NATHAN YONG

Product Design

Nathan Yong Design

https://www.nathanyongdesign.com/

Founder of Nathan Yong Design and one half of the partnership at Grafunkt, a successful lifestyle and furniture store, Nathan Yong is one of the most prolific and successful product and furniture designers in Singapore. He shares with Kelley Cheng his carefree childhood by the sea, his up and down journey as a designer, entrepreneur and artist, his views of an ideal education in product design, the secrets of his success and why his pet beagle is named Jagger.
  • Education

    TEMASEK POLYTECHNIC, PRODUCT DESIGN

  • Education

    UNSW, M. DESIGN

  • Company

    NATHAN YONG DESIGN

  • Founded in

    2009

  • 1st Office

    85 PLAYFAIR ROAD

  • Team Size (1st Office)

    02

  • Current Office

    15 LITTLE ROAD

  • Team Size (Current)

    02

  • Previous Job

    FOUNDER/CREATIVE DIRECTOR, AIR DIVISION

  • Previous Job

    BUYER/PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT, BARANG BARANG

  • 1991

    Graduated from Temasek Polytechnic, Diploma in Product Design.

  • 1999

    Air Division was founded

  • 2007

    Graduated from University of New South Wales, Master in Design.

  • 2008

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

  • 2009

    Nathan Yong Design & Grafunkt was founded

  • 2020

    Appointed LaSalle College of the Arts, Industrial Design Programme Leader.

Don't be Shy & Never Say Die

By Kelley Cheng, 18 October 2021

Hi, Nathan!

Hi, Kelley!

How are you today?

I'm good!

Great! Thanks for having this interview with us. So, let's launch straight into the first question.

That’s really fast! (laughs)

Quite frequently, architects tell me that when they were young, they liked to play with Lego and all that. And that’s why they know that they want to be an architect. So when you’re young, what do you like to play with?

I played with Barbie dolls. I'm joking, not that that’s anything wrong. I played with Playmobil. But I don’t have a lot to play with because my family was quite poor at that time. I had only one or two pieces of Playmobil figurines and I was able to survive with that because without much, kids used to play outdoors. So I picked up a lot of things from the sea because I lived beside the beach. I made and imagined my own toys with my brother and sometimes when we were lucky, we found used toys that had been thrown into the sea. We were in a bit of a Toy Story kind of situation, just that all the items are dirty and old.

Do you think that had an impact on you, you know, nurturing your interest in design and wanting to be a designer?

Thinking back now, I think it’s all about playing. I grew up in the 70s near a shipyard, and we were very carefree and constantly went out to play. I don’t know how to explain it in a scientific manner, but I think that kids who grew up in the 70s are much more tactile, as in, they are very sensitive to the environment and are able to connect with people naturally. I think that overall helped me as a designer because design is about communication, how you’re able to communicate your design through words, through things, through relationships and all that. So I’m sure the way I grew up has impacted me in many ways.

I grew up in the 70s near a shipyard, and we were very carefree and constantly went out to play. I don’t know how to explain it in a scientific manner, but I think that kids who grew up in the 70s are much more tactile, as in, they are very sensitive to the environment and are able to connect with people naturally. I think that overall helped me as a designer...

Did you always want to be a designer or when did you have this sudden realisation at some point that 'Oh, I want to be a designer!'

I think it must have been when I was about 12 years old, because I was not very strong academically - my Math sucked, my English sucked, most subjects sucked except my Art. So it must be around Primary 5, I kind of knew that I wanted to be a designer, maybe it was survival instincts. Initially, I wanted to be a graphic designer. I tried doodling and sketching, and when you are young, you think, “Oh, you can doodle, therefore you can be a graphic designer.” So at that age, around 10 or 11, knowing that I’m not good at studying, I said to myself, “I’m going to be a designer. I’m going to be a graphic designer.” By around Secondary 4, I kind of told myself again that I need to further my studies in the creative field and then I went to find out which school I can attend to study design. At that time, the only option was Baharuddin Vocational Institute and I looked at the criteria to get in, and since I failed my Math and English throughout Secondary 2 to 4, and overall my O-level grades were really bad and could not meet the entry criteria. So I decided to do self-study and did my O-levels again, then I passed this time and I managed to get into Baharuddin finally. At that time, going into a vocational institute was kind of frowned upon because you wouldn’t even get a diploma, it’s a vocational institute, but I really didn’t care at the time. Luckily, my family didn’t mind as well, they were supportive as long as I was doing what I like.

I took the Product Design course in Baharuddin. But actually, my first choice was interior design because I was always in tune with things around me. In fact, I didn’t even know what product design really meant because it was a new course. I was the second batch of students to study product design there; not many people chose it so they were rallying hard for new intakes. At that time, I was really into music and CD players, and there were a lot of designs for CD players. It was hard to choose because there were so many ugly ones. If you can remember the Sony CD players, those were the nicer ones and the others were all ugly. I was like, “Who the hell designed such ugly stuff?” Motivated by that thought, I saw that it is a real job to design objects and that’s product design. And that helped to nail my decision to study product design, I was about 17 or 18 years old.

If you can remember the Sony CD players, those were the nicer ones and the others were all ugly. I was like, 'Who the hell designed such ugly stuff?' Motivated by that thought, I saw that it is a real job to design objects and that’s product design.

Were your parents supportive of your decision to study design?

During my youth, my dad worked overseas, so he was quite unaware of what I was studying, and my mom was not really well educated, so she always said to me, “As long as you come back with all your limbs intact, I’ve done my job.” It’s quite simple. I think I was always a kid who was very easy to take care of. My mom told me that she would give me an apple and I would just sit in the corner, eat the apple and do my own stuff. So she kind of assured me that I’ll be fine, whatever I’m doing. I don’t think they really understand what I’m doing as a designer actually.

My mom always said to me, 'As long as you come back with all your limbs intact, I’ve done my job.' It’s quite simple.

So in their own way, that was being supportive.

Yeah. Because I was always a good kid. I was always very self-assured and knew what needed to be done, what I needed to do, and they could have one less worry about me. In a sense, they were supportive because I had never brought any bad news back.

At the moment, you’re also serving as the program leader of Industrial Design at LASALLE College of the Arts, what is your reflection on the education you had at Baharuddin which is the Temasek Polytechnic, subsequently. Do you think that the course has paved the way for you to become the designer that you are today?

Yeah, for sure. But it’s not just the education itself. I think whatever we do, whatever we experienced before, contributes to who we are. I think it‘s up to the individual also to be able to grow, to be positive and to be open to listen to advice, to be nice to people, and all that. So that you’re able to absorb as much as possible. And people are often happy to share things with you if you simply ask. So it’s more than just the education.

