Design for Deities

Reinventing a last-surviving heritage business for the future
Project currently in development, after being selected as the grand winner of the Design for Deities international design competition.

Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop is a family-run shop specialising in handcrafted Taoist effigies, with its origins dating as far back to 1896. Steeped in rich history, all of the effigies are made in-house by the owners themselves for over 100 years.

The current 4th-generation owners were keen to revitalise their business for the future, and sought to find ways to reverse the decline of the 124-year-old shop.

The brief called for an innovative co-creation of a new contemporary product line, so that more non-Chinese audiences around the world can appreciate the stories of these mythological figures — and the timeless values they embody — in fresh, exciting ways.

Six steps to make an effigy

We started the project by making visits to the shop to gain a better understanding of the history behind their business and craft.

The craft behind the making of each effigy is meticulous and intricate. We broke down the process into six general, distinct steps that an effigy craftsperson usually goes through.

Accessories as representations of values

In conversations with Mr Ng, the third-generation owner and craftsman of the shop, we realised that each deity’s possessions and posture communicate stories and values unique to it.

For example, effigies of the Taoist deity Xuanwu are commonly recognized by the snake and turtle demons-turned-allies held under his feet, symbolizing the conquest and subduing of evil.

Similarly, we observed that other effigies are adorned with various accessories which reflect and represent specific narratives and traits in which the deities are known for.

“All the items that the effigy is holding describe the status and characteristics that the deity is associated with.”

Mr Ng, third-generation owner of Say Tian Hng

Design opportunity

It led us to wonder: could the timeless stories and values of the deity be encapsulated and appreciated through its unique possessions and features? 

In a similar vein, we wondered: could the effigy be enjoyed equally as an objet d’art by a secular audience beyond one of idolatry?

Can a deity be appreciated by all beyond its religious connotations for its universal values and stories?

We drew inspiration from the daruma doll - a symbolic object with deep religious roots, but also enjoyed equally by people all over the world as a popular gift and good luck charm. To complete the doll, the user is required to fill in the pupils themselves, symbolising the fulfillment of a wish or goal that they set out to achieve.

The deity experience kit

We imagine an experience kit where the consumer can learn more about the folklore behind the deity, and personalize his or her own sculpture with the accompanying items provided.

One can scan the QR code on the box to access a step-by-step video tutorial conducted by the shop staff, where they will guide you through the intricate process of gold-gilding the sculpture.

The sculpture is also adorned with several prominent features and accessories, each symbolising a relatable trait that people can identify with.

Highly customisable values

Gold-gilding is an iconic part of the craft where thin gold foil is carefully applied onto selected areas of the effigy.

The user can “highlight” the values that they wish for the sculpture to embody by adding finishing gold accents using the set of items provided in the kit.

Inscribing new function into traditional craft

Ash dough threading is an integral process behind Say Tian Hng’s effigies, which demands a high level of dexterity and skill. We aim to preserve and showcase this unique craft through invigorating it with a new meaning and function.

By incorporating threading details on the sculpture, they now serve as visual, tactile boundaries to guide the user as one applies the gold accent onto it.

New ritual of experiencing craft

We envision a new way of experiential learning through making. By adding finishing accents to meaningful features and possessions, the consumer is not only being invited into the craft process, but also into the stories of these mythologies.

Such sculptures thus become conversation pieces that showcase relevant values in this modern day and age.

Through the medium of a kit, the ethos of Say Tian Hng’s signature workshop experience is delivered beyond the shores of Singapore into the hands of an international audience, fostering a community of “mini-apprentices” and inspiring passion in the craft.

Future expansion of craft

Thinking beyond, we imagine a future where art aficionados can obtain Say Tian Hng’s deity sculptures on art and design retail channels.

Preserving craft through storytelling

The concept can eventually be scaled across other deities, or even beyond Taoist effigies. 

The international audience can then learn more about the narratives and values exemplified by these figures in a highly consumable way. At the same time, Say Tien Hng’s craft can be preserved and revitalised through telling stories relevant to us.

Through engaging the audience in Say Tien Hng’s craft right at home, we aim to build a sense of ownership and memory, resulting in a meaningful object that will accompany us for a long time.

We are currently partnering with the shop to bring this into reality. More updates to be revealed soon!

Sim Hao Jie
Made with love by me, circa 2022. If you are interested in my work, or want to chat about design or opportunities, email me.