Carving Out Room for A Design Dream
This article is part of a series by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) Singapore to showcase various aspects of the local design community. This story features Alvin Chan, founder and designer of Concrete Everything.
by Faith C. Lai
In a way, one might describe the origin story of Concrete Everything as an ‘accident’. It all started one day when Alvin Chan, the man behind the business, made an extraordinary discovery. “I was just looking for something to play around with,” he says matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but then I chanced upon a few bags of cement, so then I took some.”
We are having our conversation with Alvin in his family home, where he lives with his wife and two children. Situated within an ubiquitous housing estate in the North-east of Singapore, it is both home and studio for Alvin, who started out by watching videos on YouTube to teach him how to create designs from the bags of cement.
Excitingly for us, he still has his “relic” — or the very first lamp he ever made. Constructed from a Magnolia milk carton sliced into two and covered with cement, Alvin hands it over to us with a note of bemusement in his voice at the unrefined piece of work.
“I didn’t fill it (in) correctly”, he admits. “You can see there’s two different layers. One is prettier and one… isn’t so pretty.”
“You can see the bottom of the milk carton as well”, my companion points out. We turn the little contraption over and see that she is right. The milk carton’s distinctive triangular folds stare up at us through its cement casing.
Despite these humble beginnings, Alvin has quickly picked up the skill of creating with concrete. Today, he has made over 200 handmade concrete products. These retail widely, both online and in-stores.
But one would be mistaken to assume that Alvin is easily coasting along the wave of his current success. Apart from holding down a full-time job, he is also a father to two young children both under the age of 3-years-old. This means that he tirelessly plays several roles on a daily basis: father, employee, businessman and designer.
Understandably, this is no easy feat, and sitting at his dining table (which is also used for the monthly workshops that Concrete Everything runs), I muse that his home is an accurate reflection of Alvin’s various responsibilities. On the kitchen counter sit a variety of concrete creations, proudly displayed alongside some stylish posters and brochures about the business. Beside it, a baby’s highchair stands over a children’s play-mat.
Alvin admits that balancing family life, his full-time day job, and his work at Concrete Everything is not easy. “It’s getting challenging”, he says. “Every day, I come home from work in the evening. I first have to spend time with my children; do my duties as a Dad, and put them to bed before I can have time to myself. By then, it is already 11 or 12 (at night). Only then, can I work (on designing).” This tricky balancing act has resulted in him making certain changes to the way the business is run. For example, he has put together a team of friends to help him conduct his workshops — something he used to do single-handedly. He has also had to be very selective about the way he markets his wares. While he once used to set up shop at flea markets, he has since ceased doing so as he found it took up too much time on his weekends that he wanted to spend with his family.
Instead, Alvin has found social media a good alternative for reaching out to potential customers. “For me, going digital is a good way to reach out to people”, he says. A self-confessed private person, he did not even possess an Instagram account until starting Concrete Everything. Today, he is a proud savant of Instagram marketing. “I’ve learnt the science of it. You have to post at certain times, at a certain regularity, and with a particular set of hashtags”, he explains with a grin.
The impressive level of dedication that Alvin has to his craft in spite of how hard he has to work, and the clear passion he has for designing, has brought him through many setbacks. Recently, he had to facilitate a major overhaul of his manufacturing base due to issues with quality control. It is a hiccup in the road that most would be discouraged by, but Alvin remains undeterred, choosing to see setbacks (and dealing with them) as just “part of the fun” of running a design-based business.
His positivity inspires confidence in the future of Concrete Everything, which Alvin has already made plans for. “Concrete Everything is destined for greater things,” he goes on to say.