What I remember about the education in Baharuddin or Temasek Polytechnic is that we were trained to have a very hands-on skill set, as it was designed as a tertiary class. We were often in the workshop, we had to use the saw machines, do our own cutting to build something using wood. We had a project which required us to build a 1:5 scale multi-component house. The house was so big that kids could actually go in. So we literally have to make things with our hands. Besides wood, there was also a metal workshop, where we had to build objects using metal. And then, there was the ceramic workshop. These were classes we did at the foundation level, it was much like making sculptures, but instead of art pieces, we made objects that were commercially viable.

The course actually helped me to understand how things come about. Product design is not just about Google research, drawing some lines and as long as you like the shape, that’s it. It’s about whether a design can be realistically produced and if you are able to provide the drawings that an engineer will understand. I think Temasek Polytechnic as a diploma provided me with a good foundation.

And people are often happy to share things with you if you simply ask. So it’s more than just the education.

In relation to education, you are now the program leader of LASALLE College of the Arts, I understand that you did some revamp of the course structure. What are some of the key principles that you are emphasising now with this new syllabus?

Before I took on the job, I interviewed some students from the degree course before for positions in my design studio. And I always find that their basic skill set is lacking. Everybody is teaching blue ocean thinking, narratives, and just talk talk talk, blah, blah, blah. I think the education is a bit lopsided in that it’s just all talk and not actual making. So what I did for the course right now is to train the students to have the skill set to build something. That comes first, then you have to back it up by where the idea came from and finally, you have to sell me the idea. So in a way, I’m doing the reverse, I can’t stand designers who talk too much about concepts without showing me how they are going to build. And I think that’s fundamentally a key problem in our profession. I think we have to really have the right skill set and be able to deliver a built object first. Only after that, then you narrate your idea - that should be secondary.

For the final year students, I’ve roped in various industry partners for each project. So the students work with these industry players to develop real practical products. Some of the partners include global brands like Kohler, to design sanitaryware; Dell Technologies, and even some local furniture brands like Scene Shang. This is to inculcate a sense of reality in their projects. Because this is a degree course, and the students are more mature, once you give them the responsibility to design for a real customer, it forces them to have a sense of reality and responsibility. I want them to have the right mindset before they actually go into the workforce.

For Year 1 foundation, I have included workshops like woodworking, metalworking, and also the right technical skills to make drawings and renderings. For the 3rd Year, they also learn animation because I know storytelling is very important nowadays, cos everybody has to sell something. And these skills are important if you want to sell yourself on social media, like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, these are good platforms to communicate your creativity. They also learn other skills like photography, videography, graphic design so that they know how to market themselves.

Everybody is teaching blue ocean thinking, narratives, and just talk talk talk, blah, blah, blah. I think the education is a bit lopsided in that it’s just all talk and not actual making. So what I did for the course right now is to train the students to have the skill set to build something.

After you graduated from Temasek Polytechnic in 1991, how was the design scene at that time in Singapore? Was it hard for you to get a job in the area of industry or product design?

When me and my classmates graduated, quite a number of them went into the electronic appliance field. I think it was just me who chose furniture design. It was much easier to find a job as a designer in electronic appliances because there were quite a number of companies they could go to, such as Panasonic and Phillips.

Initially, I applied at Xtra (furniture store), Choon Hong (the owner) is a really nice guy. I don’t think he remembered that my first job was with him. As there were not any “furniture designer” positions open, so I would apply to furniture retail shops just to be a salesman. My first job was actually a furniture salesman - I was selling furniture, mostly kitchen cabinets. At that time, I really didn’t mind it because I just wanted to be in that environment. Besides wanting to design furniture, I wanted to learn about the retail scene - from creation to production to retailing to delivery, I wanted to learn the full process. So I really enjoyed myself because I was learning new things and Xtra was the go-to brand for luxury furniture at that time. Xtra imported a lot of branded Italian furniture and I remember clearly, for me, it was so mind blowing to be able to examine and touch all these amazing designs. And I considered myself to be very lucky to be there, to be able to flip the chair in any direction I liked, to look at the details and workmanship up close, so I was actually learning about design even when I was a salesman.

I know everybody in the chain - from encountering the customers at the frontline, to the delivery guy, the display artists, knowing all these people helped me when I started my business later on. It wasn’t planned but it was sort of like, when you aim to do your own business, you will subconsciously consolidate information for that one fine day when you are ready.

Why I’m sharing this is because, if you have a target of what you’re going to do in the end, I think somehow you will walk the path towards it, whether consciously or subconsciously, and you tend to collect information about what or who is going to help you at the end of the day. So even though I was not doing design for the first five years after I graduated, my first few steps were already shifting me towards what I am doing right now.

If you have a target of what you’re going to do in the end, you tend to collect information about what or who is going to help you at the end of the day. So even though I was not doing design for the first five years after I graduated, my first few steps were already shifting me towards what I am doing right now.

One of your earlier jobs in the first five years was with homegrown furniture store Barang Barang right?

That was my second and last job before I started on my own. I was the buyer and product development guy for Barang Barang. For those young listeners/readers out there, Barang Barang was a homeware and furniture store in the mid 90s, one of the homegrown retailers that became quite big at that time, around the mid 90s to late 90s. I joined them as a buyer and also handled product development. That was the place where I really learned about the business of design because I got to go all over the world to source for products - from Frankfurt to India, Thailand, Sweden, everywhere - to visit trade shows and make deals. I was taught how to negotiate the price, the quantities. And I also learnt about shipping and all the jargons and shipping terms. I really learned about the business of how you import things from overseas to Singapore, and how you’re also able to have a hand in developing them in the way you want for your market.

At Barang Barang, I’ve developed drinking cups, vases, planters, etc with our manufacturing partners. When you order in substantial quantities, you can tell them, “Can we change these? Can we modify these? Can we have this colour?” They’ll say something like, “You need to meet the minimum quantity. We cannot do this for a hundred pieces, you need to order 5,000 pieces.” And then I will have to make calculations for 5,000 pieces, how many months can I sell it and at what kind of pricing. So the whole mechanic to do business was learned from there. It was really fun!

Barang Barang closed down a few years after you were no longer with them. What do you think they have done wrong? And let’s just say they’re a client of yours today, do you think you can save the business?

Yes, I think I can save the business. Because my ex-boss came from Ikea, he was there for a really long time, I think two decades. And I think he wanted to operate like Ikea, but he didn’t realise that Ikea has a global outreach, so they’re able to order a lot, buy really cheap, and they already have a global network of distribution to sell these.

For example, you can easily order 5000 pieces of drinking glasses because you know that you can move a thousand pieces a week. But Barang Barang is not Ikea. After I left the company and when I ran into my ex-colleagues from Barang Barang, they would always blame me, saying, “I still have like 3,000 pieces of that glass stashed away in some corner of the shop.” Barang Barang didn’t work because the boss applied the same Ikea business idea to a totally different context. I think Barang Barang benefited from the same Ikea type of merchandise display, the way the products communicated with the customers, that was quite good. But beyond that, he did not differentiate the brand clearly, and he didn’t really have a pricing strategy, he just assimilated what Ikea was doing and that was what went wrong.

