VOON WONG

Architecture Design

Viewport Studio

https://www.viewportstudio.co.uk/

One year shy of 60, London-based architect Voon Wong of Viewport Studio, shares intimate details of his long journey from his student days studying at the Architectural Association, to working for Zaha Hadid, working in an era without computers or internet, evolution of his studio from Voon Wong Architects to VW+BS to the current Viewport Studio, keeping calm and carrying on through a few financial crises, his design of the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, what the Singapore design identity means, and unexpectedly scoring a client through his Instagram travel “snaps”.
  • Company Name

    Viewport Studio

  • Company Founded in

    2014

  • Name of Founder(s)

    Voon Wong, & 4 Others

  • Birthdate of Founder (Voon)

    26.01.1963

  • Education

    Diploma (Hons), Architectural Association

  • 1st Job

    Zaha Hadid Architects

  • Previous Company

    Sole Trader, Voon Wong Architects

  • Previous Company

    Director, VW+BS

  • Location (current office)

    60 Southwark Bridge Road, London

  • Period of occupancy (current office)

    6 years

  • Estimate space (current office)

    70sqm

  • Number of Staff (current office)

    9

  • Location (3rd office)

    84 Great Suffolk Street, London

  • Period of occupancy (3rd office)

    1 year

  • Estimate space (3rd office)

    100sqm

  • Number of Staff (3rd office)

    5

  • Location (2nd office)

    49 Hackney Road, London

  • Period of occupancy (2nd office)

    3 years

  • Estimate space (2nd office)

    100sqm

  • Number of Staff (2nd office)

    5

  • Location (1st office)

    Stannary Street, London

  • Period of occupancy (1st office)

    5 years

  • Estimate space (1st office)

    40sqm

  • Number of Staff (1st office)

    1

  • 1985

    Enrolled in Architectural Association(UK)

  • 1990

    Graduated with honours from Architectural Association(UK)

  • 1990

    Started work at Zaha Hadid Architects(UK)

  • 1991

    Started work at Rick Mather Architects(UK)

  • 1992

    Started work at SAA Architects(SG)

  • 1993

    Started work at CF Moller Architects(UK)

  • 1994

    Return to work at Zaha Hadid Architects(UK)

  • 1995

    Started Voon Wong Architects

  • 2006

    Started VW + BS

  • 2012

    Awarded Designer of the Year 2012, President*s Design Award

  • 2014

    Started Viewport Studio

A Long Way Up

By Kelley Cheng, 31 January 2022

Okay first question, have you always wanted to be an Architect?

Hmm… no…. (laughs). When I finished my A-levels and was planning for University - I guess because when I was young, I was always drawing, I was drawing things before I could write - hence I was very clear that I wanted to do something in the creative field and that was around early to mid-eighties at that time, and you know, if you were to go to the University in Singapore, the only sort of creative course that you could do was Architecture. So I guess by default, I went into Architecture, but I loved it, I love Architecture. I went into it not really knowing what it was about or whether I wanted to be an Architect, but it was something I grew to love. But it wasn’t really something that I’ve always wanted to do, you know, unlike some people who knew it, like from the age of 5, that they wanted to be an Architect.

Around early to mid-eighties at that time, and you know, if you were to go to the University in Singapore, the only sort of creative course that you could do was Architecture. So I guess by default, I went into Architecture.

I know right? (laughs) I don’t even know what I wanted to be when I was young… I mean like, I thought vaguely I wanted to be an artist, but I don’t even know what that really meant…

Me too, I’m the same. (laughs)

You spent one year in NUS before your left for Architectural Association (AA), what made you abandon NUS? (laughs)

(laughs) You make it sound so negative… I didn’t abandon… Hmm… why did I leave for the AA… well I mean… you know, well do you want the politically correct answer or do you want the honest answer? (laughs)

Um… okay… let’s just say we should try to keep it as authentic as possible.

Okay, so anyway, I did one year in NUS, although I loved studying Architecture, but at that time, the sort of design education in Singapore and now… they are completely different worlds. I think Singapore at that time… we were… the design scene was very much looking for an identity, or local identity.

We still are…

We still are… yeah, but I mean at that time it was much more… hmm… pressing? In some ways, I think the emphasis on the Architecture course then was kind of looking for a local vernacular… and it was not something for me at that time, it wasn’t like the only thing that was going to keep me interested. So my parents said, do you want to study abroad? And, of course… like duh! Of course I do… (laughs) I mean, so it wasn’t to abandon NUS or escape NUS, not at all… but really, it was from a life experience point of view, I wanted to go abroad and experience a new situation or a new environment for myself, it was just really to kind of leave Singapore for a while and experience different things.

I think the emphasis on the Architecture course then was kind of looking for a local vernacular… and it was not something for me at that time, it wasn’t like the only thing that was going to keep me interested.

But you ended up staying there… almost your whole life by now. What made you make that decision to base yourself in London for good?

