The Trailblazer

by Marc Almagro
Photography by Chino Sardea
24 Mar 2017

iSH introduced many Singaporeans to the concept of life-enhancing, high-minded design, turning it into something desirable and important. Its creator Kelley Cheng, however, has for the most part flown under the radar, content to let her good work tell her real story

The Press Room ended 2016 with a string of commissions, including the design for an exhibition showcasing works by winners of the 2016 President’s Design Award, and the branding exhibition of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts.

A monograph on the works of artist Yeo Shih Yun, and a book each on the projects of architects and President’s Design Award winners Rene Tan, and Peter Tay are also in the bag. The Press Room founder and creative director Kelley Cheng says the projects “are enough to keep a small design studio occupied for now” – not in a dismissive way, but in grateful and gratified estimation.

“Shih Yun gave us 100 per cent control of the project in exchange for a very low fee,” Kelley adds. “Once in a while, it’s nice to take on a project (that pays) a little money but (gives a lot of) free hand; it reminds you how hard it is to be a designer.” Although hardship is not the central theme in The Press Room’s narrative, survival certainly is. All design studios struggle in some way, but Kelley wisely picks hers. “I’ve always believed in working hard to get things done; I’ve not expected anyone to hand me things on a silver platter.” 

The Press Room, with expertise in designing graphics, books, exhibitions, stage and film sets—in fact, it can take on any design-related project, has delivered a range of projects to various high-profile clients that include the National Gallery Singapore, in just a few years since it was established, and with just four permanent people on the team.

Kelley is, of course, an industry veteran, best known for the design magazine iSH and the many titles she has put together as former publications head at bookseller and publisher Page One. A self-confessed ‘pop culture junkie’, she launched her first magazine while studying architecture at the National University of Singapore, and although she practiced (briefly) under Architect 61, her gaze never strayed far from publishing.

She took the long route to her passion, however, partly to please her parents who wanted her to pursue a ‘proper career’ – it basically meant law or banking, Kelley explains; “medicine was out of the question because I couldn’t stand the sight of blood” – and partly because, as a self-starter, she still had to ramp up her skills.


Lessons From The Good and The Bad

Although she hoarded copies of all magazines she liked, some of them from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and has nurtured a childhood dream of publishing her own title, Kelley had no idea what went into them. “I did reasonably well in school (Raffles Junior College), and I’ve always been interested in the arts. And I liked drawing,” she says by way of explaining how she traced her way to architecture school.

Architecture was an easy fit. “It was the only university degree course at that time that was somewhat related to creativity.” Her parents objected, but also accepted that they couldn’t dissuade their daughter. “So I went on to study architecture without knowing what it really was, except that it would allow me to draw some more.”

Back then, architecture was an intensive six-year double-degree program, plus one year of solid internship, but Kelley enjoyed it immensely. “I learned so many things in architecture school – the history of art and architecture, structure, environmental control. During my time besides architecture subjects, we had seven or eight others that were all examinable. There was no such thing as an open book exam so you had to memorize everything.”

At NUS, she spent her free time teaching herself InDesign in the computer lab. She also found time to work for free at Big O, the lone music magazine at that time. “I literally begged for the opportunity. I went to them and told them that ‘I could write, take pictures, and illustrate – is there something that I can do for you? They said yes, but added that they didn’t pay.”

Looking back, Kelley wishes she could see more young creatives with hunger and drive. “I did so many things for free; I paid my dues. After my stint at the Big O, I became more confident as I got some works published. I could at least prove to people that my work was somewhat professional.”

She knocked on doors of other magazines, including Interior Quarterly and I-D magazine, with the same offer, and got commissioned to do stories. “I started getting paid, but more than the amount, getting paid was a kind of validation that I could pursue this profession. I was very motivated to realize my dream before I even graduated.”

After working at Architect 61, she returned to I-D magazine, which was then under Metropolitan Publishing, and quickly found her ideal place there. “I-D had architecture and, more importantly, it offered me insights into how a publication works. Publications even then were kept lean and mean, an editor, a writer, and a few salesmen. The editor, Teo Lay Hoon, was a one-woman show, and she took me in as her sidekick. I’m very grateful to her for showing me the ropes.”

But it didn’t last long. Their publisher simply disappeared one day. “People came to our office unannounced, and started taking away things.” She and her colleagues were shocked; they went downstairs to the kopitiam to huddle and make sense of what was going on. “One of our colleagues, perhaps the unlikeliest person to offer any good insight, said, ‘Hey, guys, we are people with skills, we will not starve.’  That moment has stayed with me. If you have the skills, and you’re willing to work, you will never starve.”

She turned the unfortunate episode into a valuable lesson. “You know what they say about learning from good and bad people. From that experience, I promised that I would not be an irresponsible boss. That as the boss I’m the head of the family who should hold things together. This was an important lesson that made me very empathetic towards my staff.”

Undeterred, Kelly took the dissolution of Metropolitan Publishing as a sign to start iSH.