Having said that, it was a very strong brand because at that time, there weren't many local or Asian brands that modernise Asian design and crafts suitable for the urban landscape. And Barang Barang was able to fill that niche. To a certain extent, they were able to represent the modern Asian ways of living, and engaged with our neighboring countries like Philippines, India, Indonesia in terms of production, having our Singapore design and vision established with our neighbours’ production.

Actually, on this topic of Asian design, something came up in my mind. Ikea is able to appeal to a global audience because of the minimal Scandinavian style, it fits in any home and any city. Do you think that the Asian style or the Asian look is very hard to sell? Can it survive beyond being an accent piece in the corner of the house? For many years, various Asian designers have been pursuing this thing called the new Asian look. What’s your take on that?

Oh, this is going to be a long, long answer.

We have time.

I asked myself this question for a long time.

I think, first of all, when we talk about Asian design, we should not be talking about Buddha heads and traditional Chinese cabinets, we should be talking about what is modern Asian. We cannot talk about the arts and crafts of Asia today without bringing it to modernity because even Art Noveau didn’t survive in Europe. So we’re talking about modern Asian. But the thing is, there’s no such thing as modern Asia because as long as Asians are represented by their cities of Asia like Bangkok, KL, Jakarta, it’s always about buildings and architecture. I’m not an architect but… the “Asian” architecture doesn’t even cater to our Asian way of living. My point is, when all of your buildings are built and designed with a European influence, then I don’t see how the furniture can be informed by how we live as Asians.

If you want to talk about Asian style, I think it has to be derived from the vernacular we are in. Be it the production that we have, the limited resources that we have, the tropical weather that we have, and we design according to that. But the thing is, the major cities in Asia are not designed like that. Even the city plan is not designed that way. So how can furniture be designed that way? It’s very tough, it takes more than a furniture designer to change the whole thing. We need politicians to effect the change.

For example, if the economy is driven by Europe, by America, by so-called Anglo-Saxons, then they’ll always be seen like the more advanced countries, so to speak. It’s natural for humans to want to aspire, to be more advanced. And then visually, people will think that “Oh, Ikea, modern Swedish. This is how we want to look.” And it is what it is. But if the economy and the world change, let’s say that right now it’s driven by China and Southeast Asia, then the whole economy is based on Asia. The press, the media, the entertainment, the music, will aspire towards Asia. So you have contact points to reach out to the rest of the world through music, through films, through food, through the way we live. Then, people will start to say, “Hey. This is how they sit. It’s a shorter chair and there’s a table that is shorter. And they have a sofa that’s high back because they live in a small living room. And they watch TV in the living room so all their sofa is high back.” Then maybe the Italians will stop doing low back sofa. My father found the Italian sofa not comfortable because he said. “I cannot raise my neck.” That’s because it’s designed for Italians. And because in Italy and Europe, they have big houses, and they have a lot of rooms and the TV doesn’t need to be in the living room so they basically don’t need a high back sofa.

Cultural differences affect design. In cities like Singapore, you have a three-bedroom house, you have a living room, you have to put a TV there, so your sofa needs to be high back. But it’s not trendy, it’s not high end, it’s not sophisticated, because the Italians and Europeans are not doing that. That’s what the world thinks. We’re being guided by the vision of what it is to be like Europeans. And that is the cue for our designers, hence our design moves in that direction. Hence, it’s very difficult, it takes more than just a designer and it takes more than the design communities, it takes more than the businesses to change the perception and to accept the way Asians live, in a sense.

Cultural differences affect design. In cities like Singapore, you have a three-bedroom house, you have a living room, you have to put a TV there, so your sofa needs to be high back. But it’s not trendy, it’s not high end, it’s not sophisticated, because the Italians and Europeans are not doing that. That’s what the world thinks.

South Korea is doing quite a good push of the Asian movement through music, movies, and all that. I think that’s a start.

Yeah, that’s a start.

Now, let’s talk about the Air Division. You set up the Air Division in 1999 with three partners. Air was really your first move in locally branded furniture. What made you decide to venture out and start Air, and what was the preparation process like? Was it difficult?

When I was in Barang Barang, I was already thinking about starting on my own, because the boss didn’t listen to what I was saying, and to me, they didn’t know what they were doing, Hence I wanted to do something for myself. That’s where it started, the idea of Air. I was 26 when I was working at Barang Barang and I was very eager to do what I wanted. I saw many opportunities for things to be done in another way, but because I wasn’t the boss, I couldn't do much. That was also the same time that Wallpaper (magazine) was just launched. I remember I was in London and I saw the first issue of Wallpaper and it was mind blowing. I was like "This is it." It kind of reaffirmed that what I was thinking was correct. It was a modern way of living presented in a different manner.

I have been building up contacts, information, and knowledge in my five years as an employee in Barang Barang. And there came a point where I rallied my colleagues that we should do something together. So I found like-minded friends at Barang Barang and it came to a point where we said, ‘Hey, we just need to do this ourselves.’ And I was the one who came up with the whole concept for Air and pulled everybody together. And then we each chipped in like S$25,000 and with four of us, we managed to put together S$100,000 and that was how we started.

It was also at that time that I saw that there were no local furniture designers doing anything interesting, only like the usual - Cellini, Star Furniture, Koda, you know. They did develop their own furniture and modify a bit from European design, but for me they were still not very modern, not very well designed in that sense. And on the other spectrum, you have retailers like Space Furniture, Xtra Furniture, who were importing and selling really great Italian or European furniture, but the pricing was out of reach to most people. So I saw an opportunity that if we were able to produce our own designs and manufacture them in Singapore or neighbouring countries, we can bring the costs down. And that was how I started designing and producing many furniture pieces for Air.

I remember I was in London and I saw the first issue of Wallpaper* and it was mind blowing. I was like 'This is it.' It kind of reaffirmed that what I was thinking was correct. It was a modern way of living presented in a different manner.

Was Air Division as a business successful? And was it hard to sell your own furniture? Because you’re really one of the first movers in locally designed furniture.

Yeah, it was really really tough. When a customer comes in and asks, “Where is this from?” And I say, “Singapore.” They will just turn away and walk out, literally, I’m not joking. Retail in Singapore is really tough because you know Singaporeans are very reserved and they don’t warm up to people that fast. In the early days of Air, I was the one who was on the sales floor, just me and one of my business partners, on the sales floor. And we really had a shock when we experienced firsthand how reserved Singaporeans can be. They can walk into your shop, and you're, like, invisible to them, as they walk around. Even when you say hello, they don’t acknowledge. And soon they’ll just turn around and walk out. You really have to eat the humble pie and it made me reflect and ask myself, “Do you do that to a salesperson in a shoe shop? Do you do that to a waiter in a restaurant?” It helped me to look inside myself and become a more empathetic person.