Hmm… it’s an organic thing… I loved my time at the AA, and I think everything in my life just kind of like, happened by default, and it wasn’t really planned… I didn’t really want to go to the AA… I mean, I applied to lots of Architecture schools in America and in the UK etcetera etcetera…

And nobody wanted you? (Laughs)

Exactly… exactly… nobody wanted me… (laughs) but also because at that time, the NUS term just ended… and you know, I had to fit into the term time of the schools abroad. And I kind of missed the American ones, and I will have to wait one more year to join an American college or University. So, the AA was the only one that kind of… the timing was right. So, I went to the AA. So that was kind of by default.

And why did I spend my whole life here? Hmm… I don’t know… after the AA, I stayed on to work, to get work experience… and then for a while, I thought I might come back to Singapore… but my career kind of developed organically in London, so it kind of makes sense to stay, I guess? I mean, it’s a love hate relationship with London, but you know, it is my home, really. And I’ve been here so long… and also because recently I’ve been spending more time in Singapore… during pre-pandemic, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on that part of my life. So… I feel like I have a foot in each world, and I still feel very connected to Singapore in that sense.

It’s a love hate relationship with London, but you know, it is my home, really… I feel like I have a foot in each world, and I still feel very connected to Singapore in that sense.

So back to AA, I read that people said AA has changed a lot over the years, so how was it like when you were at AA, because it’s quite a legendary architecture institution, how was your experience there? Do you think that it has moulded you to be the person that you are? Or the architect that you are today?

I guess so? It’s inevitable. Hmm… AA is not a very technical school, it’s really a hot house for ideas, for forming ideas, and I think that’s the most valuable part of the AA. It’s not a place where the teachers would tell you, “Oh, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that… and dadada… you’ve got to study this…” you know, no one tells you to do anything. So, if you are not very well disciplined… then you know, good luck, really (laughs). And I guess, being Singaporean… it kind of helped me. Because you know, that sense of discipline and sense of urgency was already instilled in me.

So… I think that’s the thing I love about London, there are so many things that you can always kind of… I’ve always felt like there is no limit to what you can learn, being here… because there is always someone who is like, superb, kind of scholastic superb, kind of academic or super intelligent or blablabla… and… or super talented. And it’s… there are just lots of people to look up to, basically, when I was in school. It was just basically, a… hmm… very… I mean they kind of treat you like adults? I think a lot of schools do it these days… you have a atelier system, so every beginning of the academic year, the tutors will present what they want to do in the ateliers, what sort of pre-occupations they have, projects that they might be embarking on… and then you choose, so basically you go for interviews, and they interview you, you interview them, so to speak. And then also there were these other courses, like supplementary courses, things like the technical aspects, or the communication aspects, you can elect to do those kinds of courses. I think there is a basic minimum, you know, which is a very very low basic minimum you have to fulfil, and from there, you can do as many as you want, or you can do as few as you want. Hmm…and I think that’s it!

And there were also all these guest lectures that happened every week, which - I don’t know about now - but it used to be free to everyone, and anyone from outside the school can come in to attend these lectures; there were a wide range of subjects and wide range of speakers, from architects to artists to musicians to filmmakers to fashion designers blablabla… so it’s a very stimulating environment, basically. And, I think what was also very interesting was that the student population was very international, so you get to meet people from lots of different cultures, different walks of life, different ways of thinking, so that was very interesting as well.

AA is not a very technical school, it’s really a hot house for ideas, for forming ideas, and I think that’s the most valuable part of the AA. It’s not a place where the teachers would tell you, “Oh, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that… ”, no one tells you to do anything.

Okay so moving on… you mentioned that after you graduated, you worked in London. Which company did you work for as your first job, and were there any memorable experiences there?

Hmm… my first employer was Zaha Hadid…

Oh! (laughs)

And obviously, that was memorable (laughs). When I joined Zaha’s, it was what… 89? It was actually before I graduated, it was my summer job between fourth year and fifth year.

Was she your tutor, at AA?

No, she wasn’t teaching at that time. Hmm… so it was just a summer job, I was there for like 2 months, 3 months? I can’t remember. At that time, she wasn’t really building, so a lot of the work was very theoretical, a lot of the work was kind of on paper. Hmm… so we were doing lots of competition, doing lots of proposals. I think at that time, we were just starting to do drawings for the Vitra Fire Station, that was, you know, her first commission, and you know, that was the first thing that she ever built. So it was kind of like an extension of school in a way, because it was all very kind of, up in the air and we weren’t bogged down by the practicalities of, you know, day to day kind of practice and technicalities and stuff like that, which I’m sure the office is super different now. But that was the situation at that time. And, it wasn’t a very big team at all, maybe there were ten of us? So it was very interesting because you have a much closer contact with Zaha herself. And, you know, obviously, she’s a brilliant designer, brilliant woman, brilliant architect, so, having that kind of close contact with her and seeing how she designs her works, it’s very interesting and you know, obviously, very educational for me.

It wasn’t a very big team at all, maybe there were ten of us? So it was very interesting because you have a much closer contact with Zaha herself. And obviously, she’s a brilliant designer, brilliant woman, brilliant architect.

What was she like as a person? She’s dead so you can be honest… you won’t offend her (laughs).

