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Sensory Awakening: Foreign Policy Design Group

The prolific couple behind the design of some of Singapore's hottest spots speak up.

They are behind the branding and design of some of the most popular joints in town, including Restaurant Andre, Loysel’s Toy, Fat Cow and Meat Smith. In November, their highly anticipated multi-concept space Gallery & Co at National Gallery Singapore will be unveiled, where husband-and-wife team Arthur Chin and Yu Yah-Leng will oversee branding, space and merchandise design.

“You can almost see two springs popping out of Yah-Leng’s head. She has all sorts of ideas going through it,” says Chin. “Her ‘antenna’ is so long. She has a very good sense of what’s relevant.”

Yu says: “I’m quite an observant person so I’m always looking at stuff . I suppose it’s an intuition and a strong opinion that something has to be designed this way or move that way. Having lived abroad and interacted with different people have also possibly helped me with ideas. I’m a geek.”

“You can almost see two springs popping out of Yah-Leng’s head. She has all sorts of ideas going through it.”
Arthur Chin, Foreign Policy Design Group

In reality, to get to where they are today, it has taken a few broken teeth and a meal at McDonald’s. Had it not been a motorcycle accident in 1991 that broke her jaw and teeth, Yu might not have pursued her calling in life. She was then 19 and studying computer science at Nanyang Technological University. She recalls: “I flew out of my motorbike, narrowly missed a bus and landed on a kerb. When I regained consciousness after a few minutes, it dawned on me that life is so short. Why was I wasting my time doing something that I would have to deal with for the rest of my life and didn’t enjoy?”

Despite her parents’ objections, she made arrangements to study graphic design at the Art Institute of Boston in the US, giving tuition to sustain herself. Her parents ultimately relented when they saw her determination. After graduating in 1996, she moved to New York where she worked with top fashion brands such as Versace, Bulgari and Vivienne Westwood. In 2002, she set up her own digital agency, where she met Arthur Chin who was fresh from his own epiphany.

“I flew out of my motorbike, narrowly missed a bus and landed on a kerb… it dawned on me that life is so short.”
Yu Yah-Leng, Foreign Policy Design Group

After completing his Master of Business Administration at Melbourne Business School, Chin landed a cushy corporate position at Citigroup’s strategic alliances team in Connecticut, US. Chin says: “One night, while on my way home, I was so hungry that I turned into the first McDonald’s I saw. I think I was the only one there.

“As I sat there munching away, I saw a reflection of myself – a lone figure off the highway at 10.30pm. I asked myself if that was what I wanted to do.” He quit Citigroup and began to offer consultancy services, which led him to collaborate with Yu.

NEW BEGINNINGS

In August 2006, the couple – they got married in 2009 – returned to Singapore, as Yu’s business partner moved to Silicon Valley and Chin’s parents weren’t feeling well. Seven months later, they set up Foreign Policy Design Group, which they describe as a “creative think-tank”. Besides providing branding services, it is involved in other aspects of a client’s project including business development, product design, and right down to interior design. The team has 12 staff members.

Chin, who oversees business strategy, says: “Naming ourselves so is a reminder to maintain an external perspective rather than become myopic and look inwards. Our focus is not to create a onestop shop so we cover everything. To us, the sum of all parts is very important.” Yu adds: “By being involved in the development stages of our clients’ projects, we are able to define the voice of that business so there is a consistent language.”

The transition wasn’t easy. They had to start from scratch, as their professional careers were established overseas. Chin says: “Dealing with the vast difference in market size was challenging. In our first year, a client asked for a 2,000-copy print run. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard it. In the US, the average print run is about 64,000. In terms of client base, we could decide to work only with fashion and lifestyle brands when we were in the US, because the market is so big. This is not possible in Singapore.”

SHIFTING FORTUNES

Their big break came when hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng engaged their branding services in 2009 for The Waterhouse hotel in South Bund, Shanghai. Since then, they have worked together on many other projects including Wanderlust hotel, Esquina and Table No. 1 in Shanghai. In June, the agency published its first Brand Guide: Singapore, which was lauded by the local creative set. The publication highlights top home-grown lifestyle brands and concepts, including Loh’s Unlisted Collection, Wee Teng Wen’s The Lo & Behold group, Grafunkt, Papa Palheta, Supermama and Books Actually.

(RELATED: The Peak interviews Loh Lik Peng and Wee Teng Wen.)

Their latest project with National Gallery Singapore is a collaboration with Loh and Alwyn Chong, managing director of cosmetics and fragrance distributor Luxasia. The collective is known as & Co. The 8,800 sq ft space will comprise a 120-seat cafeteria whose modern South-east Asian menu will be crafted by Restaurant Ember’s executive chef Sufian Zain, and a retail shop selling gallery products, books, apparel, homeware and stationery. Chin says: “Traditionally, museum stores and cafeterias have been managed in-house. This is about the private sector coming together to create a continuum of experiences. We hope to create a museum concept that’s significantly different from what’s available.”

Indeed, if there’s one constant in their diverse portfolio, it would be being different. To keep up with delivering fresh ideas, the couple travel as often as they can to recharge. They are planning a trip to Pantagonia and Mexico at the end of the year.

Yu says: “We prefer going to places without high-rise buildings. Being in nature makes you realise that any problems or issues you’re facing in life are really nothing. You’re so small. You’re a speck of dust in the universe. That is a good outlook to have, in troubling times. You’ll be able to put things into perspective. It also sort of makes it easier to solve problems, because you approach them with a lighter heart.

“That, and sleep, which always gives clarity of mind.”

Captions

(Click to zoom in on Foreign Policy Design Group’s projects.)

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