Facing multiple challenges, I realised that doing your own business was really hard. And I was really heartbroken and disheartened. But when you are young, you don’t need a lot of money to survive, right? I remember I was paid S$1500 a month just to cover my basic expenses and then S$1800 for the next three years. I wasn’t calculative of how much I was earning, and I wasn’t comparing myself with my classmates or peers who were earning more. It was really like - I want to do this and my vision was to have a lot of Air shops around the world. That dream was really my driving force.

In the early days of Air, I was the one who was on the sales floor, just me and one of my business partners, on the sales floor. And we really had a shock when we experienced firsthand how reserved Singaporeans can be. They can walk into your shop, and you're, like, invisible to them, as they walk around.

It was your dream to set up Air, did you achieve the things you wanted to achieve with Air?

By the end of 10 years when I left, we did have a franchise shop in Jakarta and I was really happy because my aim was to have a hundred shops worldwide, and at least we achieved one. We had this shop, six or seven years into Air, and then we joined trade shows in Milan and Germany, through these we also exhibited and exported my designs. And we actually did export to Germany - one container worth of furniture! But then we get complaints, blah, blah, blah - so that’s again a big lesson. We also formed a partnership with a Vietnamese factory for a year to do product development. Then whenever we are selling well, they will say they are not going to produce anymore. Those kinds of things always happen. Within that ten years we became the poster boy for the Singapore industry, always being cited as a successful homegrown brand, we were featured everywhere flying the Singapore flag. So yeah, I think it was really successful in that sense. It was not successful monetarily, I was still just getting a salary! But I think it was successful in terms of where we positioned ourselves in the market at that time. My design was also picked up by *Ligne Roset *at that time with my Pebble table, a TV console, which was a predecessor for my current Line collection. We sold that TV console design, the Break stool and the Pebble table to Ligne Roset. I remember I flew to France, to Leon, to discuss the contract. That was my proudest moment. Because when I walked out from the office, I reminded myself, ‘I have to be very proud of this moment.’ Being able to sell to a big brand like *Ligne Roset *was my proudest moment.

One of the toughest things during that time was that 90% of things in Air were designed by me. And I literally have to come up with a design every week. I didn’t complain because it was really a fun thing to do when you are young. So I just kept designing and designing and if the piece didn’t sell, we just removed it or improved it and continued selling. It was a really good chance for me to hone my craft as a designer, and to know what sells and what doesn’t sell, what we can produce and what we should not produce, and connecting with factories from around the world to produce what I want. So that was a really good foundation for me.

One of the toughest things during that time was that 90% of things in Air were designed by me. And I literally have to come up with a design every week. I didn’t complain because it was really a fun thing to do when you are young. So I just kept designing and designing and if the piece didn’t sell, we just removed it or improved it and continued selling.

So from this lesson, would you conclude that fame doesn’t translate into money?

Oh, for sure. Because I’m not the richest man right now. The thing is, I don’t complain because if I can rate the happiness of what I am doing now, I think I will score 10. I really enjoy what I’m doing right now, and for me that’s enough for me, but I’m not the richest guy. I wish I could buy a Good Class Bungalow but I can’t. I wish I’m Secretlab (Singapore Company that designs and makes gaming chairs). Kudos to them, young people. I think they really did well and they have done their marketing really well.

You left Air in 2009 after 10 years. What actually happened? And looking back, have you ever wished for a different outcome?

I didn’t leave, I was asked to relinquish my MD (managing director) role in Air. There were 4 of us and we all had equal shares. At one point, I wanted to restructure the company and rope in a managing director, someone who can help to manage the business better, but because two of the shareholders treat their positions as rice bowls and they wanted me to step down as MD and for them to take over instead. So if I have to leave as the MD, I thought I should just sell off my shares because I don’t trust that it’ll be well-managed.

At that time when all this was happening, I did something that the 3 shareholders were very unhappy about, so they threatened to sue me and using a legal suit to hold me hostage, they gave me the option that for them to drop the case, I will have to sell the shares back to them at $1 each. So I thought, anyway there was not like a lot of money there, so I would rather not get my name tarnished because I can always start over again on my own. So I kind of agreed with my lawyer, like okay, let’s just sell my shares at $1 each. So we set this up and in the end, I got a $3 cheque. Instead of getting like S$130,000, which I calculated was roughly what my shares would be worth at cost; instead of getting that, I got a $3 cheque. I was pretty upset and heartbroken because *Air *- for me - wasn’t just a business started in 1999, it was like a dream I had since I was 12 years old, when I wanted to be a designer; it was my dream when I was in Polytechnic at 16 years old; it was everything to me. I wanted to be the Philippe Starck of Singapore, and I’ve always always wanted to build a company like Air and be able to sell it at some point. And then overnight, I was told to leave and sold my shares for $3. Everything just came crashing down and then worse shit happened and I got into an accident, and was forced to sell my house, all of these happened in the span of a year. And I had no job. And all I had was a $3 cheque. Everything was so screwed up.

Luckily, I had a lot of support from the furniture industry. So I really have to thank Ernie from KODA, for helping me through, “You know, Nathan, you should look for a company that can produce your things.” I also helped a company in Belgium which engaged me as a senior product editor, to go to the factory in Indonesia and edit their products, make them better. I was quite well paid for the next ten months by this Belgian company, it helped to get my finances on track again. Philip from Ethnicraft also got me to help him in the factory in Jakarta, and that really helped too.

Eventually I started out again, opening up V, a customised sofa retail shop, with a partner to make my designs. And immediately after that, I opened up Grafunkt with my current business partner, Jefery. Actually, Jefery was the person I wanted to employ to take over me as MD at AIr, before things fell apart. I could still remain as a shareholder, but I wanted a professional to come in and run the company. So when that didn’t happen, I asked Jefery whether he wanted to start something with me.

So me and Jef each put in S$25,000 each, we started with S$50,000 and then we just opened this very small 400sqft shop in the basement of Park Mall. Some people might feel shy - falling from grace like that, from being the poster boy and having 3 (Air) shops in Singapore, to being banished to a tiny basement shop - but I’m not shy. It’s kind of like being a fallen angel, but I wasn’t sad. It is what it is. I know I’ll come back because if I can start up Air by myself, I can do it again. So that was my motivation, I knew that I could do it again. Grafunkt’s tiny 400sqft shop grew within six months, and we moved to the 2nd floor with a space of 800sqft. And within a year, we opened a 3,000sqft showroom in a warehouse space.

One of the lessons I learned after getting betrayed, was that things like that can happen. I can take it negatively and say I want to fight back, or get back at them, but I choose to simply outdo them in business. If Grafunkt is an improved version of Air, and I was the brains behind Air, I know that everyday when Grafunkt grows stronger, Air will just get weaker. Because I can do it better now. Air is a product of what I can do and Grafunkt is simply a continuation of what I can do. Then naturally, they’re going to clash and Grafunkt is going to be the one that will survive. And true enough, Air died eventually.