I mean she’s obviously got a temper, as we all know. But she’s also very loyal as a person. So, if you are someone who has been supportive of her, she would be very supportive of you. Hmm… so, that is really what I value in her as a person. And, you know… she’s not the easiest person, obviously. But you know, she has sort of the two sides, one, she can be very warm and very loyal and all that sort of thing, but you know, on the first meeting, she can come across as quite difficult. But I won’t see that as…

But difficult - is it because she is a perfectionist or something?

That as well, but I think yeah, she’s quite difficult to please, and hmm… like I remember in the office, we were doing all these kinds of drawings and models, and then she’ll be like, you know, she comes and she’ll be like, “I don’t like this, I don’t like this…” that sort of thing? And then, at the end when the deadline is looming, it all comes together and she just pulls it all together somehow. She will take all the stuff that we’ve been doing and then she just pulls it together. So the approach to design is kind of very iterative… more like a series of investigations. And that was very much something I learnt in her office.

So after that, you started on your own, after you graduated?

No, actually I worked in a couple of other places. I also worked at Rick Mather Architects, he is a British Architect, or he’s American? But he was based in London. I worked there for a year, ‘cos after I graduated, I went back to Zaha’s to work for another year… but I realised I wanted to learn more about building practice. Although I love being at her office, but, to me, it was like an extension of school. So… I wanted something a little bit different, I wanted to be in an office where… I might not sort of see eye to eye with them in terms of design… but at least I was learning things building and detailing and stuff like that. So, I was at Rick Mather’s for a year, and then after that, I actually worked in Singapore for a year, at SAA Architects.

Ah, i see...

I was fresh out of school, so I wanted to kind of expose myself to different types of practises of different scales… and different sizes, different types of work, so that you have a more rounded kind of experience. So, I went to SAA which was very fast paced, the speed was crazy. So I was there for a year, and then I came back to London, to work for a Danish firm. We were doing proposals and projects in London, and I actually went back to Zaha’s for a little while after that as well, to work on the Cardiff Opera House. And then I set up on my own.

I was fresh out of school, so I wanted to kind of expose myself to different types of practises of different scales… and different sizes, different types of work, so that you have a more rounded kind of experience.

With Benson Saw, right?

No, actually, first I was working with a friend from AA, and we were doing some residential projects. And then I went on my own, hmm… and Benson wasn’t really in the picture, until like a little bit later. Because… I was still practising as an Architect, as a one man then, doing mostly private residential works. And Benson is the brother of a classmate of mine from AA… and I met him like years before when he was studying at the RCA (Royal College of Art) at that time, doing product design. And, we just kind very casually said, let’s do something together, let’s do an exhibition after he finished at the RCA. And that really appealed to me because, you know, as you know, in architecture, it can be such a slow and frustrating process, right? Because you know, you design something, and then you wait for one or two years before you actually see the fruition of your design. And, to me, doing something like products or furniture is a much more instant kind of gratification, right? So also because, you can do what you want, you don’t have to design for a client. You kind of… you are much more operating as an artist in that sense. So that really appealed to me. Hence, we did some pieces, and we did this exhibition called Designer’s Block, and that was in 2001, and that was when the Loop lamp was picked up by Fontana Arte. So… it started as a play thing, and we thought okay, that we need to be more serious about this.now that we got it kind of going. And Benson was also in London at that time; so, we were working together in London. The Architectural practice was kind of like my day job, and then the furniture thing was like my side hustle. So, the two were kind of running kind of separately, but concurrently.

So, we did some pieces, and we did this exhibition called Designer’s Block, and that was in 2001, and that was when the *Loop *lamp was picked up by Fontana Arte. So… it started as a play thing, and we thought okay, that we need to be more serious about this.

Okay I see the picture now… I always thought that he was part of the interior design team…

No, no, no… we were just kind of developing furniture designs, and, you know, pursuing the furniture part. So we were exhibiting in Milan and dadada… that sort of thing.

So, how many years did your informal or formal partnership with Benson last?

So, we were… a few years. We were working on furniture and then at some point, he went back to KL (Kuala Lumpur) due to personal reasons. So, we were working remotely. And by then, our third partner, Ian Macready joined us - you know Ian too - in 2006 or maybe 2005. And so the thinking was that we would combine architecture and the furniture together, because we thought that there was some kind of synergy, or, you know, sort of symbiosis that could take place, by putting the two together. So we did that, and that’s when it became VW+BS. And that was when we had to work on projects remotely. We were working on projects in Asia that Benson brought to the office; and he was also working on projects that were happening in London. But it became clear that it was a little bit challenging because of the distance, because of the time difference perhaps? Maybe it’s a little bit easier now with Zoom, and you know, people are much more used to it. But, at that time, it wasn’t easy, so that’s when the next chapter happened, when we stopped working with Benson, and it became Viewport Studio.

So, Voon Wong Architects was always somewhere in existence, in parallel to VW+BS and Viewport?

