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Meet the Thai designer making rubbish beautiful

By turning scrap into incredible furniture, Singh Intrachooto has established himself as one of Thailand’s most established and exciting eco-designers 

[caption id="attachment_52818" align="aligncenter" width="740"]Singh Intrachooto Singh Intrachooto[/caption]

They say that generosity can reap rich dividends. And for Singh Intrachooto it was a magnanimous gesture that helped steer him along a singular path towards becoming arguably Thailand’s most esteemed eco-architect and designer.

Although he always had an interest in environmentally responsible design and lectured on it to his students at Kasetsart University, his work focus upon returning to Bangkok after a long stint in the United States and Europe was traditional architecture. The eureka moment – the point that he really made a commitment to becoming an evangelist for sustainable design and champion of up-cycling from construction and industrial by-products – came when he was thinking about gift ideas for his partner, a building contractor.

“I was thinking to myself: what would make a cool present?” he explains. “So I collected scrap teak wood from her job site and made some benches for her. That was when I realised that all the waste that is created on these projects can actually be put to good use.

“Typically there’s about 32 times the amount of waste to the amount of materials actually used and that’s absolutely crazy. I was witnessing tons of waste being hauled away from my own construction sites, even when the projects were classified as eco-friendly.”

Since that fateful day, Singh has channelled his considerable energy into spreading the gospel of sustainable architecture and interior design both in his native Thailand and at lectures and seminars around the world.

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His schedule has been particularly hectic of late. When we catch up with him, he has just returned from a green symposium in Beirut, Lebanon. Before that he spoke at the Salzburg Global Seminar where he discussed the concept of turning waste into something valuable with other thought leaders on sustainability. He’s also been busy overseeing his eco-design firm OSISU’s display of furniture and home-ware made with reclaimed construction scraps at international furniture fairs.

Given his packed itinerary, it is a slight worry that he won’t manage to make the timeslot for our call. However, he is ready to wax lyrical at exactly the allotted hour.

[pullquote]“We are in deep crap environmentally and nobody is doing anything about it,”[/pullquote]

“I attend so many meetings and seminars both here and overseas that I’ve perfected the art of being on time,” he laughs.

It is not just his punctuality that marks Singh out. Over the course of the conversation, the architect will muse on subjects ranging from sustainable architecture to the current political impasse in Thailand. On the depressing outlook for the planet, he offers a blunt remark.

“My personal view is that we are screwed,” he says softly. Despite frequent moments of frankness, Dr Singh is far from downbeat. He talks passionately about his work as design principle at OSISU, Thailand’s leading eco-design production house, and head of the Building Innovation and Technology Program at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Architecture.

[caption id="attachment_52822" align="aligncenter" width="740"]A piece made from re-claimed wood A piece made from re-claimed wood[/caption]

Given Singh’s reputation as one of the country’s most prominent champions of sustainable design, it is not surprising to hear him express strong opinions. After spending more than 20 years in the US, where he obtained a Doctor in Philosophy degree in Design Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he returned to Bangkok, his home city, for what he thought would be a temporary stay.

“I was convinced I was going to hate it,” he recalls. “I’d formed a really negative impression of Bangkok when I was overseas: the heat, the traffic, the pollution, the corruption. But when I came back I was out of my mind with happiness. I found there were so many things that I could do and so many people allowing me to do it.”

One of these projects was forming OSISU, which Singh founded in 2006 to push the trash beautifying process, creating furniture and home ware from items ranging from stone, cement and teak to more challenging waste materials such as button scraps, industrial sandpaper and foil packaging.

He also consults with private enterprises, is Design Innovation Ambassador for Thailand’s National Innovation Committee and has worked with other government agencies in Thailand to promote a green building agenda.

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Yet while you’d expect a man of his standing to be listened to intently, Singh is the first to admit the inherent difficulties in getting his arguments across.

“We are in deep crap environmentally and nobody is doing anything about it,” he bemoans of the situation in Thailand, where construction on condominiums continues unabated in Bangkok. “Whenever I talk to anyone at the ministries it is extremely annoying. It takes forever to even get a small project done. You need to rely on your own initiative in Thailand and not the government.”

Less frustrating is his lecturing work. Although he would like his Thai students to be more voluble – “they are brought up to be obedient and not to challenge the establishment viewpoint,” he says – he feeds off the energy and ideas provided by younger minds.



 

“My students inspire me all the time,” he says. “I don’t enjoy teaching for teaching’s sake. I enjoy it when the students are so brilliant they can feed back into my pallet of ideas.”

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With that, Singh needs to draw the conversation to a close. He has to prepare for another foreign seminar. It is, he admits, an unrelenting travel schedule, but one he insists is worthwhile in the long run in terms of forging professional friendships and forming new ideas that can be applied in Thailand.

“I’m so far out in the left field here that I need to travel a lot to get my thoughts out there and come back with new inspiration,” he explains. More than a decade after stumbling upon a unique gift concept, Singh is still searching for new ideas to improve the lives of others.

This article originally appeared in issue 136

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