Having that faith, I focused on what I wanted Grafunkt to achieve, and not to repeat the same mistakes of Air. So Grafunkt is like Air Version 2. So to answer you, do I regret it? No, of course not. Because I’m in a much better place right now compared to Air. I have a very capable partner like Jefery and it frees me to run my own design studio and do a lot of things. I don’t have to be there everyday because I know Jefery is doing a good job.

I wanted to be the Philippe Starck of Singapore, and I’ve always always wanted to build a company like Air and be able to sell it at some point. And then overnight, I was told to leave and sold my shares for $3. Everything just came crashing down and then worse shit happened and I got into an accident, and was forced to sell my house, all of these happened in the span of a year. And I had no job. And all I had was a $3 cheque. Everything was so screwed up.

When you first started Grafunkt - and I do remember visiting you both in the basement and on the 2nd floor - you were selling only your own designs at that time right?

Yeah, only my own designs.

Some people might feel shy - falling from grace like that, from being the poster boy and having 3 (Air) shops in Singapore, to being banished to a tiny basement shop - but I’m not shy. It’s kind of like being a fallen angel, but I wasn’t sad. It is what it is.

So from designing and selling only your own designs to what Grafunkt is today, importing a lot of big brands - how did that process happen? What made you decide, “I’m not going to design every single piece any more.”

Yeah, because it’s really tough to design every piece. If you look at a TV console - you need plywood veneer, maybe a marble top and stainless steel legs, and that will mean you have to work with three suppliers. When you have one piece in the showroom, and if it’s being ordered, we will need to email three different companies to order the separate components, and tell them that in a month’s time, they have to get it done and send it back to our warehouse for assembling. And most of the time, a month later, you get the components and something will be wrong - the lid is too sharp, the glass is too big, etc. Then you will have to call the customer to apologise about the delay. Hidden costs are being wasted during this whole process, and previously that drained Air financially. Yes we can still do it but it’s not a very profitable business. And having learnt the lesson, with Grafunkt I was like, we’re not going to do that anymore. Because I’m getting old, I’m 39 at the time, and I also think it’s not the right way to do business. So I decided that we should import more brands. And at that time, European brands were also getting much more affordable, even the Italian ones were more affordable too. They were more willing to work with Asian countries. It was also the same time that Singapore brought in the F1 races, so it definitely made us more visible, and people are more assured that we have money.

In the past when I went to furniture shows in Europe, people were hostile, you can see in their faces, it’s like, “Oh my God, Chinese guy from China!” But with high profile events like F1 staged in Asia, I think they were more than happy to sell to Asia and Singapore. Hence, we were able to bring in a lot more European brands. With Grafunkt, I also separate the retail from my furniture design, which is under the brand Folks. I also licensed a Malaysian factory to produce all the pieces for me and distribute them globally. So Folks doesn’t belong to Grafunkt. Folks will remain as my own brand and I have full creative control.

The lesson I learned from Air is that I can’t put all the eggs in the same basket. And since I have different skill sets, it makes sense to create separate entities. While Grafunkt will be an exclusive retail partnership with Jefrey; under my design studio Nathan Yong Design, I am free to work with different people as a designer. So that was our agreement.

I developed Folks with the factory that’s able to do solid wood furniture, and then we go for trade shows after that. And that’s where we sold to Design Within Reach and Living Divani, and also The Conran Shop in London. So that becomes my export vehicle. And then at the same time, when I started up Grafunkt, i also started Nathan Yong Design as my design studio. Nathan Yong Design is just based on my own capabilities as a designer, so I shouldn’t share my profit in a sense. Because during Air time, whatever I did, I just put in the same company, it is not fair. I even had to do interior design for Air customers just to pay the rent for the shop. It was unfair because I was doing a lot more than all the other partners. Separating my entities allows for more clarity in business.

The lesson I learned from Air is that I can’t put all the eggs in the same basket. And since I have different skill sets, it makes sense to create separate entities. While Grafunkt will be an exclusive retail partnership with Jefrey; under my design studio Nathan Yong Design, I am free to work with different people as a designer. So that was our agreement.

Talking about these blurred boundaries - when you were with Air, you designed so many pieces of furniture during that 10 years, what happened to the copyrights of all those furniture now?

Unfortunately I got myself a bad deal with the Air contract as I was also being employed as a designer, so all my designs belong to the company.

Can you take it back now that the company has closed down?

No, I can’t. And one of the shitty things they did was that when I left, they replaced my name on all the designs with one of the shareholder’s names. I think getting $3 was bad enough, right? To change the authorship of the creations, that was really low. I mean, I don’t even blame them for kicking me out because of my miscommunication which led to a misunderstanding. But doing anything further, I think that was below the belt. I’ve been through so much shit that I know how it felt, and I will never do this kind of thing to another person.

And one of the shitty things they did was that when I left, they replaced my name on all the designs with one of the shareholder’s names. I think getting $3 was bad enough, right? To change the authorship of the creations, that was really low.

So would you consider the incident with Air the lowest point in your journey?

On that day I was kicked out, I literally sat on the curb and I was like, “Where do I go from here?” I did try to approach a company to buy off Air so at least I can at least take back my S$130,000. But then I asked myself, “If I do that, I’m also helping them to get their money back, right? Why should I help everybody take their money back?’ Screw it! I’ll forget the S$130,000. I can earn that back in 6 months again anyway.”

There were actually two offers for me to be creative director for furniture companies, but after all the bad experience, I didn’t really want to work for or with anyone, I just wanted to do something on my own again. It was quite scary but once you have clarity in mind, I think it’s quite simple. I think I’m pretty self-assured and I have really good friends to guide me and I don’t have a family to worry about. So it was very clear to me that I wanted to start from scratch again.

On that day I was kicked out, I literally sat on the curb and I was like, 'Where do I go from here?'

When you were with Air, you also made a decision to do your Master in Design at University of New South Wales. Why did you decide to continue your studies and do you recommend it to any mid-career designers?

At that point, I think I was 33 years old, or 35, I kind of knew that I would not want to run a retail shop for the rest of my life. And I knew that I would like to teach at some point. And you know in Singapore, to teach, you need to have a degree. So I literally took it just for the certificate. Because I think I have gone through real lessons through my business, so the degree was just to reaffirm what I already knew. So I did it so I can teach when I grow old.

The thing for me is, my life has always panned out the way I wanted. I always think about what I want to do in 10 years time, and somehow, maybe it is the power of positivity, and somehow, it will happen if you think hard enough.

You’ve been a product/furniture designer for more than 20 years. What are some of the common misconceptions that people think about being a product/furniture designer?

