The taxi dropped me off at a busy intersection in downtown Singapore. The narrow sidewalk, stacked with car and motorcycle tyres, fronted a row of workshops where men huddled over dismantled wheels and greasy axles. My inquiries about the textile studio indicated on the map were answered with blank stares. Just when I thought I had the wrong address I found the narrow staircase tugged in between the tyre shops, with a sign saying Talking Textiles: 4th floor.
Winding my way up the steep stairs, I’m encouraged by phrases painted onto the steps saying things like ‘Stairway to Heaven’; ‘Art lovers, design enthusiasts and shopaholics – Welcome’. As I was about to run out of breath near the top, this one, ‘Feeling unfit? Join the Pilates class.’
Once I reached the top landing a wooden door opened up into a light filled, airy studio where I’m welcomed by designer and artist, Deborah McKellar, and her assistant Adeline. With a refreshing cup of green tea in hand, Deborah leads me on a guided tour of the open plan studio, office and retail area. The glass wall making up one side of the space opens up onto a wide roof terrace where a cat lounge lazily on the sofa overlooking the Singapore cityscape. The vantage point and the view is a far cry from the tyre shops below.
Deborah, born and raised in South Africa, completed a BA in fine arts at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts in Singapore, followed by a Master of design, majoring in Textiles, at the College of Fine Arts at the UNSW in Sydney. She now divides her time between her textile design studio, lecturing in Fashion Textiles at her Alma mater, and practising her fine art.
Her workspace is full. Rolls of textiles, huge colourful canvasses, and piles of hand printed cushions overwhelm the senses and create a feast for the eyes. Yet, the huge printing table, the neat desk and the well-organised supply shelves, create a sense of order and calmness. This combination of overwhelming creativity and calm order, I soon realise, is what makes Deborah a successful artist and businesswoman.
Her work is distinctly Singaporean. Deborah’s habit of photographing typical Asian architecture, the tropical landscape, and other local design features, forms the basis of her work. She uses these images to create various screen prints which are then used in different combinations and colours to create cushion covers, tea towels and other décor items, marketed under the trade name Talking Textiles. Her series Raffles, inspired by the architecture and features of the famous Singaporean hotel, can be viewed and bought at her retail space in the hotel.
The huge canvases covering the studio walls are layered with screen printed images and textile strips, overlaid with freehand machine embroidery, creating works of fine art. “My first solo exhibition was back in 2012 and I aim to do one solo exhibition every year,” Deborah explains. “I enjoy the freedom of making fine art, but it does take many hours to create a big enough body of work for an exhibition.”
As if a busy textile design business, her role as part-time lecturer at LASALLE-SIA, and a successful fine arts career are not enough, Deborah believes in giving back and paying forward. The Talking Textiles studio takes on apprentices and students, to teach, coach and prepare for careers in the textile art world.
Before I left the studio, I asked if I could take a few photos. While I busied myself trying to capture the riotous colour and rich textures of the textiles, Deborah rummaged through a stack of tea towels to find one of each design so I could pick one as a gift. I asked if I could photograph her in front of one of her canvases to which she readily agreed. As she took up position in front of the canvas, she took the clip which held her hair up in a bun out to let it fall over her shoulders. In one quick movement, Deborah changed from a designer business woman into an artist, and the switch between calm order and overwhelming creativity which I noticed on my arrival happened right before my eyes.
As I exited the narrow staircase back onto the busy sidewalk filled with tyres and noise, all I could see was rich colour, tropical designs, and the distinctive Singaporean style. The narrow staircase did, in fact, lead to heaven. Textile heaven, that is.