By Arthur Sim : December 1999

Cafe Society, The Arts House at Old Parliament, Singapore

 Opened March 26th 2004






H  O  T     P  O  O  L  E

Designer Ed Poole creates a scene with interiors that look set for high drama

Though restricted to just one cup of coffee these days, hyper-ebullent Ed Poole of Poole Associates is still hard to keep down. With a reputation for being both good and difficult, Poole has almost single-handedly changed the way we eat, drink and party.

How many of us have not heard of the House of Mao, or wanted to be seen at China Jump and Sugar? When a recent Time magazine article proclaimed that Singapore was cool, out of five hotspots mentioned, three were designed by Ed Poole. We can quibble about whether it's fame or infamy, but Ed Poole is definitely hot.

A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology, the American designer worked for five years as an architect before wanderlust took him to Sydney. Three years later, Poole landed himself a job in Singapore. Photos of a Sydney hair salon he had designed, caught the eye of a local property tycoon, and before Poole could even acclimatize, he was designing the now-defunct Blue Moon. Soon, on his own, his career took off with his funky design for the first Scoops Cafe in 1993.

Formed over eight years ago, Poole Associates has gone on to design more than 160 retail, office and residential projects. Charming some clients and having the opposite effect on others, Poole's clients all agree that his attention to detail is beyond comparison. "Clients complain that our drawings are too detailed," he says a little shocked.

But having worked with some of the more inventive local contractors, Poole surmises they were "really talking about money." A drawing with vague details makes it easy for contractors to "fudge quotes" and sneak in cheaper, alternative detailing. Poole, on the other hand, likes to work out every construction detail and "bring the costs upfront". Consequently, his quotations for jobs end up higher than those of his competitors. Many consider Poole expensive but he begs to differ, "I am actually very conservative with my cost estimates, and make sure I am never over budget."

To clients who want things done cheaply and quickly, Poole usually tells them he is not the designer for them. Thus the firm turns away two out of every three potential clients. To understand the myth behind the man, one really needs to take a closer look.

One of Poole's early projects was the design of Blue Ginger restaurant. Until then, Peranakan-dining was a slightly grimy, kopitiam-table-with marble-top affair. Poole revolutionized this by turning an old shophouse into a chic little restaurant with padded booths and banquettes in metallic leather and printed suede. By abstracting the elements that make an old shophouse a fascinating experience, he created, possibly, the first modern Peranakan restaurant in Singapore.

This ability to extract and then abstract elements has become something of a trademark. For TV Innovations, Poole created an identity for this chain of stores with storage racks, designed to look like radioactive pylons.

Provignage, Poole's personal favorite, is a moody wine bar in Robertson Quay inspired by subterranean wine cellars. Lighting comes from bare bulbs on a wire, simply run along the ceiling. One would have to have visited wine cellars in France to know it's a common feature, but the reference does add a certain depth to the design.

Often, the authenticity of Poole's design elements are not appreciated, as in the restrooms at the House of Mao. The restaurant's clientele often avoid using them because they aren't sure if the restrooms - which were designed to look like ones he had visited in China - are actually finished. Which is why Poole is very careful as to how far his designs go. "People have to be able to relate to it," he says. Looking at some of his residential projects, one can detect a softer, more accessible Poole. "Where do you lounge at the end of the day?" he asks of the minimalist homes that are all the rage at the moment. Preferring to look at the practicalities of daily life, Poole is more likely to spend days working out the details of a shoe cupboard or restoring existing '30's iron window frames. The home, Poole feels, is "a private realm where personal taste and character can be fully expressed."

Passionate about his designs, Poole also has been known to tell clients off on occasion. When asked to create yet another bar, restaurant of cafe, he will earnestly ask, "Do we really need another cafe?" But when he has taken on a project, he gets very involved. With the Lava Lounge, a disco pub with a 60's retro theme, it was Poole who convinced the owners that retro was right for both the 17-year-olds and 37-year-olds they'd targeted. His confidence comes from his keen awareness of what's hip in design. "It's a lot like fashion. Design sometimes follows fashion," he says.

So what does Poole predict will be in style in the future? "Retro is over," he proclaims. With the next century in mind, he is concentrating on things that really matter, like ecology. He will only use farmed teak, for instance. In an earlier attempt to find an eco-friendly wood, he tried coconut wood for some tables he designed. They later warped so badly they couldn't be sold. "My failed attempt at merchandising," he notes with a wry smile at having to absorb the costs of his experiment.

The next millennium will see our retail environment changing rapidly, he predicts. "Just think, with cyber shopping, big retailers of CDs only have about five years left," says Poole, referring to new MP3 technology that lets you download digital-quality music from the internet. "Technology has gone rampant, but how do you express that in terms of design? he muses.

More abstractly, the designer has begun to look at how to interpret computer technology in design. But these are ideas that are so radical, the designer is only willing to say that they involve complex geometries, computer-generated colors and artificial intelligence - for fear that his designs may be ripped off, as has happened in the past. But even Poole is ready to admit that his design inspirations are so wide and varied that his style keeps changing anyway.

In his latest project - a wine bar in Kuala Lumpur called Merc-Grands Cru - his tastes went wildly French Eclectic. Compared to the industrial rhetoric of his earlier work, you might think the designer was Jeckyl and Hyde. To this suggestion, he lets out an uncanny laugh then says, "If I can't be schizophrenic sometimes, I'll go crazy."

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