For the last decade, Colin Chen has been one of the driving forces for our local design scene. Chen, now 39, started The General Co in 2012 with the hope of advocating for local craft, helping talented craft tradespeople find work, and offering introductory workshops on craft and design to the public. I am willing to wager a fair number of young crafters today started their careers at a General Co workshop.
Prior to starting The General Co, Chen already had his own craft business, creating fabric sleeves for essential tech. Not satisfied with two businesses, he then entered the F&B sector with The Refinery in 2014. In 2020, fuelled by the idea of creating a new kind of sustainable home décor business, he started GRAMS.
As The General Co hits its 10th anniversary, I caught up with this entrepreneur, advocate and artisan to reflect on his journey.
WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO HANDMADE GOODS?
To be very honest, I’m most often intrigued by the narrative behind the goods, the way they were made, the origin of the materials, the intent of the design, the techniques of construction, and the story of the person crafting them. All that gives a well-made good its purpose and its soul.
YOUR MOTHER WAS A CRAFTSPERSON HERSELF. HOW MUCH OF WHO SHE IS DO YOU THINK INFLUENCED YOUR OWN CAREER?
My mother definitely played an instrumental role in my life and personal journey. In her younger days, she had picked up traditional dressmaking skills from an old tailor and would eventually go on to become a home-based seamstress, taking on private projects and commissions for individuals and small companies. She made garments and uniforms, alongside other textile goods, for a living, earning minimal wages in the form of very modest sums despite her skills, just so as to provide a better living for my sister and I. Growing up, I would follow her around as she bought and selected fabrics and materials, and met suppliers and clients. I witnessed first-hand how traditional handicrafts were so undervalued in a world driven by the pursuit of higher efficiency via industrialisation and automation.