The Space Nurtures program was launched by Space Asia Hub in 2011 to help develop the skills of  young Singaporean students. We went to the south of France to find out more. In July last year, the two winners of Space’s inaugural Space Nurtures programme — Ng Shin Luey, third-year product design degree student at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media, and Loh Jia Hui, third-year interior design degree student at Lasalle College of the Arts — attended one of the world’s most highly sought after design schools at Domaine de Boisbuchet in France, taking part in a workshop led by The Experience Design Group.

Domaine de Boisbuchet is the perfect location for a creative retreat. In fact, every summer, the idyllic country estate in the French Poitou-Charentes region hosts a series of six- to 10-day design workshops led by internationally recognised artists, designers and architects from across the globe for a growing following of participants eager to learn from them.

The ongoing support of Centre Georges Pompidou and Vitra Design Museum ensure Boisbuchet’s esteem. However, part of its allure and success is its carefree natural setting, which has organically evolved over the course of the workshops.

An eclectic mix of radical buildings and temporary exhibitions reside alongside the quaint historical manor houses, stables and mill, with the addition of experimental structures built during the workshops, including three bamboo houses by Simon Velez, a wooden/cardboard garden pavilion by Shigeru Ban and other works by Fernando and Humberto Campana and Maarten Baas.

One of the most popular workshops this year was Experience Design, led by Hlin Helga and Ronald Jones from The Experience Design Group (EDG), which Ng and Loh had the opportunity to attend.

Experience Design is the newest Master of Fine Arts programme offered by Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Sweden, and is led by a group of faculty members and students called EDG. Devoted to innovative interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary practiceled research, the group explores the interactions of meaning and sensation within immersive experiences using hybrid practices and methodologies. Unlike most designers, EDG is interested in designing not physical objects but, rather, intangible experiences.

As the market and designers have inched from a goods-based economy to a service-based one, EDG believes that it’s now time for an ‘experience economy’. From roller-coaster rides to health care, experiences are based on intangible values that grow over time. “The key word is ‘intangible’,” explains Ng. “It is about design that is beyond aesthetics or physical objects.” Such intangibles have been defined by EDG’s Jones as “assets that cannot be seen, touched or physically measured, and are created through time”.

As the economy shifts from objects to intangibles, the design of intangibles also paves the way for design to remain relevant in an economy evaluated on human capital, leadership, research and development, goodwill, social media, collaboration, organisational ability, intellectual property, systems design, soft power and new knowledge. The next leap forward, in Helga and Jones’s opinion, is the ‘transformative economy’: instead of single experiences, transformative design focuses on multiple experiences that cause a change.

Towards the end of the workshop, the designers had the chance to implement the designs they had been working on. Their brief was to create a transformative and educational tour of Domaine de Boisbuchet for their peers. Loh’s team decided that having fun leads to the most memorable experiences, so they designed a game that led the participants around the grounds popping balloons as they went. Every balloon popped revealed a secret about Boisbuchet that enriched the participants’ understanding of the place.

Ng’s team opted for a more introspective approach. They designed a blindfolded tour around the site and led participants on a journeyto discover new sensations from a familiar terrain. When the blindfolds were removed, one girl was so overwhelmed by her experience that she was moved to tears. Ng, whohad been holding the girl’s hand, recounts how she felt “transformed” too. Seeing how her team’s design could have an emotional impact on someone was the best reward, and an experience she hopes to replicate in her career.

In many ways, the journey of these young designers mirrors a touching coming of age for them as adults too. Experience Design taught Loh that interior design is less about expressing the designer’s ego and more about putting the user first, and that ego has to be humbled when working in a team. Learning from the diversity of her peers and the multidisciplinary nature of the workshop helped Ng reassess her strengths as a former science student.

Not many of us will have such an opportunity to live, breathe, play and design in such a unique and creative environment. Part of the creative process is the elusive chase for inspiration, yet often it is the most ordinary everyday item that can be reincarnated in a new product. This keen eye for inspiration, in General Manager of Space Furniture Asia Syddal Wee’s opinion, is exactly what is needed to advance Singapore’s design scene. More precisely, he is referring to a broad mind for design that international exposure can cultivate.

One of the common challenges faced by young local designers, Wee reveals, is the failure to translate their designs into products. This is partly due to impractical ideas and the limited capabilities of local manufacturers/vendors, who are often too quick to dismiss a product as impossible to make. Through collaborations with its international brand partners, such as Vitra in Space Nurtures 2012, Space hopes to open the eyes of young designers to a world of designer/manufacturer opportunities.

As well as the educational experience at Domaine de Boisbuchet, Ng and Loh also got to visit Vitra’s headquarters and the Vitra Campus in Germany, where they gained insights into the leading Swiss furniture manufacturer’s design and fabrication process.

Targeting the young is akin to “planting a seed”, to borrow Wee’s words. It is also the leading designer furniture retailer’s way of paying it forward to the design industry. The inaugural Space Nurtures competition is a S$40,000 investment for Space that began with a brief to reinterpret one of the world’s most iconic chairs, the Panton chair by Danish designer Verner Panton; six months later the competition has opened up the world for two designers in a once-in-a-lifetime experience that’s priceless. Space Nurtures 2013 will begin calling for design entries in early 2013.

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