Well, when it became VW+BS, that kind of took over Voon Wong Architects, you know? Hmm…because when we decided to put the two together, then Voon Wong Architects no longer existed. It became part of VW+BS.

I see, okay. So, which was the year that you set up Viewport?

Viewport, hmm… 2014. This is when… hmm… because I think in 2008, we started working with Virgin Atlantic. It came as a surprise to us. Because in terms of Architecture, we were doing a lot of private residential work, we wanted to vary our diet a little bit, so, we said it would be quite nice to do the residential work, and also to do some commercial work. So, we were trying to sort of pitch to commercial clients. So, Ian sent out our portfolio to a few companies including Virgin Atlantic. And then… they called us! So, we thought okay, maybe they would ask us to do a lounge or something, which is kind of, you know, not beyond the realms of possibilities as we were doing lots of interior work and stuff like that. But, to our surprise, they asked us to take a look at their cabin interior instead! Which, you know, we have like no experience whatsoever in doing aircraft cabins. So, it was very exciting and very interesting… I mean, the technicalities involved in aircraft interiors are completely different, obviously. So, we have a very long project that went on for like, four years? And then after that, we did another cabin for them. So, it was kind of a slightly long standing relationship. And in fact, what happened was… hmm… because you know, in Virgin Atlantic, they have their in-house design team, they have design managers - who are trained designers - to manage the projects that are carried out by external agencies like ours, you know? So at the end of the projects, the design managers whom we were working with came to us and said, “We are leaving Virgin, we'd like to set something up with you guys, are you interested?”. So that’s how Viewport studio was born, because those Virgin guys came to join us.

We have like no experience whatsoever in doing aircraft cabins. So, it was very exciting and very interesting, the technicalities involved in aircraft interiors are completely different, obviously. So, we have a very long project that went on for four years.

Oh, I see!

Yup, so we thought, oh, that’s a good idea. Because you know, they have lots of experience in the commercial world, they have a lot of commercial contacts, and they have also seen it from the client’s perspective. We’ve always seen it from like, our side, and the client is like… the other side. But they’ve seen it on the other side of the fence. So, it’s quite interesting in that way, and they know the mindset of the client and stuff like that.

Yup. So, that means in 2014, when they joined you, so, those are the five founders including yourself lah, for Viewport.

And then, Gautier, Gautier, is the other guy who has always been with us. He’s like, hmm… he started when he was very young with us…. As a product designer. So, you know, he was also one of the main designers in the Virgin Atlantic project. So, he didn’t come from Virgin, he came from VW+BS.

So, besides the five of you, are there other team members?

Yes…

So five founders and staff?

Yup.

How did you all delegate the work? Like if a project comes in… how… who manages…?

Depends on the project, the nature of the project. So, if it is an architectural project, then basically I take the lead. If it is a furniture design project, then Gautier takes the lead, if it is a sort of hmm… commercial… interior project, then I think it’s shared responsibility between myself and maybe Gareth or… you know… so it depends on the nature of the project, who brings it in, or who has availability at that time. So, it’s a little bit loose, there is no fixed delegation.

Depends on the project... the nature of the project, who brings it in, or who has availability at that time. So, it’s a little bit loose, there is no fixed delegation.

You said in one of your interviews, who knows what Singaporean is?

(laughs) Yeah, who knows? Do you know? (laughs)

(laughs) Yeah who knows? We still don’t know. But anyway, just for the sake of discussion. So, now it’s 2022, do you think there is a design that one can truly call Singaporean now?

I was thinking about this, when you asked me. I think for me, I mean, it is a bit of a cliché maybe, I don’t know. Hmm… you know that stool? The one Chew Moh Jin did? I think that’s very Singaporean, ‘cos you don’t see it anywhere else, and it could only be Singaporean, right? The stacking stool? I guess that’s Singaporean? Hmm… and I guess some of the buildings that WOHA did? You know like those with the biophilic designs… with all the planting and everything, I think that’s very Singaporean. Am I missing anything?

You know that stool? The one Chew Moh Jin did? I think that’s very Singaporean, ‘cos you don’t see it anywhere else, and it could only be Singaporean, right?

No, no. (laughs) I guess I wanted to ask you this question also because you’ve been based in London for so long, right? So, you are kind of like an outsider looking in. For me, I mean, everything is so familiar, I can’t even, you know, discern, anymore, you know. So, perhaps for you, like every time you come back, you are, “Woah,”, you know? “that’s by a Singapore designer.” I don’t know, I mean, so, that’s why.

I don’t know, I mean yes, I am an outsider looking in, but not a complete outsider, you know what I mean? I mean, to my mind, I think it is also quite hard to pinpoint because it’s an evolving identity? Design identity as well. Because you know, it is a very young and nascent design scene… and design culture. So, I think sometimes you can only sort of pinpoint something when you look back in time and say… “Oh that was quite Singaporean”.

It is a very young and nascent design scene… and design culture. Sometimes you can only pinpoint something when you look back in time and say… “Oh that was quite Singaporean”.

