Contemplative and soft-spoken, Nathan Yong comes across as very un-boastful when he talks about his accomplishments and contributions to the local design community. Yet, the furniture designer is a considerable trailblazer when it comes to putting Singapore on the world map, thanks primarily to one of his earliest creations, the “Breakstool”. Now that 10 years have passed since he had launched that masterpiece, Nathan sits with Arman Shah to discuss the evolution of his original design in conjunction with Singapore’s 51st birthday.
How did you get started in furniture design?
I studied industrial design at Temasek Polytechnic, and when I graduated in 1991, I already had my mind set on becoming a furniture designer. When you’re young, however, nobody cares when you share your designs with the big bosses of well-known furniture companies.
I knew that I had to start my own company, but I needed to have an understanding of the business side of it. So, I applied for jobs specialising in different areas of the retail trade. I worked as a salesman, merchandiser and also a buyer who travelled to many Southeast Asian countries to check out trade shows and see how things were being made in factories.
When I eventually opened my first shop called “Air Division” in 1999, I already knew what was required of me to run my own business. I was designing my own furniture and retailing them in Singapore for 10 years before I left in 2009.
How did “Breakstool” help catapult you into the international design scene 10 years ago?
Breakstool was developed in 2006 and I was selling it locally through “Air Division” for about six months. I eventually told myself that I needed to sell my work beyond Singapore shores and got around to doing a trade show that year.
That was when I got to meet the people from Ligne Roset who picked up three of my original designs, including the “Breakstool”. It was a pretty big deal for me when I sold my design rights and had them bring my work outside of Singapore for the very first time. Designing for such a top-notch furniture company that’s based in France had always been my dream since I was a student at age 17.
What first inspired you to design “Breakstool”?
I remember waking up at 4am one morning and having this idea of doing a series of plywood chairs. It was a very fun and simple idea that’s based on comfort, functionality and aesthetics. Singapore didn’t have three-dimensional moulding technology back then, so I wanted to come up with an affordable and low-tech solution that puts a smile on your face. Design is universal, and I think Ligne Roset saw my thought process in the “Breakstool” when they bought the design rights from me.
What challenges did you face when producing the “Breakstool”?
The process was quite simple actually. Once you’ve curved the piece of plywood into the desired shape, you jot down the proportions in your technical drawing and relay the information to the technicians at the factory.
Of course, it is only to be expected that you go back and forth with the people at the manufacturing site; you want the piece to look a certain way but the technicians say it cannot be executed as such. I guess the main challenge was coming up with the right proportion so that the stool doesn’t look too chunky yet not too fragile that it breaks.
To celebrate 10 years of the “Breakstool”, you are launching an updated version of the original called the “Breakchair”. How has the design evolved after the last decade?
It’s basically the same stool that now comes with a backrest. Its evolution from a stool to a chair is still based on the same old concept of simplicity and pragmatism. This time, however, figuring out a way to incorporate the backrest into the original design was the main challenge.
From the first instance, I knew that the backrest had to be moulded for the purpose of structural stability. There’s also a slot in the original design that’s actually a crack from when the plywood was bent into shape. I intend to use this slot to hold the frame and secure the backrest.
What made this chair design the perfect one to commemorate National Day?
Well, the theme for National Day this year is “Going Forward”. So, to celebrate a decade of the “Breakstool”, I thought it would be interesting to explore its evolution, and turning it into a chair seemed quite befitting.
Singapore is 51 this year. How has the local design scene evolved from when you first started out?
When I started out in 1999, people didn’t understand what design can bring in terms of generating businesses, contributing to culture or just benefitting mankind generally. My peers and I were really just pushing for the development of different kinds of design in our own ways back then. We didn’t have an environment where we can just approach a shop to exhibit our designs. People will just tell us to go away.
I think people have a far more vested interest in local designers now. There are so many companies that want to work with designers to create content, so that’s a much healthier environment. At the same time, I’m worried that these privileges make the younger designers less hungry. Maybe they’re just concerned about what they want to do and get a little egoistic because of all these great opportunities. So, there’s always a flip side to things.
What are your hopes and wishes for Singapore as she turns yet another year older?
I really wish that the people of Singapore will be far more appreciative of the things around them. I don’t want to sound corny, but it can even be the trees and the river. People have to slow down and appreciate our environment more. As we become a richer country, I also hope that people become more cultured and treasure things that are well made. It doesn’t have to be expensive; it doesn’t have to be branded. I hope design plays a part in educating people and making them more away of the finer things in life.
Exclusively available at Gallery & Co.and GRAFUNKT for a limited time only, the Breakstool in Oak and Walnut is priced at SGD480, while the Breakchair retails at SGD650. A showcase featuring both designs will be on display at Gallery & Co. from 3 August to 3 September 2016.