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A design perspective
Nathan Yong - Industrial designer
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED TO Nathan Yong on the way to becoming a furniture designer: he got hooked on Seinfeld. The TV sitcom that was famously about nothing found a like minded soul in a kampung boy from Tanjong Rhu - who went on to do something with his life.
Fresh out of Temasek Polytechnic in the early-1990s, Mr Yong somehow identified with a show about a standup comedian and his friends navigating the mundane aspects of everyday life in New York City. "It had a sense of humour and was very insightful, always looking at things from left field," says the 49-year-old who cites Seinfeld as one of the three biggest influences in his career, along with his mother and his lecturer in product design at the poly, who "imparted Western creative thinking and taught me to be daring, rebellious, confident."
Like his television heroes, Mr Yong's defiantly unapologetic outlook has led to accolades and international recognition. His work with Air Division, the company he founded with some friends two decades ago, first brought him to the attention of well-known furniture brands. After leaving the company, he launched his eponymous design consultancy and co-founded furniture retailer Grafunkt. His name is on the roster at prestigious companies like Ligne Roset (France), Living Divani (Italy) and Design Within Reach (USA).
Mr Yong, a part-time paper delivery boy at 12 who later sold CDs and became a purchaser for local furniture stores, is keenly aware of the need to constantly challenge the status quo. It's something he emphasizes to his students at LaSalle College of the Arts, where he teaches industrial design. "There is always the need to question, to dig deeper," he says. "I think you need a bit of anger and passion to prompt you to do something about it - it's what makes you alive."
He is adamant that despite its size and the miniscule budgets that designers here work with, Singapore is more than capable of being a leader in the creative industry. "Business - manufacturing and so on - is based on systems, but design is based on the ability to challenge the system. Mistakes are essential to the process and 50 percent might get it wrong, but some will get it right next time - there's always the 10 percent that has potential."
The coronavirus pandemic has brought the difficulties faced by fresh design graduates into stark relief, he adds. "Jobs are hard to come by, but let's not stay home and wait for a job, let's go out instead and volunteer, do something while doing nothing (the Seinfeld philosophy) because every experience counts as a designer - all of it helps."
As the youngest child growing up in an attap house in Tanjong Rhu, Mr Yong was often left to his own devices. He found ways to entertain himself by picking up bits of scrap metal from a nearby shipyard and letting the power of positive thinking do the rest. "Part of my so-called creativity comes from running around and playing with whatever happened to be around. When our kitchen flooded, I just went swimming and used my imagination to create a different world."
As for Covid-19, Mr Yong has made the most of a difficult situation, despite setbacks like the cancellation of the Milan Furniture Fair, where he was due to showcase a new technology that enables him to curve sheets of marble. "We never anticipated that Covid would be such a disruptor and cause such a big impact worldwide," he says. "Even when it came, I wasn't so fearful. Every time we have challenges, I'm forever positive (call me naïve) - but I do trust our government to do the right thing."
He adds, "Many people have lost jobs, and I'm lucky to be able to find other sources of income. Business has gone down, but it's been bearable. A lot of people work from home and our retail sales didn't fall after Circuit Breaker. We've been quite blessed - people look for better furniture and things have started to pick up these past two months. There's a lot of pent-up demand and December/January will be very busy months."
Currently, Mr Yong has several projects in the works, including a showroom interior for a local developer and art commissions for the National Gallery as well as an MRT station. An avid movie buff, he found time to channel his inner filmmaker. "During Covid, I worked on a screenplay, a love story between an Indian worker and a Filipino maid - I wanted to show the humanity that exists between them." He envisages it as a short feature film, and there's no completion date yet. "Being a frustrated youth who always wanted answers, I learned a lot from good movies - they spoke to my sense of fairness and integrity."
Mr Yong lives in a compact 1940s Modernist-inspired house in Katong, with a 20-foot container serving as a home office in the back garden. "I enjoyed the calmness and quietness of Singapore during CB, it was surreal and calm and I took the opportunity to contemplate." He insists there's no such thing as a eureka moment when it comes to design. "It's passion: you question, you ponder, then you start to think, to question, to push. One day you sit down and whatever comes out, comes out. Creative thinking is not just about design, it's about looking at things differently."
Covid is a time for reflection and a time to reconsider values, says Mr Yong. "But after that, there should be some new insight that will help us to move on positively. A lot of it is looking at how humanity will react or survive in light of the pandemic. I think there should be something more meaningful. It always starts with who I am, about the fragility of life. Knowledge is not enough - you need to make use of it."