Nothing to Lose

“’What have I got to lose’, I asked myself. I was not yet thirty; if it didn’t work out, I could always get a job and start over.” Kelley admits that the reckless courage came as much from youth as the drive to get somewhere. “The way I saw was my boss’ business failed because he was lazy, and was rarely in the office. Money does not drop from the sky. I knew I had to be very hands-on, and working hard.”

She hatched a simple plan for starting iSH. She would pair up with a small printer who would shoulder the printing of the magazine while she would put herself in charge of soliciting for advertising, putting together the issues, and getting them in the hands of readers.

“I was not a good negotiator and not very good at business. I had to learn the hard way.” Still she was thrilled that the printer she was eyeing decided to come on board. She proposed to call the new magazine ‘Blender’ for the “very simple reason that it would cover all aspects of design. I wanted it to have architecture, fashion, interior design, graphic design – any sort of design under the sun.”

But her partner, who thought she wanted to call it ‘Blander’, was not sold to the idea. “He threw me back to the drawing board; I continued to look for other names. I thought of calling it ‘Ism’, after the art movements like Minimalism, Dadaism – every episode of art is an ‘ism’ – but I thought it wasn’t catchy.

Then I came up with ‘ish’ – I thought it was perfect because it suggested Fetish, Dish… and that I could name every section with words that end with ‘ish’. It is not a word, but it is a fragment of a word, as much as design is always a part of something else. That also gave the magazine its tagline, ‘Fragments From An Urbanspace’. From there everything came together.”

iSH was not an instant hit, but Kelley was happy to see the hard copy edition of her dream. “The first three issues were a struggle because we didn’t have any ads; the few that we had were on contra basis. Some people offered pieces of furniture, some offered dining vouchers. I took whatever I could, but I was also prepared to give away free ad spaces just to get people try it out. I felt like a supermarket promoter holding a plate of food samples hoping that someone would take it, like it enough, and buy it.

“I lived frugally – ate a lot of instant noodles – did everything myself. I kept the overhead very, very low in order to survive. I realized that I should just be prepared to clean the toilet and mop the floor myself. On the second year, I hired a designer to help me out for the two years before I sold the business.

“Again that’s another life’s lesson. When I started another business, I worked very hard because I knew that was how I could survive. I would return to the office on weekends to clean up the place; I worked harder than any of my staff. Learning from bad bosses, I was never the type who would order my staff around. I would do things myself. I prefer that kind of leadership.”

In a couple of years, iSH began enjoying its well-earned success, but that did not equate to financial viability. More than anything, it was a critical success. “I still had difficulty getting advertisers because iSH was an independent title, and a lot of companies did not know how to position their brands in such an environment. But I got support from the design industry – people bought the magazine.”

Kelley attributes the success of her first venture to a number of things. “We launched at the advent of the Internet …(when) doing research via printed medium was very much a part of designers’ lives. Those were the days when you would went to Basheer to buy 20 magazines to feed your soul. We were just at a turning point when people were starting to do research online. Time was on my side.

“And we didn’t have a lot of magazine covering every aspects of design. We had architecture magazines because that’s one of the older disciplines; we had interior design, and fashion, but (coverage of) the other fields were missing – graphic design, product design.”

In the late 80s early 90s, Kelley observes, magazines were predictable and very conventional in terms of how they looked. There were no local design-driven titles. Readers had to buy The Face, Dazed & Confused, and Raygun – the strong international titles at that time. “I asked myself why we didn’t have those. But I wanted a magazine to be driven by good content, first and foremost. And I think organically that’s how it connected with the readers.”

Instead of a market study, Kelley did a visual research. “I was interested to know how to make a good, enjoyable magazine. I was able to visualize the kind of magazine iSH was going to be. I looked at some Japanese magazines, and other successful titles to figure out what made them interesting. It was a research on the creative aspect.”

iSH success did open doors for titles of the same genre. “That much I would take credit for,” Kelley says in uncharacteristic immodesty. “A few of them started publishing after iSH has made some noise in the market. Maybe they thought, ‘Hey, it can work!’ But we were the only one that survived, while the others folded within a couple of years.

“People still ask me what was our secret: I can tell you it’s no secret. It’s frugality. The other new magazines had a big team, an editor, two writers, a photographer, and all that. I calculated and I was like, ‘Oh, cannot!’”


Turning the Page

An unexpected call from the Page One CEO changed the trajectory of iSH as well as Kelley’s career path permanently. “I was surprised to get the call. My immediate reaction was ‘Did we owe them money?’. We didn’t. That meant the call could only mean a good thing,” she remembers. 

The bookstore chain had well-established retail and distribution businesses, as well as some ad hoc publishing projects. “If someone came to them (with a book proposal), they would sub out the job to a design firm. But the CEO Mark Tan had a bigger ambition; he wanted to start Page One publishing. He had seen iSH, and said he liked it, and wanted me to head the new publishing business. He wanted to publish between 100 and 150 titles a year; my job, if I wanted it, was to think of contents and titles, organize the team, and run the business.