Okay. You won the PD*A in 2012, so… did that open some doors for you? Was it life changing? (laughs)

No, not at all. I mean it is very nice to be recognised, obviously. But, the phone didn’t ring off the hook, you know? (laughs). Did it, for you? (laughs).

That’s why I wanted to find out if I’m missing out (laughs).

Yeah, you are not alone there. The answer is no (laughs). Did it for Nathan (Yong)? I don’t know.

Apparently not too (laughs). Oh well…

But obviously, it’s a great honour and great to be recognised. But in terms of like, did my career take a different path after that? Well, no. Life went on as per normal the day after, (laughs).

Yup, exactly (laughs).

Which project of your own, do you think has made the biggest impact on your career? Or are there any projects that you feel are kind of like turning points for your career?

Hmm… I guess… for example like the Loop Lamp, I guess that was something that led the path to product design. So that was an important turning point… and I guess also the Virgin Atlantic project, was another turning point. Because… I think these are… I mean, I’m not saying that they’re great in terms of design, I’m just saying that it was interesting because they offered a different path in terms of the type of work that we are currently doing. So, it’s a change in typology, which is interesting.

The Loop Lamp, I guess that was something that led the path to product design. So that was an important turning point… and I guess also the Virgin Atlantic project, because it offered a different path in terms of the type of work that we are currently doing.

Did these projects open doors to similar kinds of projects?

Again, no. (laughs) You’ll always think like, “Oh, we did this great project”, and then you expect the next day the phone is ringing ringing ringing, but it never happens.

You’ll always think like, Oh, we did this great project, and then you expect the next day the phone is ringing ringing ringing, but it never happens.

Unlike the kind of stories we read about right…(laughs)

It’s like, “Oh, okay, a quiet office again, another quiet day”. (laughs) I don’t know… these things are very kind of… it’s always like a trickle, it’s always very cumulative? I mean, for example, the Virgin Galactic project that we got… hmm… it’s interesting because we got it, and then you know, we were like oh wow, so exciting and all that stuff, but it was because of Gareth and Nathan, the two Virgin Atlantic guys, who through their contacts and their conversations, and the hard work in terms of the marketing side, that they brought in the project. And so, we were wondering, you know, how did we get the project? So, it was only a little bit later that we found out that one of the guys at Virgin Galactic who hired us… he saw one of the cafés that we did… the Common Man Coffee Roasters Café in KL, and he liked the project, and I think that was one of the factors that persuaded them in their decision. It was like, a few years since we have completed that project, so, you just don’t know these things.

You know, actually my first encounter with your company was when I was working with Lay Hoon, in the early 90s for ID magazine. She featured a lot of your interior works from London. So, you started this company in the era without the internet right… without social media and all that.

Without computers.

Yeah without computers (laughs), I know right. What were the challenges then? Was marketing your works and your company more difficult than today?

Hmm… no. It’s just different. In fact, I think in many ways, it was easier. Because I think there were less like, noise… you know? ‘Cos there’s a lot of info out there right now, you know, so much so that you don’t know where to look sometimes. It’s just like, yeah, we didn’t have social media, but we had media. You had magazines and books, and you know, those are the things that sort of got you the attention, so, it’s a different format, a different typology. And then I suppose you know, there are people who can talk about your work… I mean, nowadays everyone can talk about their own work, or they do talk about their own work through social media and all that sort of things.

Back in those days it was the press who talked about your work, you know, that was a profession. I don’t know, I don’t think it was harder… maybe it was easier… because there was less stuff around, you know, so whatever stuff that was out there was filtered by the press, and you know, the press would decide if it was worthy of publication or featuring or whatever. But nowadays it’s like, you know, you open your computer and all the stuff gets downloaded or you know, appears on your feed. So, it’s very hard to kind of filter what’s good and what’s bad, hmm… I think. And I suppose, you know, because, now that we have to kind of feature our own stuff, it kind of puts an additional responsibility on you as a designer. You have to be a designer as well as a marketer. Whereas back in those days, you can just design and hopefully someone will market your stuff.

We didn’t have social media, but we had media. You had magazines and books, and you know, those are the things that sort of got you the attention, so, it’s a different format, a different typology.

You guys are on Facebook, Instagram and all that, do you think that such social media platforms are effective in marketing a company’s works and propelling a company’s journey?

Hmm… I mean it’s probably… useful? To be honest, I think I got a project through Instagram (laughs).

Wow! (laughs)

I know, I know.

Amazing!

And it’s not even through our Viewport Studio’s Instagram account, which features our work, it was through my personal Instagram, which is like… had nothing to do with our work… it’s just like my travels.

Your fan…

Perhaps. My snaps. (laughs) Hmm… so, anyway… yeah, this potential client contacted me ‘cos she liked my Instagram feed, hmm, so, it’s kind of interesting.

This potential client contacted me ‘cos she liked my Instagram feed, hmm, so, it’s kind of interesting.

From Singapore or London?

From Singapore. Hmm… so… I guess it’s… I don’t know, I guess it’s kind of expected that you have an Instagram account these days. Whatever…

It’s true

Hmm… so I guess like, in the old days, you’re expected to have a magazine feature. These days, you’re expected to have an Instagram account (laughs)

Yup, yup. (laughs)

You have done projects both in London and Singapore, how different is it to practice in Singapore and London?

