chiam’s eyes to the world of the frail elderly, a number of whom are visually impaired. “It’s a cause close to my heart as I grew up with my grandmother. I’ve always been comfortable around seniors,” says the 26-year-old industrial design graduate from National University of Singapore. “Through the home visits and interaction, I came to realise that many of the elderly are blind or partially blind, and most struggle with chores, especially in the kitchen.”
That set Kevin thinking and devising ways on how to make day-to-day living “easier” people for the visually impaired, a thesis project-turned-labour of love. The result was Folks, a kitchenware trio (knife, chopping board and teaspoon) that snagged the top prize at the James Dyson Award ( JDA) in Singapore, a design competition organised by the James Dyson Foundation to inspire and support the next generation of engineers.
Chosen from a pool of 26 Singapore entries, Kevin’s design ful fil led not just the simple JDA brief (“design something that solves a problem”), but also wowed judge Made Artha who said Folks Kitchenware “is a great example of using design to solve a problem that others seem to ignore” and, t hrough its design, Kevin proves that “simple solutions can be powerful and inventive”.
Home&Decor catches up with the designer before he flies off to London on a scholarship to pursue his postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art (RCA).
What did you learn during your volunteer stint with Touch Home Care?
While delivering meals to the less-privileged seniors, I came to learn of the challenges they faced when it came to daily tasks such as meal preparation. Getting burnt and cut are the two main challenges that those with failed or failing eyesight face. I was spurred to do something, using my passion for industrial design to solve some basic problems. I was also inspired by Christine Ha, the first blind contestant and winner of US Masterchef.
You worked on the Folks project for a year. What was the process like?
One of the first things I did was to sign up for Dialogue in the Dark to put myself in the shoes of those with visual disabilities. I gained an insightful, yet sobering, glimpse of the challenges they face. The loss of sight for me was just temporary, but not for the blind. I also spent time getting to know the people at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped – I followed their daily routine, which allowed me to observe the challenges they face while going about their tasks.
My earlier stages of designing were not without its challenges. Just when I thought I’d come up with something that could work, I soon found out it did not quite help my participants. While it may be functional, it wasn’t quite “intuitive”. It took a while to get the details right. I’ve learnt that the simpler the idea, the harder it is to perfect it.
Could you elaborate on the concept behind Folks?
Cooking and prepping food is therapeutic for many of us, and not just for those with sight. Folks was conceived to help the blind prepare food safely, with convenience, confidence and dignity. I could have come up with a gadget that does the task with the press of a button, but technology is not something that the lower-income elderly can embrace or afford easily. When you want to create something to help solve issues for the marginalised, you have to start with empathy, not just sympathy. Technology has come a long way and our society is highly dependent on it, but it is not the only way to solve problems and issues.
What are your plans for Folks?
I plan to pitch it to companies, and ideally work out a licensing arrangement with them. The ability to manufacture with scale would really help get Folks kitchenware to more homes and beneficiaries across Singapore. At the same time, I’m setting aside funds earned from design competitions like the JDA. These funds will go towards plans to directly manufacture them myself, with the support of a factory abroad. When that happens, I’ll be approaching distributors to get the product onto as many local shelves as possible.
What are you looking forward to at the RCA?
I am looking forward to exploring, in greater detail, food design and the whole sensorial experience behind it. And being based in the UK allows me to delve more deeply into European design, which I am inspired by, as it marries form with substance and subtlety.
Any advice for budding young designers?
It’s important to keep an open mind. Don’t view things through your own lens as you may inadvertently bring in stereotypes when working on your design. Be sensitive, culturally.
How Folks Kitchenware works:
Comes with a side tray that pegs freely to its sides. The tray acts as an extension of the hand to gather ingredients, and helps the user to scoop up contents.
An integrated float rises as liquids are added into a vessel. Tactile feedback of the float coming into contact with the user’s fingers lets the person know when the glass is near-full.
To address the problem of odd-shaped ingredients and poor hand posture, the knife features a retractable guard that guides the fingers during the cutting process.
text Jacqueline Tan