I think people don’t understand why it costs so much to hire a designer. You and I, we understand that to design something, it’s not just the one hour you put in to draw something. It is the cost behind that one hour - you are paying for two decades of knowledge. So for me right now, if I were to design a chair, one single stroke of line came from a lot of information. One simple stroke of line came from… If I draw a line, it’s not just 2D, it’s 3D for me! That line comes with the material, it comes with the cost to make that, etc. So when someone asks me to design something, I know how much it will cost and how much it will sell. And that’s why my fee is this amount, and most people do not understand. So we need a lot of communication to tell them and reassure them that it’s not just a design, it’s a whole scheme of things. This is what most clients don’t understand, which is common, so I need to educate them.

I think people don’t understand why it costs so much to hire a designer. You and I, we understand that to design something, it’s not just the one hour you put in to draw something. It is the cost behind that one hour - you are paying for two decades of knowledge. So for me right now, if I were to design a chair, one single stroke of line came from a lot of information.

Throughout your career, you have been to a lot of international furniture fests, of course as a buyer, but more importantly, to exhibit your work as a furniture designer. Do you think going to international furniture fairs is important for aspiring furniture designers? And do you think going to these fests have helped you become the international designer that you are today?

Yeah, I really have to say that everything we do is important. I don’t know how to explain that - most Singaporeans or most people always like to know what is the end game, “If I do this, what is my return?” But for me it’s always the process and the outcome might be unpredictable, and that is ok. So to answer your question, do you think joining furniture fairs will help you as a designer, when people ask that question, I think what they really want to know is more like, “In the end, can I really sell your design?”

But my point is, when you’re there, you learn a lot of things, you see a lot of things, you make a lot of contacts. It lets you get closer to your aim. And being closer to your aim might not be a very clear picture. It’s not like, “There are no visitors. I spent S$50,000 and there are no visitors coming in, so it’s a bad show.” I think they have to stop thinking that things happen so simplistically, it doesn’t. So I think, yes, it’s very important to do everything. To go to the factory and help with production is important, to go to the uncle who is making your sofa is also important. It’s how you’re going to manage the big picture and look at how you can connect all the dots together. If you're negative and you always look at the returns and worry about the calculation; if you are unable to enjoy the whole process, then I would say, don't do anything at all.

It is all about your attitude towards your experiences, whether you are a designer or not. If you are positive about your experiences, you can connect all the dots and you can contribute to society or to yourself. A designer has to be positive and not be so narrow minded. It doesn't work that way. But you also have to work your sums. You're not going to have orders from the first three shows. You are not going to be rich even with your first five containers. And when you do all that, don't go into bankruptcy. Don't owe people money. Don't be an asshole. Don't make use of people. Don’t harm yourself and other people. You must have the right mindset.

A designer has to be positive and not be so narrow minded. But you also have to work your sums. You're not going to have orders from the first three shows. You are not going to be rich even with your first five containers. And when you do all that, don't go into bankruptcy. Don't owe people money. Don't be an asshole. Don't make use of people. Don’t harm yourself and other people.

Recently you have also started to make art. And you actually branded yourself differently as an artist with the moniker KSY. So I’m curious, why didn’t you want to do your art as Nathan Yong and want to separate it as two entities?

Art and design are very different. Design is informed by a lot of technical information. Art can be very conceptual. As I get older, I want to depart from the functional side of things. I want to do things that are more personal. It is very selfish, very egoistic but I think it's just a matter of getting old. It’s more like I kind of need space for myself.

But when I'm making a design for a client at Grafunkt, it’s always a service towards the client. You know, you have a brief. What they want, you do it. And if I designed something for Folks, most of the time it has to be commercially viable. I want people to understand that, although I'm a single entity, I can be complex and have different identities. It's almost like having a split personality. I do have parts of me that are more personal, or more angry, and I want to communicate that part of me. So it's about communicating to people the different aspects of Nathan Yong. And I think it's easier to separate the two using 2 different names, rather than having to explain it all the time. That's why I put it apart.

As I get older, I want to depart from the functional side of things. I want to do things that are more personal. It is very selfish, very egoistic but I think it's just a matter of getting old. It’s more like I kind of need space for myself.

You have done so many pieces of furniture, which is your personal favourite and why?

You know me, well, Kelley, I'm a bit like.. dementia. I can't remember a lot of things. So I’ve done, I think probably 500 over designs and those i can remember clearly is maybe because they sold a lot, but it doesn't mean that I really like them. But you remember my Break stool?. It's not my favourite work, but I know it's a lot of people’s favourite.

You know how tough it is to get a design to work, when you are designing, you had to deal with all the mechanics and you’re like, “How to get this bitch going..” So, you know, it's not something fun, but for people it’s like “Wow”. So in the end, when you finished something, you're like, okay, I'll do the next thing because you’ve already studied this thing a thousand times over and you're not interested anymore. You have seen the magic, the magician has shown you the idea behind or how they create that magic. So it’s done. Hence I don't feel a lot of attachment to my pieces. I don't feel any sense of ‘Wow, this is so great.’ I am more interested to move on to the next thing. So the next thing is always my favourite. I think it's quite cliche but it’s true.

You know how tough it is to get a design to work, when you are designing, you had to deal with all the mechanics and you’re like, 'How to get this bitch going?!' So, you know, it's not something fun, but for people it’s like 'Wow'.

Which is your best selling piece of furniture?

For sure the Line series of furniture. I created that once I left Air, and exhibited in Milan. It was a collection of wooden furniture. Design Within Reach - this US company that my wood factory has contact with - asked them to come by the show and look at my items. They saw it, they liked it. At first it was just a TV console, but they liked it so much that they asked me to develop it as a series. So the first collection was a series of three things - TV console, the credenza, and the bar console. It became the second best seller when it was launched in the whole of North America. And Design Within Reach right now is owned by Herman Miller. It was founded in the 90s, they grew and the founder left and sold to Herman Miller. It is now the biggest online retailer in North America and they represent a lot of Italian brands. Anybody designer would love to sell with Design Within Reach because they have a strong presence in the USA market.

So I was very lucky that they bought my items because it put bread on my table after Air. You literally see the royalties coming in. I don't mind sharing right now that every month there’s about $5,000 to $6,000 of royalties coming in, since 11 or 12 years ago and I’m still getting the same amount regularly up til today. Sometimes with one design, you can develop it into a collection and that can be your bread and butter and help you to survive as a furniture designer. My designs with, let's say Ligne Roset, Living Divani, they don't bring in that amount of royalties. But I still continue because it is the relationship that you built, and you can experience different methods of working. And, generally it's nice to see your creation being produced. It's just like giving birth to your own baby.

Sometimes with one design, you can develop it into a collection and that can be your bread and butter and help you to survive as a furniture designer.

A burning question from many aspiring young designers, let's just say if someone wants to design something for a brand, a younger designer, how much royalty should they usually ask for in terms of percentage?

