'Accidental interior designer' Joe Chan on his style and how he started out

IDr Joe Chan, founder and principal of the award-winning firm DesignTone Interior Practice, got into interior design by chance. — Photos: Pixelaw Photography

As a child, Joe Chan – interior designer, founder and principal of the award-winning firm DesignTone Interior Practice – was handy with carpentry tools, spending hours helping his father make simple homemade furniture.

This hobby would become the foundation on which he built his interest in architecture, giving him the skills to be able to visualise how things come together.

Chan was also good at art, sketching and doodling, and it was only natural that he would take up an endeavour related to design.

“A career in interior design, it was by chance,” says Chan. “I actually graduated in architecture, and I couldn’t get a job in any architecture firm. It was the period where the country was in the midst of recovering from the recession back in the 1990s.”

For his home, he likes raw, natural finished materials.For his home, he likes raw, natural finished materials.

Eventually, Chan landed his first job in an interior design company and never looked back: he is a registered interior designer with The Board of Architects Malaysia as well as Malaysian Institute of Interior Designers.

“I always tell people, I am an accidental interior designer, and I would like to take this opportunity to highlight that it is important for the public to know that the interior design profession is a legislated profession in our country, just like an architect and or engineer.”

What would you say is your signature design style?

I do not believe in having a signature style in my design approach. I strongly believe that a designer should be versatile and be like a “chameleon”, adapting to the needs and wants of the client. So you can see my design style is very diverse from my company’s design portfolio.

My practice is always associated with bold, colourful and vibrant design, that is what others associate with us.

Chan was handy with carpentry tools as a child. — Joe ChanChan was handy with carpentry tools as a child. — Joe Chan

On a personal note, I would consider myself a minimalist. I do like spaces that are clean, minimal and non-cluttered to evoke the sense of space. Hence, I constantly work within this ethos: subtle sophistication. Rather than a signature style, one important thing to me is asking the right design questions. The rigour to this question will result in a design that is a resultant of creative problem-solving approach, rather than one that is predictable and cookie-cutter.

What is it about your style that appeals to clients?

Most of the time when clients come to me, it may not necessarily be due to our design style as they probably have seen our work online.

Many times, it has been for our versatility in the design execution and how we are able to add value, as well as provide solutions to their design needs and wants. We are able to create a holistic experience, yet pragmatic solutions.

Where do you get design inspiration from, and how do you balance your design vision with the client’s requests?

I am constantly curious about anything to do with design, be it interior design, architecture, art and fashion hence I read a lot and observe what is revolving and evolving around me. This enables me to stay in the know on what is relevant to our interior design profession. What others do is always my inspiration, even if it does not conform to my personal design preference.

This multitude of exposure allows me to constantly question the stereotype of design, hence providing me an opportunity to create design that is bespoke. Of course, travelling helps a lot too. In short, inspiration comes from the assimilation of the many experiences I had.

My design vision is constantly evolving and to balance my vision with the client’s request, I start off with putting a lot of effort and understanding into the client’s vision first. I continuously question myself, what I can do to further enhance the client’s request and I have a lot of discussions with the client. I do not force my vision but instead I rationalise with them to create a synergy and that’s where we can work on a common ground. Then we will be able to balance each other’s vision.

Chan’s firm is known for their versatility in design execution. Chan’s firm is known for their versatility in design execution.

What is your favourite way to maximise spaces like nooks, under the stairs and hallways?

While this area is always a challenge to design, to me the simplest solution is always the best. I would always play with a lighter colour palette to allow the space to look wider, taller and include furniture that is at the right size and proportion, not overly bulky. This is to give the area a sense of lightness. Material usage is also a key factor as a good balance of matte, gloss and reflective material does the trick.

Do you have a favourite type of space to style, and why?

Nowadays I love to style bathrooms and see how it integrates into the whole design scheme of a home. To me it’s a very important space that most of us tend to take for granted and often neglect in the design scheme.

The bathroom is a place to get refreshed once you get out of bed in the morning and when you return home after having a long day.

Chan’s design vision is constantly evolving to balance with the client’s requests.Chan’s design vision is constantly evolving to balance with the client’s requests.

How has your business fared during the pandemic, what have you learned from it? What do you feel you have accomplished during this period?Undeniably, the pandemic has affected most industries and ours has not been spared either. In general it has slowed down, but I am rather surprised that we are rather busy, not only with a lot of proposals for residential units but also developer show galleries and units. However, I would say the budget is rather tight since the pandemic.

Having said that, weathering and surviving this “storm” and being left unscathed on its own is already an accomplishment. I do hope we can be back to normalcy soon, it would be great to see the industry blooming again.

What was your inspiration for the design of your own home?

For my home I didn’t follow any style in particular, I focused on my own needs and made sure I had an efficient and no-fuss space that suits my own, as well as my family’s lifestyle as well as habits. Learning from the mistakes and shortcomings of my previous homes definitely influenced the design of my current home.

For the outlook I like the usage of raw and natural finished materials. My living room is finished with natural cement flooring while all the other rooms have a wood flooring finish. As for wall paneling and built-in furniture, I used a lot of natural hardwood and plywood with a natural lacquered finish as well as ash wood, which are all on a light timber tone.

This helped create a warm palette to the interior with a good play on natural and artificial lighting. I decided to have minimal furniture in my home, to avoid cluttering and which allows me to enjoy the spatial quality. To quote the famous architect Mies Van Der Rohe, “less is more”.

What are some personal elements from your childhood/family/past that you have incorporated into the design of your home?

I’ve always had a penchant for classic and antique items. I am lucky to have quite a bit of electrical appliances, furniture and knick knacks that were passed down from my family and relatives. These items are displayed and used all over my home as decorative items and repurposed for different usages.

It was important to Chan that his home was not cluttered.It was important to Chan that his home was not cluttered.

One example is a classic sewing machine that was left with only its back, with a metal support and leg pedal. So I added a top surface and a drawer to it, and now it serves as a console table and drawer for keys and other accessories.

I particularly like the mother of pearl chair that sits in my living room beside a 100-year-old working bench taken from my granduncle’s old shop. All these just complete the overall vibe that I want in my home.

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Joe Chan , interior design , interiors , design , homes


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