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Monday September 2, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Tuesday September 3, 2013 MYT 8:49:24 PM
by leong siok hui
Singaporean industrial designer Nathan Yong is one of the most prolific designers coming out of South-East Asia today.
Growing up amidst shipyards, this kampung boy has come a long way to become one of the most prolific industrial designers working out of South-East Asia today.
HIS is a household name in design circles. Dubbed a trailblazer in Singapore’s furniture design industry, Nathan Yong is one of the rare few South-East Asian designers who is making a mark on the global design map.
His works, from furniture to home wares and lighting are sold in Singapore, Malaysia, Europe and the United States. Yong’s stable of clients includes global furniture brands like Ligne Roset (France), Living Divani (Italy), SpHaus (Italy), Domicil (Germany) and US-based Design Within Reach (DWR).
Back home in Singapore, he is design director and co-founder of furniture retail store Grafunkt, which stocks his and selected designers’ products. His own furniture label, Folks, is an “homage to Asian furniture craft”.
“The designs are craft-led rather than design-led, so it’s an honest and humble approach with wood,” says the 42-year-old at a recent interview in Singapore. We met there during the launch of Royal Selangor’s latest pewter collection, Vapour, a tie-up between Yong and Malaysia’s Royal Selangor.
Affable and understated, Yong has no airs about him and puts yours truly at ease minutes into our first meeting.
Forging his own path
In 1999, he began carving out his career in furniture design when he and three pals started furniture brand Air Division.
“There was no good, affordable design in Singapore then so we thought why not create our own designs and production,” says Yong, an industrial design graduate from Temasek Polytechnic with a Masters in Design from the University of New South Wales, Australia. “We were young, driven and foolish....”
Not so foolish, actually. Because Air Division grew to become a successful home-grown brand, snagging international awards like the Red Dot Design Award and iF Award and was featured in international publications like Habitus, Monocle and Wallpaper*. The company exports its designs and furniture throughout the Asia Pacific and to America, North Africa and Europe.
Yong has been credited with “advancing furniture design and furniture retail standards in Singapore” and has received Singapore’s most prestigious design accolade, the Designer of the Year award in the President’s Design Award 2008.
He has also collaborated with influential designers like Japanese product designer Toshiyuki Kita and London-based multi-disciplinary firm VW+BS.
“Nathan is one of the very few clear-headed designers in this region,” says Benson Saw of VW+BS who worked with Yong to create the Array shelves in 2006. “There is clarity in what he wants to achieve in the products he designed. His works are simple yet consistent.”
The big break
But in 2009, Yong left Air Division due to differences of opinions – or, as he put it matter-of-factly, “I got kicked out – and struck out on his own.
“For the first 10 years when I was part of Air, I did so many things just to get attention. I was aggressive – sending e-mails to design brands (with design pitches), going to trade shows and nothing happened!” says Yong. “Then I stopped and said f*** it.”
And his life changed.
The TV console for his Line Collection was snapped up by DWR, the US retailer of modern furniture and accessories. DWR’s massive range of products includes iconic pieces by design legends like Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breueur and Charles and Ray Eames.
Inspired by “the fluid streamlined forms of 1960s stereo components” the Line console is emblematic of Yong’s knack for marrying form and function. The cabinet comes with a louvred exterior/horizontal slats and is designed so the remote control will operate the media components inside even when the doors are closed.
DWR liked the design so much that they asked Yong to expand the collection to include a wine bar. Incidentally, the cabinets are crafted by talented Malaysian craftsmen. Today, the Line cabinets top the bestseller list at DWR.
“Line collection was the tipping point in my career,” says Yong who was named one of the “most promising young designers on the international scene” in 2011 by Internimagazine for Salone Internazionale del Mobile, aka the world’s biggest (and most prestigious) international furnishing accessories exhibition held annually in Italy.
“A lot of things in life are about timing and luck. There’re many good designs out there that never got their big break,” says the self-effacing designer who postulates good design as “keeping it simple and honest”.
Yong’s coterie of works, from the Primary Desk for DWR to Break Stool and Offcut Shelves for Ligne Roset, reflects his design ethos and does away with superfluous details that convolute our busy, urban lives.
“It’s a reflection of modern life as a whole. In our current world of excessive consumption, every product/brand/service is shouting out ‘me, me, me’ and using design as a tool to stand out from the crowd.
“I think design should help enhance our lives, be clear in its communication and intention and not just be deployed because companies want to sell more,” says Yong whose influences include masters like Poul Kjærholm, Mies van der Rohe and Dieter Rams.
The growing up years
Yong’s outlook on life and design philosophy can be traced back to his childhood years in the then village of Tanjong Rhu in Singapore. His family lived in a wooden house with a zinc roof amid shipyards that serviced junks and ship liners.