How different…hmm… I think it’s getting less and less different? In terms of what? The client’s expectation or in terms of the culture?

Everything, in terms of clients, culture, or…

Well, things happen a lot faster in Singapore. Hmm… Europe is very slow, as you know. So, the pace of course is a factor.

How about the clients? Are the clients more demanding in Singapore, or maybe in London, they are more demanding?

Maybe if you asked me ten years ago, I would say yes. But again that’s changed. I think the effect of globalisation is making itself felt. I think that the clients everywhere these days are the same. So, it’s just that the expectations in terms of timing, and in terms of the quality of work maybe is a little different? But that’s also dependent on the local conditions, like what sort of local contractors you can get, how quickly you can get your approvals done, and stuff like that. I think people are more or less the same these days.

I think the effect of globalisation is making itself felt. I think that the clients everywhere these days are the same. So, it’s just that the expectations in terms of timing, and in terms of the quality of work maybe is a little different?

In general, most Singaporeans love visiting European cities like London, or Milan, Singapore designers enjoy the furniture fairs and all that, we always feel very excited there, do you think the design scene in Europe is more vibrant than Singapore, or seemingly so? What do you think is lacking in the Singapore design scene?

Well, I think it’s true in the sense that, for example if you compare Singapore and London, I mean, London is obviously a huge city, compared to Singapore, so, you know, there is critical mass there. So, it’s not just design… it’s… you know, everything else… there’s so much happening… in terms of the restaurants, and exhibitions, you know... So, the… cultural life is much more amplified and much bigger in London, in comparison. And, that is no fault of Singapore, that’s because you know, it is the size. And also, I think the other aspect is time, you know, the age of the city, or the age of the… I mean, Singapore is a very young country and its design scene is very young. And I think it’s progressed in leaps and bounds, given its age, and there are lots of column mentions about Singaporean designers already, which is great, given how young we are. But, I think what is lacking… I mean it’s really the size, which you can’t do anything about, and time, which you just need to wait for it to mature. But I think it’s not just design, but the whole culture… because you know, all these different things feed into design anyway, you know, things like art and theatre and music.

A lot of designers always dream about expanding abroad. Do you think that there is this potential for Singapore designers to venture abroad? And if so - because you are based abroad for so many years - what would be some of the advice you would give to designers who may want to look abroad for more opportunities?

I mean Singaporean designers definitely have the talent to do that. I think the only sort of advice I would give is… maybe try to understand the culture that you are designing for? Although there are a lot of commonalities because of globalisation, but I mean, there are still differences, you know, there are cultural differences between Europe and Asia, and Singapore and the UK, for instance. So, I think, that’s the first thing I would say, try to understand the market that you are designing for - the culture, the thinking, the requirements, the expectations, I think that’s the first step.

The first thing I would say is, try to understand the market that you are designing for - the culture, the thinking, the requirements, the expectations.

Yup, fair enough… Your work spans across multiple disciplines, Product, Interior, Architecture and… I don’t know, you even do graphics, is it?

No, we don’t do graphics.

Okay, good. Don’t steal my rice bowl (laughs).

Different markets, it’s fine, it’s fine. (laughs)

Which area of design is your favourite and that you hope to do more of?

Hmm… I think my first love is still Architecture. I mean, I love Architecture and I don’t do a lot of it, but, you know, it’s something that, I think because it’s such an all-encompassing discipline, it covers so many… it requires so much out of you… in terms of design. And then you have to, kind of amalgamate so many different sorts of… hmm… strands of… considerations? I think as a discipline, it is very challenging. So I think that’s something that is… for me, kind of still very rich in terms of… the inspirations it gives, as well as the challenges it throws out.

So as a designer, do you think that it is better to be a Specialist or a Generalist?

I think it very much depends on the individual? I mean, obviously, I’m not a specialist (laughs). Hmm… but I think that’s kind of… I think it’s probably my personality rather than a career choice… hmm… because I remember when I was in school, I was looking at different designers, and I think one of the designers that really caught my eye, was Bruno Munari, and he is a bit of a polymath, as you would know. So, he does graphics, furniture, lighting… you know, he did books, he did toys, he did… art, sculptures, you know? But always with the same attitude and same kind of hmm… slight humour in his work. So that’s someone who really intrigued me, and someone that I looked up to as a designer. And, you know, I’ve always wanted to be an artist since I was a young designer, I thought, that was someone that I wanted to be like.

So… kind of like a generalist (laughs).

Yeah, a jack of all trades.

A jack of all trades, yeah. Okay, I want to go back to the Virgin Galactic project a little bit, because that’s one of your high profile projects right? The Virgin Galactic Spaceport, how was it like designing for new age travel? What was your experience, and was it difficult to do, maybe can share a bit about the project?

