When they decided to start a business together, Vivian Lam and Sim Chia Yi had very clear intentions. “Initially, we wanted a range of fast-moving products, something we could easily make and sell at a cheap price,” says Sim. They also chose wood as their main material owing to its ready availability and her experience working with wood manufacturers. “Timber is one of Malaysia’s primary exports and one of our core resources. And, owing to the nature of the material itself, we thought it would be easier to work with,” she adds. With all this in mind, they named their business Mukk, which is the Mandarin word for “wood”, with an extra k.
As the saying goes, things do not always go as planned. First, wood turned out to be a pricey material, and far more difficult to work with. “We wanted something cheap and easy to produce, but once we started to develop products, we realised that it was not so easy,” says Lam. Their quest for perfection, or the “designer’s curse”, made them rethink the scope of their endeavour. “We were wrong in the sense that wood is hard to work with, especially to achieve the kind of quality that we are targeting and the price range that we are looking at. Our conscience wouldn’t let us just create rubbish that could be mass produced and then thrown out,” explains Sim.
After launching Mukk in August 2015, the partners experimented with different products. While their initial aim was to be a design company, they were more of a craft business in the early stages. They sold desktop organisers, coasters, cupholders and more. Mukk transitioned back to being more of a design company after Lam designed a unique photo frame. The Getah frame is special as it does not require screws or glue to assemble. Its four sides fit perfectly together and are bound by a rubber band. This design is simple yetingenious, and is so far Mukk’s most sought-after item.
While the design met their standards of perfection, production was another hurdle. Sim and Lam approached a manufacturer, who warned them that production alone would cost RM20 per frame and that they would not be able to compete with the lower prices from places like Ikea. Determined, they ordered a small batch, but got items that failed to meet quality standards. Seeing their reject pile, a carpenter friend offered to handcraft the frames.
Since then, all of Mukk’s items have been handmade in rented workshops with friends and collaborators. For two years, Mukk had its own workshop, but the partners had to give it up when Covid-19 struck, and resorted to renting. Perhaps that is the reason Mukk has been able to survive — its founders are unafraid to evolve their designs and business.
“We started off wanting to be a home décor brand. And our customers’ needs led us towards being a gift company,” says Sim. Mukk’s items can be customised with names or even phrases to make them more personal and special.
The brand also evolved towards being more sustainable. In line with growing concerns around the environment, Mukk has reduced the use of fresh wood over the past three years, opting for off cuts of recycled timber. Mukk’s current range includes vases specially made for Christmas, and a chopping board. Both are made using off cuts, which means more time is spent crafting them. “More processes are needed when working with off cuts, which come in various sizes, and the cost is also higher. To make the product we want in a uniform way, we have to look at size, colour and so on, then piece the off cuts together and finally bind them correctly,” explains Sim.
Mukk’s founders are staunch believers that form follows function. “We are minimalist, but there’s a small surprise in all the designs. It is very subtle, but when you use it, you will be surprised,” says Lam. Mukk’s products are stylish and aesthetically pleasing, but they are also made with much thought put into how they function.
For instance, the Getah frame is easy to assemble but it remains elegant, and the chopping board can be easily lifted without a cutout handle. The partners are carrying out extensive R&D for a new range called Circle — quality wooden plates they will produce only when perfection is achieved. Aiming to continue to meet their customers’ needs, they are considering a shift in their business model, which is still in the planning stage.
What will stay the same is that Mukk will continue to strive to be more sustainable in its thoughtful designs, offer high-quality products and ensure that form follows function.
This article first appeared in issue No. 99, Spring 2021 of Haven.