State Of The Art

From posters to scenic backdrops, CK Chia has brought colour and life to his work in the theatre. He chats with us about his dual roles as Grandmother Tongue’s art director and set designer.

CK Chia’s art has travelled from the stage to the streets, and all over Singapore. Chances are you’ve spotted some of his work in the heart of town, or as you’ve hailed a cab.

That’s because, for close to a decade, CK has served as the art director for several of Singapore’s top theatre companies – including W!LD RICE, Dream Academy and Singapore Repertory Theatre.

Working closely with the marketing teams of each company, he has designed beautiful, eye-catching posters, banners and artwork for some of the past decade’s most iconic theatre productions.

A Start in The Arts

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that CK has wound up working in the theatre industry.

His own affinity for the theatre began from a very young age.

“Even as a child, I was exposed to theatre – I watched Broadway shows like Godspell and Les Miserables at the old Kallang Theatre,” he recalls.

After leaving the Singapore Navy at the age of 25, CK was looking to put his graphic design training from Temasek Polytechnic to good use.

Shireen Abdullah, a theatre producer, put him in touch with Dream Academy’s Selena Tan. The rest is history.

He has since carved out a reputation for himself as one of the theatre industry’s finest graphic designers.

A Fine Art: CK’s original designs for W!LD RICE!

Image Conscious

The job of art director is more difficult than you might think.

“The biggest challenge is starting out with a blank canvas,” explains CK.

Often, he has to create something quite literally out of nothing, as publicity images for a show must be ready long before opening day.

“With the production itself still in its infancy, I have to think of ways to visualise the play and bring it to life in my imagination.”

With years of experience, he has figured out how to balance his artistic vision with feedback from his fellow artists.

“I found myself over-thinking the comments and suggestions I was receiving on the graphic design,” he remembers of his work on the inaugural production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 2009. “As a result, I had an extremely hard time churning out the main visual.”

Since then, he tries his best to make friends with his co-workers. “They should not be afraid to give you notes and feedback,” he explains. “The compliments will spur you on, and the critiques will help better your work.”

Setting the Scene

All Set!
CK’s work served as a backdrop for a happily-ever-after in Aladdin!

CK’s graphic design work has also opened up new opportunities and challenges for him in the theatre.

In 2011, he made his debut as a set designer with W!LD RICE’s Aladdin.

He credits director Glen Goei and the rest of the creative team with helping him to make the transition from graphic to set design.

“Glen guided me extensively throughout the process,” says CK. “He showed me how the work of a set designer should support the way a director visualises every scene in a show.”

He had to do “a lot more homework” as he moved out of his comfort zone of graphic design. “I spent every weekend researching scenic design at the National Library, reading up on design icons like Josef Svoboda, photocopying notes and bombarding my technical managers with questions.”

CK will be pulling double duty on Thomas Lim’s Grandmother Tongue, which opens at the SOTA Studio Theatre in October.

Home Is Where The Heart Is
CK’s spare, gorgeous set design for Grandmother Tongue (2016)

For the original production of Grandmother Tongue, which premiered at last year’s Singapore Theatre Festival, CK designed a bare – but beautiful – set, one that hinted at rather than recreated the interior of a HDB flat.

Grandmother Tongue is such an intimate experience as a play,” says CK. “The characters appear to be right within reach of the audiences, and you can identify so immediately with the words they say and the emotions they express.”

“As a designer, we sometimes worry that an extremely pared-down design could make people ask: ‘Why do we need set design to design a ‘nothing’?’” But that is precisely my role – to understand the text and allow the space I create to augment, not distract from, the story.”

This is what CK Brings to the Table…
[CK with Petrina Dawn Tan, Grandmother Tongue’s lighting designer]

One of the more unique elements of Grandmother Tongue’s set is the table over which characters sit, have meals and negotiate their differences.

“The table is a significant symbol for Asian families – it represents gathering, or a reunion,” explains CK of his decision to create a piece that combines elements of tradition and modernity.

“This table, in particular, represents the different generations and their struggle to communicate in the play – but it’s also where grandmother and grandson come together.”

In Black and White

In the theatre, CK works in every shade of the rainbow. After all, the images he designs must pop with bright, vibrant colour to catch the eye.

That’s why he prefers a comparatively monochromatic colour scheme when off the clock.

On Instagram, CK has gained a substantial following with his distinctive shots, each one a study in light, shadow and the occasional subtle pop of colour.

“Personally, I am driven more by textures and compositions than colours,” CK says. “My daily work requires me to step out of my personal style to serve my clients’ needs. Instagram is a haven for me to express myself through a desaturated lens.”

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