“Growing up in that environment, I was always intrigued by scale, texture and industrial aesthetics,” says Yong, the youngest of four children.
“My dad worked in sawmills in Indonesia and mum was a homemaker,” he adds. He and his brothers shaped their own toys and waited for low tides to pick treasures from the shore.
“My mum was a DIY sort of person and since we were not well-off, she made things like clothes hanger from recycled parts and pieces. She taught us how to deal with problems and find solutions using items for around the house.”
From the age of 15, Yong knew he wanted to be a designer.
“I was an avid music fan and wanted a better CD player and earphones but I couldn’t find any design in the market that could satiate my aesthetic sensibility. So I thought it might be good if I could design them!” says the pop music buff.
Fast forward 20 years later, Yong is finally doing it his way.
“I try to create design that is timeless and able to speak the language of what it is right now: modernity and efficiency. I think it should be a good object that can still tell a story centuries later,” says Yong who stocks up on vintage collectibles – only those that are designed well, of course! – as a hobby.
“Good design is as little design as possible”, as Dieter Rams, one of the most influential product designers of the 20th century, put it. In other words, a well-designed product focuses on the essential aspects and becomes “quiet, pleasing, comprehensible and long-lasting” by omitting the extraneous.
“It takes a lot of restraint to create the shape/form of the products. For a product to last, it has to be functional and subtle. And it will grow on people as they use it for months and years,” says Yong, who draws inspiration from his curiosity with life: materials, environment and human relationships.
Homage to craftsmanship
Yet the elements of craft and visual aesthetics add to the functionality of an object, he adds.
“Humans have an inherent love for beautiful objects and things that are well made,” says Yong. “People are always looking at objects that are craft-based and that tell a story.
“But I think designers are overrated and craftsmen are undervalued,” Yong said during an interview in 2012 on the pivotal collaborations between designers and craftsmen.
Spot on. For the longest time, names like Hans Wegner or Arne Jacobsen rolled off the tongues of the design cognoscenti but what of the brilliant craftsmen behind these design masters? The good news is that “handmade” has become “the new religion” as Wallpaper* magazine put it. Since 2010, the international design magazine has held an annual Wallpaper Handmade* exhibition at the Salone del Mobile to celebrate craftsmanship.
The growing propensity for craftsmanship and provenance worldwide is probably a backlash against banal, soulless mass-produced furniture, Yong surmises.
A long-time proponent of craft heritage, he regularly teams up with local craftsmen in Singapore and Malaysia to realise his designs. A team of highly skilled carpenters from Johor Baru is behind his internationally acclaimed Folks Collection furniture, including the perennial bestseller Line TV console.
“A lot more people are appreciating handmade objects because they tell a story,” says Yong.
“Crafts allow us to differentiate ourselves from others as every piece is one-of-a-kind. When I buy things I would imagine and like the story behind the product.”
Designers should take advantage of small industries and work with local craftsmen, he adds. “It’s nice to work with 30 to 50 workers, give them something new and let them reinterpret (the designs) with their own workmanship,” Yong elaborates.
“The boss in the Johor factory said to me once, ‘It’s not whether the products can sell or not. Working with designers challenges the workers and make their daily work more creative and inspiring’. ”
But in reality, it has become increasingly difficult to find skilled craftsmen in the region who favour collaborations.
“Some of these small manufacturers are losing business and giving up,” Yong explains.
“We (designers) need to reach out to them fast, and consumers should also be more aware of the value of craftsmanship.”
Yong’s two sen worth for emerging designers: “Focus on honing your craft and finding ways to sell it. Be passionate about (all aspects of) designs and solve your problem like a designer rather than merely acting like one. Be honest and humble, as people will help you if they sense your integrity.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Yong recently launched Blackhole, a lighting retail concept to sell artisanal designer lamps.
On top of showcasing independent designer labels from around the world, Blackhole also sells lamps designed by Yong.
“My dream is to design my own house facing the ocean with a mountain as the backdrop ... maybe in Terengganu?” he chuckles.
In his free time, Yong enjoys tinkering with his single-speed bicycle and riding around Singapore city. Of course, the minimalist look (of a gear-devoid bike) appeals to his designer sense.
“But generally, I’m content with what I do now and I’m happy with my relationship with my clients,” Yong muses.
“A lot of things are not under our control. I can only do my best and be prepared,” says the designer who has gone through the good and bad after nearly two decades in the industry.
“Whatever happens, will happen. In the meantime, I just do what I like,” says the design essentialist, revealing his inner Zen.
Royal Selangor's new collection
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