3-5% of the export price. If Lignet Roset is selling $300 at cost to Grafunkt, you get 3% or 5% of the $300. Sometimes I get royalties of, like, $60 a month (laughs) from some brands. My advice to furniture designers is that your business can be run by just getting royalties from brands. You can be working with many brands if your items are not selling a lot, but it all adds up. They won't be able to pay you $4,000 to $6,000 kind of royalties, so you have to work and have a lot of things to be represented by them, to be able to make that kind of money. Because to sell something to one company in Europe is already very tough because they would rather work with European designers, they’re so close to them that they can just give a call, and the designer can just take a train and go to the workshop or the office the next day.

From Singapore, you flew there for $2,000 using your own money, maybe your royalties of 2 years cannot even cover that. So you need to find another way of surviving. So for me, retail is the bread and butter. Retail is the one that I bank on to constantly put food on my table. And design is something that I do because I have all these ideas and I just want to realise them. And it's not just vanity, I'm doing it because I enjoy it. For me, retailing, exporting, designing, education, they all align together and complement each other. To the young designers out there - sometimes doing design alone is not enough for survival, you need to know where your money is coming from, because we live in a city that is expensive, you have to pay mortgage and pay rent right?

To the young designers out there - sometimes doing design alone is not enough for survival, you need to know where your money is coming from, because we live in a city that is expensive, you have to pay mortgage and pay rent right?

Do you have a memorable project?

The most recent one in January (2021), my artwork at the Padang “There in the Middleness”, the site specific one I did for the National Art Gallery. I think that was one of the most beautiful works that I have done. Being in that space is very emotional to a lot of people. Remember we had a picnic there? It's so nice we laughed and drank, and I think those feelings are incomparable. It's not just the work, it's the people that complete the work - having friends around the work to share the moment, that makes it very memorable, I would say

Next question is, you have won many design awards over the years including the President Design Award, Designer of the Year in 2008. How important do you think awards are to designers? Do they help to propel a designer's career?

Yeah. I think it helps to propel to a certain level. And that's good enough for any young designer. I think it opens up doors for you to businesses that might not understand design. So for companies that don't really understand design will be like, ”Oh, you won some awards. Okay. I trust you enough, you know what you're doing.” As simple as that, doors are opened. But awards will only help you in the initial part of your profession, because after that, you have to spend years to prove your consistency in delivery. People who win awards can be because they are really good, but there are also people who win awards because of luck. If you win by luck, then it's not going to help you because you don't have the consistency to come up with things. You might take some drugs, wake up with some great ideas and sell. But you probably have nothing for the next decade. And then you complain. No, it doesn't really help.

But awards will only help you in the initial part of your profession, because after that, you have to spend years to prove your consistency in delivery. People who win awards can be because they are really good, but there are also people who win awards because of luck.

Okay. Next question. You have said in one of your interviews before that a furniture product design is very tough in Singapore because we are a very small country with a small population and small market, we don't have the numbers. How do you think this situation can improve? Is there anything the government or even private sectors can help?

Before answering the question, I just want to share with the young designers out there. If your first idea is always like, “Can somebody help me? Can the government do something?” I think you better not do business at all, just stop. Because doing business is really about how you're going to help yourself with the information and contacts that you’ve got. Everything's in your own hands.

On how the government can help - yes, please buy local. I think our government should start using the things we design. They have done it with the fashion designers. A lot of our MPs (Members of Parliament) wear our local designers’ clothes during special events. So I think it will be great if you can see Singapore embassies around the world using furniture by Singapore designers. So let's shout out, Kelley, please shout here! Singapore ambassadors listening to Studio SML, please change your embassy’s furniture to Singapore designs. I can help you guys curate and put up a group of local designers and change the way you're presenting Singapore. So when you have visitors going to your embassy, they can have a sense of what Singapore design is all about. Even government offices, HDB (Housing Board Development) or Changi Airport, I think it's great to engage local designers. I'm lucky that Changi Airport *Jewel *actually got me to design their public seating at the canopy. So I thought that was a great move and very encouraging for me because, you know, Changi Airport is a big deal, right? And they’re willing to work with a Singapore designer. That was great and I’d love to see more of that. And a lot of our local designers are really good anyway. We just need the confidence, get the public sector to use local designers.

About the private sector, unfortunately it’s just business. It comes down to dollars and cents. They might bring in a Singapore designer as part of a marketing plan to say that they engage with local. But with the private sector, it’s just business, I would say.

If your first idea is always like, 'Can somebody help me? Can the government do something?' I think you better not do business at all, just stop. Because doing business is really about how you're going to help yourself with the information and contacts that you’ve got.

This is a fun question that I like to ask all product designers. If Ikea commissioned you to design something for them, what would it be?

A chair. So as cliche as it sounds, all designers or architects want to design the perfect chair, right? I think I have the will and power to design the perfect chair that I’ve always wanted. A chair is also the closest to humans because we sit on the chair when we do things - you go to a cafe, a restaurant, the library, you sit on a chair. Ikea has so many stores worldwide and if there’s one item that can reach out to the majority of people in the world, it would be a chair. I want to be close to everybody's bums.

What would you say is your design philosophy?

I don't know. I don't have a philosophy, it's a process probably. It comes down to the existential question of the product. Like when I design an object, I ask, “What does the object do? What is the basis of it? Like a vase, what is a vase for? Is it just putting flowers? And when it holds a flower, does it hold it this way or another way?” So it's about asking the existential questions of the object first. And from there, I try to see if a vase can do different things? Or can it be an identity? Can it not be on the table but on a wall? Can it be hung from the ceiling? So I keep asking questions and so that when I decide on the design approach and when I act on the design and create something, there's always a layer of meaning or reasonings, or a meaning for the user. So when you use the object I designed, through the days, through the years, you start to realise, “Oh, now I know why it’s designed this way.” So it's about the layering of meanings and reasons in a very discreet manner, not loud, not straight in your face. It's about understanding the reasons behind every curve, every line, every structure, every thickness, everything, every weight. I hope that it’s the result of the work, but whether that is my philosophy, I don't know how to explain it.

I don't have a philosophy, it's a process probably. It comes down to the existential question of the product. Like when I design an object, I ask, 'What does the object do?'

You have kept Nathan Yong Design as a relatively small setup over the years, usually you and one assistant and you are turning 50 this year. Have you thought about a succession plan or do you feel that one day if you're gone, it's gone, no need to have any succession?

I think from years of running business from Air to Grafunkt, I used to think that I want to create a legacy. As I said, I wanted Air to open a hundred shops worldwide, and all that. But through the years, I realised that it comes with a very heavy cost, especially in Singapore. I can try to employ 2 designers, 5 designers, 10 strong men, but in the end, you end up working for your staff, because you actually have to find work to feed them. To get work, you will have to compromise your integrity just to pay your staff. Singapore is a place with very high labour costs, so it's very tough. And because design is only one component of what I do, I don't need to rely only on design to survive. So in that way, I can afford to keep Nathan Yong Design as a very small office so that I can choose the right projects. Hence, I don't want to over employ, I don't want to have to chase for businesses. I just want to be very comfortable and choose who I want to work with. Legacy or not, I think it's really hard to engineer it. I think it's very hard to plan for it and maybe I've given up doing it or maybe at this age, it doesn’t matter to me any more. Maybe one day when I’m dead, someone may realise, “Hey, we got this kind of hidden talent in Singapore and he’s dead a hundred years ago?”

