Opened six months ago within the avant-garde ArtScience Museum in Singapore’s newest commercial and tourist district, the FabCafe is the latest addition to the global network born in Tokyo in 2012.
Singapore, special report (words and photos)
“What do you fab?” The famous slogan of the international FabCafe network, originated in Tokyo in 2012, is engraved in red letters on the side of a wooden square space in the foyer of Singapore’s ArtScience Museum. On another side, the bright white letters of “FabCafe” stand out against a big red sign. Behind it, digital fabrication machines and all sorts of 3D printed and laser cut objects populate the space, just a few steps away from a long counter equipped with espresso machines, offering cakes and wraps to visitors of the museum.
If the brand is easily spotted, the situation is rather uncommon. FabCafe Singapore lives in the foyer of an art and science museum, housed in a building shaped like a lotus flower, located at the tip of Singapore’s new commercial and tourist strip, which revolves around a swimming pool observatory deck perched atop three towers of a luxury hotel attached to a large casino.
Chris Drury, one of the four founders of FabCafe Singapore, recognizes the singular opportunity of this surreal juxtaposition: “We are very conscious of this high-profile space and we want to do it justice,” he says.
It was a long labor of love before the team could finally open their fabcafe to the public. The story began when Chris Drury, who also founded the coworking cafe Impact Hub Singapore, met designer Brandon Edwards there three years ago. They were soon joined by Adeline Setiawan, an educator who was well tuned-in to the local maker movement, then by Wouter van Hest, a Dutch-Taiwanese engineer and designer who knew the Tokyo founders of the original FabCafe and was looking to extend the experience to Singapore. The decisive moment came when Honor Harger, the visionary director of the budding ArtScience Museum, invited them to transform and inhabit the museum’s underused foyer with their hi-tech cafe. After two more years of bureaucracy, multi-tiered vetting and installation, FabCafe Singapore was officially launched in September 2016.
Today, the cafe serves up to a thousand museum visitors every weekend, from Singaporean families to tourists from around the world. While most of the visitors aren’t necessarily makers, Adeline says, they are curious about the fab aspect and see the FabCafe as an extension of the museum dedicated to the intersection between art and science, technology and design. As children and parents begin playing with the various fabricated objects on display, Adeline explains that everything in the cafe is made with these machines and designed especially for this space. The menu above the counter was laser cut and engraved, every single stool has a tessellated wooden seat, the shelves were made by a local maker, the plants were provided by the urban farming group Edible Garden City… In short, everything in this space was conceived and fabricated by Singapore’s own maker community.
Like all fabcafes in the network, FabCafe Singapore is a fully functioning cafe, which also offers the classic digital fabrication software and tools (including a resin printer and hopefully soon a 3D chocolate printer…), as well as workshops and other maker-oriented activities that are open to the general public. Thanks to their collaboration with the ArtScience Museum director and curators, the fabcafe team often hosts workshops in conjunction with the museum’s temporary exhibitions. Last month, children could learn to make and remote-control their own rocket lamp after visiting the NASA exhibition, while the participants of a more advanced workshop organized with the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) printed textiles featuring the tessellated patterns of M.C. Escher, whose original drawings are exhibited upstairs. Another popular activity is laser cutting personally designed rubber stamps.
“A fab story to tell”
“We try to offer something that people can bring home with them, a fab story that they can tell their friends,” says Adeline. But she adds that since the opening of the cafe, the space has been attracting more “geeks, nerds and makers”. They have already hosted events for the local Hackware group and the Devfest.Asia conference. A radiologist came to print an aorta to show his colleagues, and a neuroscientist from Switzerland was keen to present an art installation in the foyer. FabCafe Singapore is now highly solicited for collaborations, consulting, organizing and hosting a wide range of projects.
Meanwhile, the team plans to expand the cafe with a full kitchen, bring the machines out more to the public, develop their retail space for locally fabricated items, and host more events at night, both in collaboration with others (such as Pechakucha) and their own standalone events brought to us by FabCafe Singapore.
“There are lots of machines around Singapore,” Adeline remarks, “but few people know how to use them. You may have machines and the capacity to produce something, but unless you know how to create the files to do that, it won’t take off. Here people always ask me: ‘What can we do with these machines?’ I show them with the materials, then I ask them if they know what they want to make. They say, ‘Ah no, let me go home and think about it.’ I give them all our contacts, but they rarely come back. My suspicion is that among the Singaporean population, very few would consider themselves as creatives. There’s nothing wrong with not identifying as a creative, but people are more reticent about creating something. However, there has been an interesting shift towards making and selling your own products. Being more entrepreneurial, being part of this maker culture is so different from in San Francisco or in France, but in Singapore it is still slowly growing.”
Turning back to the little maker corner, Adeline is particularly optimistic for the future of FabCafe Singapore: “It’s a family space here. Outside may be oppressive, but inside it’s friendly and cozy. What is educational about this space is not necessarily just the workshops. Every single experience can have the potential to educate and share with the public what they can achieve through technology, beyond traditional craftwork. For me technology is just a new way of doing something. There’s nothing new in the world, everything is just a continuation of something that already existed.”