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#craftmatters .02: an interview with Li Ling, from When I Was Four

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This short series was inspired by one of our own MATTER family members Jo, who as a last project before leaving to start her own craft jewelry brand, wanted to find out what challenges lay before her and whether it was really possible to combine craft and commerce in a place like Singapore. She spoke to 5 inspiring local makers in this process, and by sharing it we hope that it inspires other potential makers to start their own journey, and that craft matters.

Share with me about your courageous leap - from being a graphic designer to the brainchild of a design studio. What were the deciding factors? 

I realised that we are always on our gadgets, and I just wanted to be less dependent on them - to have a new form of lifestyle. A kind that appreciates the slowing down of life and simple happiness in this advancing society, with a sense of nostalgia. And, When I Was Four was born!

What practical advice would you give someone who is contemplating to leave his/her comfortable job to seek something more?
Having a pool of savings is a must. I suggest to work a few years first - to gather experience and to understand how the society functions would be really useful. After which, be prepared that your lifestyle and spending habits would change. It’s going to be tough in the beginning, but you really just need perseverance and hard work. It’ll pay off!

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What do you think of the local craft scene and its direction?
It looks promising and happening - definitely a good thing. It makes Singapore and her craft scene look more vibrant. Looking at markets and bazaars in Japan and Taiwan makes me confident that Singapore can do the same. This would also mean that tourists are able to bring home more interesting souveniers! In hope that young individuals press on with their courage, the local craft scene definitely is exciting.  

Tips for the growing community of creatives?
Similarly, you must have a savings pool. It will probably flow out faster than it replenishes itself, so having another source of income will do more good than harm! Secondly, be mentally prepared that things aren’t going to be easy from here - hardworking attitude would bring you far.

When did the idea of creating such a nostalgic brand that many locals hold closely to flourish?
When I was still a full-time designer back in 2009, I co-founded When I Was Four with two of my fellow designer friends. We just resonate closely with the local culture and wanted to move away from our computers, so we starting making things - hand-painted bags and shoes, hand-stitched notebooks, etc. But actually, the idea was sitting at the back of my mind in 2006 without me realising. For my Final Year Project (FYP), I created the fictional brand 未, which means “future” but also resembles “taste” in Mandarin. The character is also made up for two separate words - 土 (old fashion) and 不 (not). Many have the misconception that traditional designs are 土, or old fashion, which I disagree. My FYP is still with me back at home!

What motivates you? And what gets you down?
When I meet customers in real life, and seeing how they appreciate my designs. The satisfaction is heartwarming. Also, the growing encouragement from my family is something I’m thankful for, and encourages me to perservere. On the other hand, sometimes people do question my work and asked me to justify for its “high” price. They tend to overlook how much work goes behind each product. 

What’s coming up on the When I Was Four calendar?
Right now, we’re preparing for Christmas with new product ranges - maybe pouches and magnets, based on what customers request for. Oh, and also the playing cards “Happy Family”. 

Favourite quote you live by?
“Leap with faith rather than huddle in fear.” - Unknown

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