Design Conversations: Christal Sih, author of 'Grandma's Recipes'

Posted on September 12 2017

Photo: Christal Sih

What gave you the idea of combining a traditional narrative surrounding Asian recipes with modern graphic design?
I was inspired by an installation that I had seen at a Sight Unseen Offsite maker's fair in New York. Field Experiments, a collective of Western designers, had worked with Indonesian craftspeople to create unique products. It was cool to see trendy graphic design aesthetics applied to traditional craft elements that were familiar to me (such as rattan weaving and batik dying).

I liked that intersection of cultural specificity and the universality that comes with graphic design but I wanted to do that with my own culture (as compared to Western designers in Southeast Asia) and offer my own understanding of how old and new elements can intersect.

I wanted to work with a traditional craft that I had a personal connection with and was accessible to me—I thought of my grandmother who I am close with, who’s also a master of food.

Grandma’s Recipes is especially relevant to Singaporeans who live abroad. Were there any specific groups of people you wanted the book to cater to?
I wasn’t really thinking of a target audience when I created Grandma’s Recipes. It was more of an honest expression of my own experience—it really is for anyone who can relate to it. I’m happy when people of the Asian diaspora in general find resonance in it (along with non-Asian people too).

Photo: Christal Sih

Aesthetics wise, I wanted to create something familiar to Singaporeans and Asian people but with a universal appeal. In terms of human experiences, I think most of us are interested in our identity and being able to trace that to something bigger than ourselves. I think we all want to hold on to something that feels authentic to us as the world changes.

What’s the beauty of cooking to you?

Read: Grandma's Recipes by Christal Sih

How it is able to communicate a very strong sense of culture and place with specific ingredients and techniques. It also communicates sentiments, especially with the amount of work that goes into making certain dishes. It is a gift from yourself to the people that you are feeding and a direct manifestation of your labour.

How did you begin designing and illustrating, and what drew you to it?
I’ve enjoyed drawing and art as far back as I can remember, but there was always something methodical about my approach. I took reference from things I had seen before and remixed existing imagery to create a new vision. For instance, creating my own mascots and all the variations of it
(they’re usually food related).

I was drawn to pop art for that reason and this eventually led to my practice in design. It was also a way for me to combine my interest in art with internalised desires to do something "practical". Currently I’m enjoying the problem-solving aspect of design and 
the things I make having their place in the world.

Have you had any mind-blowing revelations from the design scene in Singapore or New York so far?
I don’t think it’s anything mind-blowing but for me the design projects that are the most exciting and compelling come from a personal place of first-hand experience and inspiration. Graphic design to a large extent is remixing existing material yet there really is quite a fine line between being ingenious and derivative. Good pieces of advice I’ve heard which I think hold true out in the world include—design should have thought behind it, not just because it looked good when someone else did it and go with what you know.

Can you name us five books you’d recommend at all times?

(in no order of preference)

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
I couldn’t put this book down! I love the way it gives prominence to the insidious expectations of women in real life, and the metaphorical elements like red robes and a habit which are too chaste and erotic at the same time.

Born A Crime – Trevor Noah
I admire Trevor Noah a lot for the way he’s able to blend humour and social commentary — especially about race and post-colonialism. His life growing up in South Africa is fascinating to me, especially as someone living between the binaries of black and white.

Moranifesto – Caitlin Moran
I really enjoy Caitlin Moran’s writing style as a journalist — it’s kind of crazy, yet frank, vibrant and hilarious. I like the perceptive way she views the world—discussing everything from politics to meeting Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s something about smart and funny people which I admire.

How to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran
I like this book for the same reasons as Moranifesto—here she talks more about her own life experience of navigating womanhood.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami
I liked how vivid this fantasy world was constructed through Haruki Murakami’s writing, and the way that two different stories run side by side and eventually collide with each other is a fascinating device. 

Lastly, what’s in the pipeline for you as we move along?
I don’t know yet! I’m still looking for the next passion project to do outside of work and developing my style and point of view as a designer. As an exercise, I am currently making posters of signs in New York that resonate with me. Ideally I’d like to create something else that's fun and useful for people.

More about Christal Sih at
Get 'Grandma's Recipes' here.


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