Hmm… we were doing that aspect of space travel that was not space bound at all (laughs)... so, we were doing the lounge, which was very much kind of grounded. But it was very exciting of course… exhilarating. When you first get to the spaceport in New Mexico, it is a circular building designed by Norman Foster, and it’s basically kind of… out there in the middle of the desert, and it’s basically a sort of like.. hmm… if you imagine a circle has different sections, so the bottom section is where you enter, sort of the back of house. offices, training rooms and stuff like that. In the middle is the hangar… a huge hangar where they have the actual… well they have a model of the spacecraft there, which is like, wow, that’s super exciting. And then the front is facing the runway, it’s sort of the public area, which is the… the lounge, as well as a training area. So, we designed the lounge, and the offices above.

What was interesting is because they had an in-house creative director, who was very very hands on, he was very specific about the sort of… hmm… I mean his responsibilities were not just to look at the lounge, but all aspects of the design of Virgin Galactic… the uniforms, the space crafts, to the logo, etcetera etcetera. So, he had an overall vision, and an overarching idea of how to pull everything together. So, we worked very closely with him, and I think what’s very important for him was to articulate that sort of passenger journey, from the ground going up to space. Hmm… and he knew exactly which part of that journey our bit fits into. So, we were doing a lot of research, like looking at local geology, local colours… local stones…you know… we wanted very much to be rooted in the local context, because I think that was…hmm… because when you go into space, like okay, that’s another part of the story; so it would be pointless for us to try to replicate the idea of space travel in our part of the journey.

And in terms of who it is for, it is not just a lounge for the Astronauts, it is as well for their family and friends; but also because the flight is only going to take place a few days a week and it’s not flying every day; so, when it’s non-flight days, it is a space for the people who work there to hang out. So, it is interesting in a sense that we have to divide the space into different zones for different things to happen, different activities to happen, but also for different groups, for their use. So, that was interesting and challenging. And also, the other thing to consider was - because it’s in the middle of a desert, the sort of contractors and suppliers you can get was quite limited. So, who you can get to the site, to do good enough work for you, that’s another consideration.

We were doing a lot of research, like looking at local geology, local colours… local stones, we wanted very much to be rooted in the local context, because when you go into space, like okay, that’s another part of the story; so it would be pointless for us to try to replicate the idea of space travel in our part of the journey.

You have a long history working with the Virgin Group as we have touched on earlier, do you think that such partnerships that span across decades are hard to come by in this day and age where there are more and more designers in the global market and clients are so spoilt for choice?

Hmm… not necessarily, I think, it depends on the company, the clients, whether they have a long-term view. I mean, there are lots of designers who have long relationships with commercial entities… hmm… so I don’t think it is necessarily true that they chop and change. I mean, yeah, obviously, there are lots of designers out there that they can choose from, but I think you know, in terms of like, understanding their brand values, and understanding like… you know, if you work with someone a few times, you develop a short hand in terms of like, understanding each other? But obviously, there is value in having new blood as well. So, I think it’s not necessarily true that clients don’t hire the same designers over and over again. Sometimes they do. Hmm… I think it’s a bit of both.

Now maybe we talk a little bit about your practice, which are the projects do you think are representative of your practice?

Representative…?

Hmm… yeah, like, that speaks of the identity of the company?

Hmm… I think… the Virgin Galactic, I guess? The project would be one of them… and also, the Virgin Atlantic project, it was interesting for us, because it brought together different disciplines or different skillsets in the office, there is a bit of architecture involved, there is a bit of interiors involved, there is a bit of product design involved, you know, like in the Virgin Galactic project, all the furniture were bespoke. The large pieces of furniture are bespoke, so we had to work with manufacturers to have that designed and made. So I think that was interesting because… yeah, it brought together lots of members of our team together, it wasn’t just purely interiors, it was a bit of everything. I think that’s the sort of project that is representative of what we can do, and also, it’s representative of the types of projects that we would like to do more of, things that involved cross disciplinary work.

You’ve been practising design for three decades, or more than three decades?

Hmm...

So, what is your personal philosophy of design, and has that changed over the years?

Hmm… I guess, yeah, it’s bound to evolve and change.. hmm… what’s my philosophy? It’s… hmm… I always think of design as… problem solving? I think that’s always been true and always been the case, and that hasn’t changed. In how we approach a project, we always ask ourselves or ask the clients, what is the problem here? So, in a way, even though we are given a brief, we might kind of question that brief, or rewrite that brief, or expand that brief, and figure out what the problems are, what are the aspects we would like to solve, and for us, it is a problem-solving process.

Although we work in the realm of interiors, we’re not kind of creating a mood or something; we are there to solve problems. For example, we are currently working on a project, which is an art centre, so, it’s very much hmm… the public space of the art centre, so, we look at it, and we are doing a lot of research in the footfall and the local population - what sort of people come and go into the centre, what are the sort of people who will visit the centre, what do they do there, you know. Because it is a public space, so they might use it as kind of like a public living room? So, the brief that was given to us obviously wasn’t involving that. But we’d like to sort of bring that in, because that is something that will add to the project.

