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Veteran designer Nathan Yong shares the ups and downs of his 20-year career

The industrial designer and co-founder of Grafunkt will be putting on a solo retrospective.

After 20 years as an industrial designer in Singapore, Nathan Yong is putting on a solo exhibition. ”It’s an ego boost,” jokes the veteran designer of The Scheme of Things, Nathan Yong: A Retrospective Show 1999 – 2019. In it, Mr Yong will showcase 30 past works, alongside 10 new works.

On a more serious note, the 47-year-old says that it’s not easy to constantly be able to work as an industrial designer in Singapore, particularly in furniture design. The show is a celebration not only for himself, but also for the people who appreciate what he is doing.

Mr Yong, who has a diploma in industrial design from Temasek Polytechnic and a masters in design from the University of New South Wales, didn’t begin his career as a designer, but as a buyer and doing product development for various companies in Singapore.

His job required him to travel the world to source for manufacturers and craftsmen; along the way, he learnt production techniques and crafts.

In 1999, he and two partners started Air Division, a furniture retail shop, where he also designed some of its pieces. He has since sold off his shares. Since 2009, he has been a co-founder of Grafunkt, which recently opened a 13,000 sq ft store in Funan. Mr Yong also runs his eponymous design studio.

Your solo show is a celebration for yourself, because you say it is not easy being a furniture designer in Singapore. How is it that you’ve been at it for 20 years?

Designers come and go. Furniture design is tough because there isn’t much production or manufacturing here, nor are there many clients. The truth is, the Singapore market is not big enough to sustain locally designed and produced furniture. But I have other businesses that have supported me through the years, which are all furniture-related. For example, I teach industrial design, export and import furniture, and I shop for furniture for Grafunkt, so I’m able to last this long.

What are some highlights of your career?

Being able to sell my Pebble Table to Ligne Roset is one, as it has always been my teenage dream to be a designer for big brands. They saw my pieces at a trade show, and that led to other overseas brands, such as Living Divani and Gebruder Thonet Vienna approaching me.

In 2008, I was named Designer of the Year at the President’s Design Awards. I didn’t feel the impact then as the award was fairly new. But many people know it now, and the award has given me a lot more work and credibility. I’m grateful for it.

This year also marks the 10th year of Grafunkt, and we have a new shop with a restaurant, Raf. I’ve always wanted to do a proper emporium with food and other elements. Even though the last three years have been slow, Grafunkt has achieved a lot from our sales performance.

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And the low points?

Being asked to leave Air Division 10 years ago. I wanted the two partners to leave because I felt they were not contributing enough. But because we each had equal shares in the firm, they formed a bigger majority and asked me to leave as managing director, which I did. After that I sold my shares and left the company.

But it was a good thing, as I found a good business partner in Jefery Kurniadidjaja, who helps with the running of Grafunkt, which frees me up to focus on design, and is always supportive of my creativity.

Besides running Grafunkt and your own design studio, you also teach. Why?

I lecture full-time on product design at Lasalle College of the Arts. Initially, it was because I wanted to do something different, but three years on, I realised I enjoy teaching. When I see the students, they remind me of myself, and also of my lecturers, how they taught, whether it was right or wrong. When I see the students completing their projects, or that they have genuinely caught the design bug, it feels good.

You encourage your students to pursue design, yet you say that being a furniture designer in Singapore is tough. Is there a future in design for them?

I think the future is up to the individual. But what I am trying to teach at the end of the day is attitude and critical thinking. These are two things that will help anyone to excel in life, regardless of what they pursue. If they have good attitude and think critically, they will fare better in life.

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You once said you wanted to be as famous as Philippe Starck. Have you achieved that fame?

I was 16 when I said that. No, of course I’m not as famous as him. I’m nowhere as well-known as any famous designer. But I think when you get older you have different goals. I want to break into the Chinese market. I hope to open shops in China, be it Grafunkt or other concepts. I like the idea of being able to provide a nice environment for retail, especially for furniture shopping. China is a growing market, and there are always new cities to grow in.

That said, opening stores in China is still a big dream – not unattainable but I don’t know when.

Is Singapore on track to becoming a creative hub?

Definitely. There is so much vibrancy now compared to 10, 20 years ago, not only in the design field, but in the arts, the entertainment and the food scene, which all require design thinking. But I see it not just as a question of how creative we are as a city, but how much creative impact there is in daily life – that is the real test.

For example, if you ask an auntie who lives in the suburbs why she chooses to buy a particular plate, and if she can talk about the design, that’s what a creative country should be. That’s not happening yet, but there is definitely more awareness from people who are well-travelled, well-read and financially better off. But design awareness and creativity has not reached every corner yet. It is not easy, and it is not that we have failed, but I feel that has to be the DNA of a creative society.

Design seems to be a buzzword these days.

I feel the word has been overused. I’ve been to talks and sometimes they talk about strategy but call it design. Sometimes it is a scheme or a marketing technique and they call it design. It is like the word ‘design’ is trending but no one really investigates what it really means.

To me, design is to provide a solution to an issue. There is design that helps and design that doesn’t. Design can be used to hurt or to love. But the key thing about design is that it needs to have a purpose.

In The Scheme of Things, Nathan Yong: A Retrospective Show 1999 – 2019 is on at the National Design Centre, Atrium Level 1, from Sept 14 to Oct 6.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.