Time spent with Mrs. Koh is a free flow, free association of ideas about stone … with some science, history, art and geography.
She spends some workdays in her factory in an industrial estate in the Sungei Kadut Loop in Singapore, sourcing, cutting, polishing, honing, flaming, sand blasting, bush hammering, chiseling and/or chemically treating natural stone; customizing orders for interior designers, architects and house builders. However, the commercial and technical aspects of the business recede as she begins to talk – almost poetically – of genesis, personality and influence; of marble, travertine, limestone, lava stone, granite, onyx and quartz that journey from Tuscany, Argentina, India, China, Greece and Switzerland.
A slab of quartz flecked with glittering chips catches the eye; a sample from the mountains and quarries of Switzerland. She places two lengths side by side and her murmured explanations reveal the multiple dimensions of its inherent beauty. Honed, vein cut or cross cut ? Across the grain, or alongside it ? A couple of brochures lie open, stunning pictures capturing the magic of stone, elevated by design, placement and lighting.
Singapore still prefers large blocks, big, big, big, she says,while designers in Europe currently favour layering stone in strips. The conversation segues to a feature wall designed to enhance the acoustics of a piano, (designed by Alvin, my piano teacher; interior designer to others), a wall with strips of stone paneling that vibrate to riffs, tinkles and chords. Paneling was invented by the aviation industry, she remarks. This is an interesting relationship between a piano against a wall of stone and an aircraft. Is she is referring to the aileron ?
In working with stone, the true artist will match grain, tone and line; it is not a business of mass production. Must have very tender care from the heart, explains Mrs Koh. I take that to mean appreciation of beauty and she nods and repeats, must have grace in your job and with people.
Not just the stone then, her philosophy embraces a way of life.
Coffee ? she inquires, deftly operating an Avanti Rocket Espresso Milano coffee machine while expounding on the benefits of lava stone ; it is edible, it contains minerals, it is used to make pounders in Italy because it enhances the flavour of food. To prove her point, she takes a beautifully crafted object off a shelf, points out the ‘peppering’ of the stone.
Chips of brilliant colour beneath a table turn out to be samples of glazed lava from Italy, rainbow hues, deep aquamarines and oranges, swirling, melding and thinning out into their individual hues. Guaranteed not to chip or crack, used in decorative touches, as counter tops, in bathrooms and kitchens.
Conversation drifts to the Taj Mahal, the Chinese expertise used for the inlay of precious stone (now lost in China, remembered in India), the killing of the architect on completion, so that no building would ever surpass the beauty of this paean to Mumtaz.
You know, she asks, emperor’s wife was Mongol ? Another interesting thought to explore, to Google.
China stone, she adds, tongue-in-cheek, like China people. India stone, sparkling sparkling like curry powder. Her hands lightly rest on one piece of stone, then another. Best travertine from Tuscany … silver, gold, beige, chestnut.
She holds up a block of pitted rock and sighs at the bounty of nature. Like cross section of bread, she muses. Or like honeycomb.
Can you see butterflies ? she asks in some excitement. They come alive at night. The flecking, the chips, in a slab of Marron Cohiba from Argentina speak to her of gossamer wings and fragile lives, trapped yet moving, fluttering or quiescent within the stone, depending on the movement of light, of seasons, or the time of day.
Most important is you, the inner, how you react to stone, your mood, how you feel and respond.
Business takes over, a discussion begins on Alvin’s project and I drift, yet listen with fascination : grey travertine to match brushed silver, should it be honed or linear ? avant garde ? translucent ? panel, montage or feature wall ? back-lit ? thickness, backing, feel ? I leave them to it, but am drawn by Mrs. Koh’s seeming unrelated comment that one day she will fulfill her dream of organizing a competition where musicians will be seated before expanses of marble and gifted the time and space to sit absolutely still and calm themselves before they proceed to compose music to stone.
Photographs by Anita Thomas