The Singaporean Designer Who Revolutionised Printed Matter

Scorched. Drenched. Hand-torn. Dyed. These are a few of the unusual methods that the papers of WERK magazine undergo before they hit the shelves of bookstores. Covers are ripped, then spray-painted; or stained, then crumpled. Some are patched together using remnants of the production process itself. Pages are painstakingly die-cut, their edges silk-screened; while some are deliberately stained with the printer’s inks and oils to evoke the scent of printing. They can be made out of fabric, or even, like its latest issue done in collaboration with Costume National proposed, become part of a shirt that can actually be worn.

So laborious is each of its processes that to simply label WERK as a magazine feels almost like an ominous offence. Theseus Chan’s self-published magazine is anything but. Each new issue pushes the boundaries even further than its last. To read WERK is to never succumb to a mindless flip-through.

Theseus Chan at his studio, photographed on July 2, 2020.
Theseus Chan at his studio, photographed on July 2, 2020.

Chan, often regarded as the godfather of graphic design in Singapore, is one of the print world’s remaining rare breed of anarchist. He eschews all the rules that publishing has, upends them and invents his own. The 59-year-old started his consulting firm, WORK, in 1997 as a call-to-arms against the aesthetic tedium he perceived in larger advertising agencies. It was three years later that WERK materialised as his personal project to experiment with the production of printed matter. “The typical design methodology is uniformity, where a book needs to look as perfect as it can be,” says Chan. “Mine is completely the other way around. The idea is to have similarities, but yet, like every human being, they’re different. They have just a touch of humanity.”

Left: WERK No.26: Béton Brut “The Brutalist” (2018). Its cover is printed with excessively dense ink; both of the magazine’s sides are bound, making it impossible to read the 640 pages. Right: WERK No.25: “Archives” (2017). Done in collaboration with Japanese fashion label Toga, the magazine’s cover forms abstract origami-like folds.
Left: WERK No.26: Béton Brut “The Brutalist” (2018). Its cover is printed with excessively dense ink; both of the magazine’s sides are bound, making it impossible to read the 640 pages. Right: WERK No.25: “Archives” (2017). Done in collaboration with Japanese fashion label Toga, the magazine’s cover forms abstract origami-like folds.

The typical design methodology is uniformity, where a book needs to look as perfect as it can be. Mine is completely the other way around. The idea is to have similarities, but yet, like every human being, they’re different. They have just a touch of humanity.

WERK No. 20: Ginza: The Extremities of the Printed Matter (2012).
WERK No. 20: Ginza: The Extremities of the Printed Matter (2012).
Left: WERK No.18: Keiichi Tanaami Psychedelic Visual Master (2010). Right: WERK No. 17: Eley Kishimoto (2010).
Left: WERK No.18: Keiichi Tanaami Psychedelic Visual Master (2010). Right: WERK No. 17: Eley Kishimoto (2010).

In the storage room of Chan’s studio — a modest space in an office building close to a shipyard in Pasir Panjang — neat stacks of boxes filled with magazines, booklets and other publications tower up to the ceiling. His workspace is flanked with steel lockers. Nowadays, Chan mostly works on his own. He restructured his firm at the end of last year, whittling it down to just two employees and himself. “I wanted to break down very familiar things, or routines. And then hopefully, through that, the search for something different opens up,” he explains. “I wanted the freedom again, to do things in a small but dedicated manner and be satisfied.”

These days, Chan’s preferred pastime is sketching digital portraits of friends and people he admire.
These days, Chan’s preferred pastime is sketching digital portraits of friends and people he admire.

When I paid a visit to the designer’s workspace and asked if it was possible for him to choose a project he was most proud of, he paused before answering, “I’m proud that after 22 years of having established a company, I still feel excited.” He acknowledged the fact that he has been able to create through an unsullied perspective is a privilege. “And of course, along the way, there were certain projects that punctuated the journey.”

Chan took a box out of the storage room. Inside were past issues of WERK, but also, copies of the elusive Guerillazine, the accompanying publication Chan designed for Comme des Garçons’s chain of guerilla pop-ups in the mid-2000s.

Left: Guerrillazine No.6: Ideas for Corporate Salvation. Right: Guerrillazine No.4: Urban Poetry — The Beauty of the Ordinary.
Left: Guerrillazine No.6: Ideas for Corporate Salvation. Right: Guerrillazine No.4: Urban Poetry — The Beauty of the Ordinary.

For almost five years, he ran the Japanese label’s series of Guerrilla Stores in Singapore. The ephemeral shops — installed in hip, yet-to-be-gentrified areas around the world — were required to close or find a new location after a single year of operation. They were meant to be an antithesis to the aggressive commercialism at the time.

Chan chose indiscriminate locations, moving his studio along with the shop. The first one in 2004 appeared in Chinatown at Temple Street, occupying the second floor of an old shophouse, while his studio was on an adjunct street. “The juxtaposition of Comme’s clothes and Chinatown was totally at odds. But that was the beauty of it: a collision of very different things,” he remarks. Next, they moved to Haji Lane (then a relatively unknown alley in the Malay-Arab quarters), then to an HDB shop unit in the heartlands neighbourhood of Bukit Merah View, and finally a defunct school at Mount Sophia.

WERK No.27: Smashing Hits (2019).
WERK No.27: Smashing Hits (2019).

“I come from a culture where if you’re a craftsman, you pay a lot of attention to your work, almost sacrificing your life for that,” he says. “I’m now looking for something in between.”

The designer thinks it’s no longer the same world and that the old ways of doing things have become irrelevant. The ongoing pandemic, if anything, has accelerated digital’s near-complete global dominion. Chan’s upcoming projects — an artbook for Steidl, a packaging design for a French perfumer — have been halted for the time being. His art posters, commissioned by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that were ultimately cancelled, hang by his work desk, a subtle reminder of how quickly things change.

Steidl-Werk No.23: Masaho Anotani “Deformed” (2015).
Steidl-Werk No.23: Masaho Anotani “Deformed” (2015).
Werk No.21: Martine Bedine (2014).
Werk No.21: Martine Bedine (2014).

“I think this has become the watershed moment where the world is handed over to the millennials and Gen Z,” he notes. When asked if there were younger creatives he admired, he openly lists the likes of the founders of design agency Anonymous, Felix Ng and Germaine Chua, and local designer Nicolette Yip of fashion label The Salvages. “We must support this new generation that’s going to carry it forward,” he says. “Really, I don’t want to hold on to it. I want to be free.”

Photographs by Rosalynn Tay

Watch Theseus Chan’s “Illustrated Interview” with T Singapore. Using brush and ink, the graphic designer sketched his answers to T’s interview questions.