I don't know if it will happen or not, it will be great if someone continues my legacy after I’m dead. But again, it's like at the end of the day, no one really cares and it doesn't really matter. I mean, design is a small component of our lives. There are engineers, doctors, nurses, social workers, people doing what they are good at. And I’m not caught up with like, “Oh, I'm a designer. Oh, I'm a furniture designer.” It's not a thing to me because I can only do as I'm bad with the academics. And it's the only thing I've been doing for the last 20 years. And I'm single, I’ve got nothing better to do, so I’ll do this.

Maybe one day when I’m dead, someone may realise, 'Hey, we got this kind of hidden talent in Singapore and he’s dead a hundred years ago?'

On that note, you've remained unmarried at 50, what’s you plan for old age and why have you never thought about marriage?

I think it's quite normal in Singapore wanting to be independent, financially independent. What I need to do is to stay healthy. Obviously when you reach 80, maybe you might get a nurse or something. But I'm not overly worried. Again, I'm a very positive person. I'm not really afraid of death. I mean, I don't have kids and a wife, I don’t have anything, and death is just gone lor. Maybe people fear sickness and going to the hospital and all those things, I'm like, then just do it if you need to. If you sit on a wheelchair and cannot shower, then don't shower lor. When it happens, you just deal with it. And I'm quite tough in that manner. Maybe because I grew up in a kampong (means “village” in Malay) , or maybe I have very strong parents who teach me how to just get on with things, and don’t complain. And I don't want to think about it because you can't do anything anyway. And things change in 30 years, 40 years from now. So I don’t plan now. I will die one day and no one's going to cry. Ok I have a sister who might cry. But it's fine, everybody dies also la.

Maybe people fear sickness and going to the hospital and all those things, I'm like, then just do it if you need to. If you sit on a wheelchair and cannot shower, then don't shower lor. When it happens, you just deal with it.

The question I've always always wanted to ask - Why is Grafunkt called Grafunkt?

When I started Air, I named it Air because it’ll always appear in the first index, A. It’s very strategic, you know, and everybody needs aIr, so Air. When I left Air, I’m like, screw all those things, I can’t stand this pretentious crap anymore, and I can’t stand Wallpaper* anymore as well. So with Grafunkt, I just wanted to invent a word that sounds good, that’s all. And of course it can just look nice graphically, be fun and sounds like some foreign language that doesn't belong to anywhere, whatsoever. The way we want to present ourselves is different at the time, like, we opened our showroom in a warehouse, we want to create a different experience. And the way we communicate with our crafts is a bit different and all these things. So Grafunkt was something of a fresh Air, that kind of thing. And yeah, *Grafunkt *has no meaning, it just sounds good.

When I left Air, I’m like, screw all those things, I can’t stand this pretentious crap anymore, and I can’t stand Wallpaper* anymore as well. So with Grafunkt, I just wanted to invent a word that sounds good, that’s all.

Your furniture range is called Folks. Why Folks? Is it for the common folks?

Yeah, it's from the “common folks”. I get a lot of feedback saying the price is very high, and it is not for common folks (laughs). But it is relative, right? It's all well-made and people are willing to spend so much on their whiskey and food, I don't know why customers expect furniture to be cheap. Singapore is one of the most expensive city to live in, and yet our people expect things that are made in Singapore to be cheap? I don't understand, where's the connection? Nothing in cheap here, designing and making in Singapore is not cheap. Making it in Malaysia is not cheap too because we use solid wood, we use good materials to make a very structurally strong chair. So all these things add up to the cost. I think it's very affordable if you compare it with another solid wood item from an Italian brand.

So Folks, yes, because the people that make this furniture are all common folks. These workers are very normal people, but they make beautiful objects and it's just a homage to common people.

So Folks, yes, because the people that make this furniture are all common folks.

Your beagle is called Jagger. Is it because he “Moves Like Jagger”?

Because I love rock music, and Mick Jagger kind of epitomised rock, he is sexy, demigod kind of a rockstar. And I think naming a dog Mick Jagger is super cool. And I think I like “J” a lot. And I’m somehow very connected to “J”, like Jefery, my business partner, my dog Jagger, my staff right now is Jay, my previous staff was JJ, so there is just a lot of “J” in my life.

What are you working on right now?

I’m launching a series of sculptural objects made from onyx on 22nd Oct (21) at INDUSTRYPLUS gallery.


In design, we make decisions based on reasoning with ourselves, through understanding different stakeholders’ and customers’ concerns, limitations or needs. But this body of work is a departure from all that, everything that “makes sense” is being re-evaluated. A hard stone that used to be impossible to bend is being manipulated now, a furniture that is supposed to be functional is being challenged. The assumption that stones are dull and not colourful are being thrown out.

I hope this exhibition will make people look at things with a new eye, and be appreciative of the underlying effort that is put into a creation, instead of just based on transactional values.

What is your stand on free pitching?

I really don’t understand why in this day and age, practices like that are still being condoned. Why are people expecting free things? Creatives spend their time and money to hone their craft 24/7, they are committed to their work and they are tasked to create important things like vision, brand, things, for you. Expecting these to be free is an insult to our craft. I understand that it is a free market and there will be people asking for free ideas and there will be people willing to provide. But I hope there is more awareness and campaigns to educate people that it is wrong to expect free pitch. It is more unforgivable when it comes from the government sectors, which are big on copyrights protection, with IPOS and all that. If the Singapore government is serious about growing a creative economy, they have to lead the way, they have to start by housekeeping their procurement methods, because as we speak now, we still have too many free pitching requests by various government offices.

I really don’t understand why in this day and age, practices like free pitching is still being condoned. Why are people expecting free things? Creatives spend their time and money to hone their craft 24/7, they are committed to their work and they are tasked to create important things like vision, brand, things, for you. Expecting these to be free is an insult to our craft.

Coming to the end of the interview, I want to ask a last question, what is your advice for aspiring Singapore designers?

Go and do it. Go and find things to do, just go and do it, less talk please and really just do it. Be ready to overcome all the challenges along the way. I hope they are nice to people. Have grit, work hard, and don’t compare. At the end of the day, you might not achieve anything at all. But you need to commit. It is almost like being a monk. You have to commit yourself to the suffering and do it without questioning, and hopefully something good will happen.

At the end of the day, you might not achieve anything at all. But you need to commit. It is almost like being a monk. You have to commit yourself to the suffering and do it without questioning, and hopefully something good will happen.

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