“I was more excited than overwhelmed. I was young and brimming with ideas. For a young person who has never had any opportunity other than doing her own magazine, it was a big thrill. I was assured that I could hire people—I didn’t have the financial capacity to do that at iSH. It was an adrenaline rush. It was a huge and daunting project, but I have a history of hard work—hard work does not scare me. I was ready to take it on.”

The only condition Kelley had for signing on was for Page One to buy iSH. “It was my baby, and I couldn’t leave it just like that. If he said no, I knew I would walk away from the offer. Abandoning iSH was not an option for me. Maybe Mark (Tan) saw that fire in me, and in a couple of days he assured me that he would buy iSH and make me an offer.”

The next eight years were heady days for Kelley. She had a big team and a big budget. It was all working out. She was also learning new things. “One of the most important lessons I learned from Page One, and for which I am grateful to Mark, was how to run a business. I was an idiot in running a business and managing money. But Mark sat me down and told me, ‘If you don’t have the money, you wouldn’t be able to pursue your passion’.”

The first few months saw Kelley learning and working spreadsheets for budget plans, five-year plans, manpower plans. “That was my MBA. Mark was an Excel Spreadsheet Man. Learning new things has always been something that excites me. I learned how to run a business.”



Night, Day and Everything In Between

After eight years of running the publishing business at Page One, Kelley was growing weary. “I was completely exhausted and I needed a break. Running a big team was exciting but it was exhausting. I missed working with a small team and getting closely involved with every project. When you’re working with twenty or thirty people, you have practically one day to work with one person in a month.

“Most of my weekends were spent travelling; we have a strong base in Hong Kong, and I had to go to the shops and look at marketing plans, and so on. I had to attend international book fairs, and we were making books constantly. Even at the fairs, I was always thinking the books we would make. If I saw an interesting book, I would think about how I could make it better.” 

Kelley had no illusions, however. Starting a new design company was going to be tough. “I got used to the Page One environment where there was a machine that I cranked. I knew that starting a new studio would mean that I would be both the machine and the person who cranks it.” (Meanwhile, iSH would eventually fold after a decade of success, and to this day remains a benchmark for design magazines all over Asia.)

The only way for her was to start small, perhaps with a couple of projects each year. On what would be her last year at Page One, she let Mark in on her future plans to run an art gallery, and augment the income from the gallery with a bar in the same premises.  She also assured him that the arrangement wouldn’t take her away from her duties at Page One. And that she wouldn’t steal client from her employer. She found a new partner in Randy Chan whose property they converted into a bar on the ground floor and an art gallery on the second floor.

“Mark was very supportive. He knew that the new business would not conflict with what I was doing at Page One. When we launched the new business, he came around and even donated a prize for our lucky draw.” Called Night & Day, the new venture was what Kelley had expected. It did not turn in a profit but the pace was one she craved. She left her job at Page One and devoted her time to running Night & Day.


Another Second Wind

Not long after, the Singapore Institute of Architects, through its publications chairperson Rita Soh, offered Kelley a design job. By then the design community has heard that Kelley has left Page One and was once again available for commissions. “They asked me if wanted to do the association magazine. It felt like I’ve come full circle: One magazine, one-woman show.”

But it didn’t stop there. Her old associates and clients returned with small design jobs here and there. “They were very supportive. I realized that goodwill is never built overnight. The people that I’ve met in the past were starting to come back with jobs. It was mostly just a logo here or a name card there, but the gesture was really heartwarming.”

That prompted Kelley to set up a new business. “I started The Press Room fresh. I did not use my Page One portfolio. My policy was to build the business accepting any project that came my way. It was hard work. In the first year, whatever I made was just enough to pay the bills. The good thing was I was still drawing a small salary running the gallery and the bar. Randy was a very good partner.” 

On its second year, The Press Room landed a big job from the National Gallery.  “Sometime in 2010, we were asked to be the publishing consultant. It was a long-term consultancy because they wanted to build up titles prior to the opening of the gallery. The project yielded ten or twelve books ranging from guides to the collections to guides to the gallery.

“That year, I was also extremely fortunate to have been invited by studioMilou, which had won the tender to design the National Gallery. Jean Francois Millou asked me to do the signages for the Gallery. With this project, I had to hire people and our team had to grow to four people. I gave up running the bar; The Press Room was getting busier.”

The Press Room has gone beyond its declared expertise in publishing, graphic and exhibition (space) design. “Technically a good designer should be able to design anything—because the core of a good design is a good idea. I think good designers intrinsically have it in them to come up with a good concept.

“Good design consists of a good idea and good execution. The second part involves collaboration with other experts, but always, the good original idea has to be there.”

There are important lessons at every turn, says Kelley. She has seen the rough side of running a design business, and she has survived longer than most. She is still around. “Frugality is key. Hard work is key,” she declares. But so is a blistering talent and a dedication to the craft—which she has in spades.

To listen to the conversation between Portfolio editor, Marc Almagro, and designer Kelley Cheng, click here