Hmm… so, in terms of answering your question in a very roundabout way, I think… hmm… it’s about bringing together all these different aspects that might not be first asked of us, and then how we resolve the problem, and, you know, obviously, things like aesthetics and detailing stuff like that, that had to be considered, but that goes into any project. In short, we like to think that we are solving a problem, basically.

In how we approach a project, we always ask ourselves or ask the clients, what is the problem here? So, in a way, even though we are given a brief, we might kind of question that brief, or rewrite that brief, or expand that brief, and figure out what the problems are.

You will be turning 59 in a few days’ time, in January…

Thanks for the reminder (laughs)

(laughs) So… what are your aspirations in work and in life at this present moment?

Retire? (laughs)

(laughs) I know, right?

Hmm… what are my aspirations… I think it’s just to kind of continue? And then also, because, you know, obviously, I’m kind of at the stage where I might sort of take a step back from the practice, or, you know, be less active? So, I guess in terms of work, the next phase is to ensure that the practice is still in good hands if I were to take a step back. Or rather, the practice is in good shape, well, you know, so that there is sort of a succession process… if I were to take a step back in future at some point.

In terms of work, the next phase is to ensure that the practice is still in good hands if I were to take a step back, so that there is sort of a succession process… if I were to take a step back in future at some point.

What are, or is, the highest point(s) and lowest point(s) of your journey so far?

Hmm… I don’t know… (laughs) I mean, I have been doing this for so long, you know, there are so many kinds of events that have taken place beyond my control, you know… Like, I’ve been through so many recessions and in my career and you know, things like that you really have no control over. And obviously… when things like that happen, like the 2008 financial crisis, I kind of scratch my head, like, what do we do now? Obviously, those are low points, but actually, we got out of those low points intact. And hmm… the high points are obviously when you get a big job, you know, you’re very happy, and also, when you get a job that sort of kicks you on a new kind of a trajectory; different kind of work, that’s very exciting.

Hmm… I don’t know, maybe my emotions are dead or maybe… (laughs) But maybe, ‘cos I’m a cup-half-full kind of person, so even when a crisis hits… like you know, first you have the 2008 crisis, then the pandemic, and then this and that, I don’t really let it affect me too much these days, ‘cos you know, it’s just like, yeah, another crisis… and we’ve gotten through crisis before, So…

Just deal with it…

Yeah, deal with it. And you know, we’re not gonna die or anything like that, unless you catch Covid. Touch wood… (laughs) So, it’s not something that sort of makes me lose too much sleep… hmm… so… yeah, it’s… I don’t know, my emotions are dead. (laughs)

(laughs) Which is good, at least you are living in the present moment… every moment!

Mindfulness course… you know, mindfulness practices… (laughs)

(laughs) Okay, we are nearing the end, hmm… okay, so there is a lot of talk about the Metaverse now, and real estate in the Metaverse is selling for millions…

I know… such a trendy thing to talk about.

Really baffles me, but anyway, so, what do you think is the role of the architect in the Metaverse?

Hmm… I think in some ways… like when I was in school and also when I first started practising, there were a lot of paper architects, because you know… there was not a lot of work around… or at least in the UK at that time, so, you know, architects like Zaha and Daniel Libeskind… they were doing lots of fantastical drawings, or paintings and there were these theoretical aspirations…because there was no opportunity to build. And, I think, maybe… I’m not sure, but, I mean, this Metaverse, it’s such a new thing, who knows what will happen, right? But, I’ve a feeling that maybe it’s kind of going back to that? You know, so instead of building with bricks and mortar, you are expressing yourself, or you’re making investigations on paper, on screens or whatever. Hmm… and maybe, you know, architects will find a way of exploring new kinds of constraints, or new kinds of considerations, in the Metaverse, rather than in a physical space. So… yeah, who knows. I mean, I think it will be a very interesting development.

This Metaverse, it’s such a new thing, who knows what will happen, right? But, I’ve a feeling that instead of building with bricks and mortar, you are expressing yourself, or you’re making investigations on paper, on screens or whatever.

Okay, last question, what is your advice for young designers who want to set up their own practice?

Don’t do it! (laughs)

(laughs) Well, you are not the first to say that…

What do they say? ‘Cos I’d like to know. (laughs)

They’d say don’t do it, well, some just say go in with an open mind…

I would say do it if you love it. Do it if you love it. Because you know, the love for your work is the only kind of reward… (laughs) one of the few rewards you’re gonna get (laughs)

Do it if you love it. Because you know, the love for your work is the only kind of reward.

(laughs) It’s true, it’s true.

Hmm… but obviously, it’s exciting, but then I think you just need to be very agile. Hmm… you know, especially today, ‘cos there are so many things that come our way, and so many different things that would change the course of your career, so you really need to be - especially when you are running your own studio - you need to be really agile, and, change course when required.

Especially when you are running your own studio - you need to be really agile, and, change course when required.

Yup, okay that’s good advice, and that’s the end of the interview! (laughs)

Phew, did I do alright? (laughs)

I think my first love is still Architecture. I mean, I love Architecture and I don’t do a lot of it, but, because it’s such an all-encompassing discipline, and it requires so much out of you.

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