The much anticipated opening of the Space Asia Hub in the arts quarter of Singapore marks an important moment for design in the region. First launching here in 2001 and now representing 14 of the world’s leading design brands, the 4,000 square metre flagship is an impressive new design destination for all of Asia. Step into the new Space Asia Hub in the heart of Singapore’s arts quarter and you will recognise international brands and a collected body of craft and industrial design that exhibit an undeniable ingenuity of form and function. Like the legendary Wishbone or Louis Ghost chairs, the Space retail brand itself displays characteristics that befit the design greats on its showroom floor: it, too, is a success story that defies consumer trends and transcends the pressures of market forces, spurred on by unrelenting standards of quality and integrity.

Space Furniture’s phenomenal growth, against the backdrop of today’s global economic difficulties, is no better exemplar of the power of good design. From what was already the biggest furniture showroom in town when the Singapore outpost first opened back in 2001, the company has doubled its premises to 4,000 square metres, a venture involving the impressive outlay of $50 million.

Take it from a man who knows his design icons: “Space Asia Hub is one of the most [architecturally] beautiful showrooms in the world,” praises Giorgio Busnelli, President of B&B Italia, who has been deeply involved in the project since the beginning, and feels very proud of the stunning multiplex that stands on Bencoolen Street today. “I am sure it will become a reference point, a window and a destination store for all [of] Asia, China included.”

It takes vision to create an icon, and credit has to go to Syddal Wee, General Manager of Space Furniture, Asia operations. To boldly imagine – with the aid of foremost Singaporean architecture firm, WOHA – two separate historic conservation buildings wrapped around a contemporary block, cohesively forming a breathtaking design statement, is one thing. Another is translating the ethos of 14 of the world’s top luxury furniture brands to the retail floor, inspiring visitors around every turn.

With three extraordinary newly minted settings – The Villa, a stand-alone building, Glass Block and Heritage House – and a solid vision in place, it wasn’t difficult to get the brands on board. In the case of Poliform, Export Manager Marco Longoni was easily persuaded: “We are absolutely happy with the solution proposed by Space: The Villa is the perfect setting for our lifestyle brand. It allows a natural approach for the display, like a real house, which shows the power of the systems.”

It speaks volumes that all the brands that came on board went far beyond simply providing marketing and public relations support, they also involved themselves in all parts of the planning process, including deploying their very best talents, such as the interior design services of architect Chi Wing Lo in the case of Giorgetti’s showcase in The Villa.

“‘Life uncompromised’ is the motto of Space, and Giorgetti totally agrees,” shares the brand’s president Carlo Giorgetti. While keeping ahead of the pack hasn’t been without its bumps – the initial two years were challenging due to settling of operations and SARS, admits Wee – it’s a mark of success that Space has today boldly gone beyond just being a retailer to being an indispensable and strategic brand partner for the furniture manufacturers, in a relationship that represents a close collaboration and joined pursuit of shared values.

From the impeccably styled displays to the cafe area with seating on a tranquil alfresco plaza, Space Asia Hub is positioned not as a retail middleman but, in Wee’s terms, as a premium lifestyle resource, “We present a look and feel that our clients would like their homes to achieve; much like the five-star hotels.”

For it is only this premium solution and a judicious product selection that allows Space Asia Hub to harmoniously place what would normally be competing brands side by side. “We grow the market for them,” reveals Wee. Casper Vissers, founder and CEO of Moooi is in agreement: “We do different things from what the other brands do, and it’s a big benefit to have 14 brands together in one place, to attract clients that might not come just for our products.”

Well-trained sales personnel and a carefully calculated level of inventory, coupled with the Space group’s multi-location leverage in the Asia-Pacific region, give the company its unique success, believes Wee. “The Space model simply works; it is hard to replicate.”

But it is important to build on this, and 61-year-old Wee is not resting on his laurels yet. New initiatives for Space Asia Hub include ambitions to broaden the design experience for the local public, and to play a more active role in the design scene in keeping with the company’s location in the heart of the arts quarter. The complex will soon host an exhibition space for the upcoming President’s Design Award, while a series of student sponsorship programs are already underway, including a design competition in collaboration with Italian manufacturer Kartell and students from Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and the Vitra+Space Summer Workshops in Boisbuchet, France, that will see two local students selected to take part in one of the world’s most sought after design workshops in 2012.

“The initial success [of Space Asia Hub], and indeed the continued success, is related to the level of design and creative awareness or sensibility of the consumer in Singapore,” reflects Wee. “It will not be of immediate commercial benefit, but with time, as the awareness increases, it will be a benefit to the industry in general, and Space in particular.”

Architecture statement by WOHA

Housed within a unique cluster of heritage buildings within a gazetted conservation area, the Space Asia Hub comprises two conserved buildings – a villa (The Villa) and a shophouse (Heritage House), flanking an infill unit (Glass Block). Through adaptive re-use and calibrated architectural intervention, the redevelopment strives to create a contemporary retail showroom with expanded lifestyle facilities that retain the charm of its heritage stature.

The design strategy aims to play up contrasts between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. In the two conserved buildings, new free-spanning roofs are rebuilt in timber, to reveal high-volume, column-free showroom interiors true to their original form and architecture. Parts of the existing party wall are also taken down and new staircases introduced to open up, connect and mediate the different levels across the three developments as an integrated showroom. The improved visual porosity across the units reveals new volumes of varying scales and enhances the overall appreciation of the spatial richness inherent in the built forms.

The areas carved out of the conservation buildings are redistributed to create a fourth-storey addition to the infill unit and an extension to the rear of the conserved villa. A new fully glazed ‘skin’, replacing the former solid façade, wraps around the infill unit and extends to the rear of the conserved villa. The new transparency of the curtain wall unveils new views that enhance the appreciation of the conserved buildings, while injecting the development with a contemporary façade that reveals its interior activities.

The three units are given distinct interior expressions in response to their existing architecture. Restored dark-timber floors, carefully exposed brickwork and two free-spanning attics held up by exposed steel trusses lend a warehouse expression to the conserved three-storey shophouse. The two-storey conserved bungalow (The Villa), the most intricate and ornate of the group, is conceived as an immaculate historic villa with white-stained timber floors, windows and ceilings in an all-white pristine interior.

The large volumes and intricate timber works often associated with these villas are made evident on the upper floor. Contrasting against these heritage interiors is the contemporary infill unit, in which the existing low ceiling heights inspired an industrial expression with open ceilings, exposed duct work and services impeccably planned and laid out as a deliberate design gesture.

At the street level, a city plaza lends itself as a vibrant urban node and forecourt that aims to draw attention to the restored buildings. The plaza is a woven tapestry of terracotta and pebble wash strips in varying hues reminiscent of traditional materials and regional ‘sarong’ textiles, giving the development a contemporary yet distinctive character that references its Asian location. These finishes flow into the interior of the glass curtain-walled infill unit, giving a perception of a large, continuous and inviting urban space that integrates the three distinct buildings, and provide generous spaces for events and activities.

Integrated landscape aims to enhance the appreciation of greenery from both inside and outside the development. Pockets of greenery are extended into the plaza and around the conserved bungalow with variegated planting edges that blur the boundary between the soft and hardscape. A courtyard with vertical greenery is a feature of the conserved shophouse. Two landscaped roof terraces crown the infill units at the front and rear, stepping back as a response to the controlled envelope and introducing visible rooftop activities that further animate this unique cluster of heritage buildings.