Niched on the third floor of a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s first FabCafe opened just over a year ago.
Kuala Lumpur, special report (words and photos)
To find Fab Space in Kuala Lumpur, one must first walk through Isetan, “The Japan Store” that towers above the chaos of Bukit Bintang with particularly Nipponese poise. Only after emerging from the third ascending escalator does one discover the Cube, an entire floor dedicated to Japanese culture and creation, decorated with crossed wooden beams that recall the architecture of Kengo Kuma.
Situated in its own “cube” between an art gallery and a 3D photo scanning studio, Fab Space—affiliated with the original FabCafe in Tokyo, which since 2012 manages an international FabCafe network—also shares the floor with a café, a bookshop, a traditional Japanese-style tatami “classroom”… and a JTB travel agency to plan your next trip to Japan.
Like many Malaysians, the Fab Space cofounders, Gwyneth Jong and Andi Ignatius, share an appreciation for Japanese design. But their motive in opening a local fabrication space in central Kuala Lumpur stems more from their shared desire to continue using these digital machines after they graduated from college.
Gwyneth and Andi met as graphic design students at First City University College in Petaling Jaya west of Kuala Lumpur, where they had complete access to a number of digital fabrication tools and machines. In 2014, a few years after graduation, they discovered online the FabCafe in Tokyo, which inspired them to consider opening their own space to provide public access to this high-tech equipment in the center of Kuala Lumpur.
Meanwhile, Isetan invited the same FabCafe Tokyo to install a fabrication space on the third floor of its flagship store in Malaysia. So the original FabCafe reconciled these two initiatives, one independent and the other private, to facilitate the launch of Malaysia’s first FabCafe within the Japanese department store in downtown Kuala Lumpur on October 26, 2016.
“Is it made in Japan?”
One year later, Fab Space employs four full-time staff, collaborates regularly with Japanese and Malaysian artists through the Cube’s curated ecosystem, organizes workshops twice a month, hosts Etsy Malaysia group meetups and even sells kits to assemble at home the many projects realized and exhibited at this five-star fablab.
“Everything we make is sellable,” says Gwyneth, explaining that inside a department store, it’s not surprising that people have a hard letting go of their consumer mentality. In the same spirit of the &Fab service on the top floor of Loft store in Tokyo, Gwyneth says that many people come in wanting to customize the products they just bought… at MUJI, the other big Japanese store in Kuala Lumpur.
While Fab Space is equipped with an arsenal of digital fabrication machines (laser cutter, 3D printer, UV printer, latex printer, embroidery machine, sewing machine, CNC…), the biggest challenge, according to Gwyneth, is getting people to use them.
The two fabmanagers leave the mainstream marketing of the creative Cube space to Isetan, while they go directly into art and design schools to present Fab Space’s equipment and activities. It’s only recently that some Malaysian schools have a laser cutter, they explain, and the few places that are equipped with CNC machines are mostly private and far from the city center. The Fab Space machines are used primarily by design students and former students, as most non-designers don’t know how to prepare the files.
The Fab Space team is trying to solve this problem, however, by offering practical training, custom advice, fun workshops for all ages and even a simple tablet to sketch out ideas. In this way, they hope to encourage anyone, indiscriminately of background, to experience the process of transforming ideas or images into unique crafted objects.
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This Saturday afternoon, Fab Space is giving a workshop to build a music synthesizer encased in a pretty wooden box with customized laser-cut design. In three hours, for a fee of 150 ringgits ($35), the participants (which include a sound engineer) learn to solder the electronic components that produce the sounds before assembling the wooden box and laser-cutting it with their own design. The finished piece is a functional electronic music instrument with an impeccable yet unique appearance.
Like in Singapore, say the founders, Malaysian maker and hacker communities have their own networks outside the mainstream. But like in Japan, here the word “maker” evokes less the image of the DIY geek with his nose buried in a soldering iron than the digital craftsperson who skillfully navigates from creative design to physical object. A more elegant image that anyone can appropriate, thanks to increasingly accessible fabrication tools in a clean and friendly space like Fab Space in central Kuala Lumpur.
More info on Fab Space in Kuala Lumpur