In Conversation with Nathan Yong

The prolific industrial designer talks about how his background has shaped his practice today, and how collaborations are like good friendships


Nathan Yong graduated from Temasek Polytechnic in 1991 as an industrial designer, but his career started out in buying and product development. In this role, he had the opportunity to travel to Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, where he developed relationships with manufacturers and craftsmen. It was through these experiences that he learned many of the techniques and skills he now employs as one of Singapore’s leading designers.

Yong won the Red Dot Concept Design Award two years in a row, and the year after received the prestigious Singapore President*s Design Award: Designer of the Year. Along with leading his eponymous multidisciplinary design studio, he is also a lecturer at Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts.

Yong’s roster of clients includes international brands from Italy, France, Denmark, the USA and Malaysia. In 2009 Yong completed his first design for Belgian wooden furniture brand Ethnicraft, marking the start of a long-term collaboration that continues up until today. 

Suzy Annetta: You’ve had quite a varied career, from working as a buyer to setting up your own retail store and now running a multidisciplinary design practice. What is it about industrial design that keeps you excited about working in that field ?

Nathan Yong: As the youngest in the family, I was always left alone to play and entertain myself. I’ve been making my own toys since then. I like to create narratives with objects, almost animating them to tell stories or share experiences. At the end of the day, it’s about creativity, and being able to spark reactions through objects. That always gets me excited.

What does it mean to you to be a Singaporean designer?

I think as Asians our upbringing and education is a bit different. We’re taught to learn by memorising, whereas Western education is more through play and projects. Luckily, I’m not a very good student academically. When we were children my parents let us play in the shipyards around our village. As I grew older, I got into punk and rock music and Western art films, so there was always combination of influences from the East and West that shaped me as a person and then as designer. A lot of our clients think that I’ve worked or studied in the West or that I’m a New Yorker because I have such an international outlook (blame it on Seinfeld) but when I’m in a Chinese or Indonesian factory I can converse in their lingo and I understand their behaviour too. So, the good thing about being a Singaporean is that I can communicate with different cultures but the flip side is that we sort of lack our own identity. But identity needs time, and I can’t be who I’m not. I’m shaped by my environment so I’d rather remain ‘authentically bland’.

What criteria do you keep in mind when considering collaborations, and is there a checklist of things you look for when designing for a brand? 

I always work better when I communicate directly with the owner. The criteria are similar to how you might choose a good friend: honesty and openness. This allows me to navigate the perimeters of change needed so that the designs are effective.

What attracted you to working with Ethnicraft?

First of all, it was Philippe Delaisse’s honesty and openness. That’s a result of the trust that we’ve earned from each other over many years of collaborating. Secondly, I admire the passion they have for creating a sustainable business model that provides good value through their designs. They’re always improving and everything is so well considered in terms of functionality, quality, beauty and pricing. I want to be a part of that.

Can you tell us about the pieces and collections you’ve designed for them?

So far, I’ve designed the N and Spindle collections, Pop stool, Slice table and N101 sofa. They’re all really grounded in functionality, with subtle detailing from a structural perspective, like in the N collection, or detailing that challenges the perception of what wood can do, like the pieces in the Spindle collection. But I think the most memorable piece is the Slice table, with what appears to be a slim table top supported by chunky legs. The poetic juxtaposition lends a tension that attracts one to appreciate it.

What was your experience working with Indonesian artisans to create the pieces? 

Indonesians are some of the kindest and friendliest people to work with, and the team at Ethnicraft put a lot of effort into perfecting the details I needed. I think the country’s long history of wood carving gives the craftsmen really high expectations and standards. The best part is when they see the final results, knowing that they played a part in the development of new narratives. I find that it’s intrinsically human to feel good when you’re part of something meaningful, it’s not just about mass production but also making things that become part of our existence.

Can you describe your creative process?

It’s hard for me to describe, since it’s not a linear process. It’s more like a long, repetitive loop with various considerations involved that lead to finding the best decisions within the given perimeters.

In your career you’ve won numerous awards and accolades, which are the ones most important to you?

The one that stands out is the Singapore President*s Design Award I won in 2008. I’m very humbled and honoured to have received it, and it proved to me that my hard work has paid off. I started off as a buyer and running my own retail shops in Singapore, even though I’m a trainedindustrial designer. There was a lot of behind the scenes work like sourcing and developing . It wasn’t an easy feat; as a creative person as I struggle with paperwork and HR, and it was challenging not being able to design as much as I wanted to. I realised later that all these experiences have helped me to become a better designer, and receiving this award helped me recognise that being a designer means being able to manage all of these various elements.

As told to / Suzy Annetta