Nathan Yong

Principal Designer/Managing Director
Nathan Yong Design (Formerly with Air Division Pte Ltd)

Furniture designer Nathan Yong is well-known for his trail-blazing career and has been credited with nothing less than advancing furniture design and furniture retail standards in Singapore. Having wanted to be a designer since the age of 15, he chose to pursue industrial design at Temasek Polytechnic as he was interested in the forms of products. His aim at the time was 'to be as famous as Philip Starck'.

Instead, he went on to forge his own path by establishing the furniture brand Air in 1999, at a time when there were very few local producers of modern furniture in Singapore. In 2006, armed with a Master in Design from the University of New South Wales, Nathan set up the subsidiary Air Design group, of which he is the Principal Designer.

With an established and growing international profile, Nathan's designs have been sold in Germany, Denmark, Morocco and the United States. He has also collaborated with renowned designer Toshiyuki Kita (designer of the SHARP Aquos® TV and the Wink Chair by Cassina) and multidisciplinary designers Voon Wong and Benson Saw from the United Kingdom to produce design-conscious furniture that aims to be affordable for all.

For Nathan, the journey to success had had its highs and lows. When the respected French furniture company Ligne Roset bought three of Nathan's designs, its headquarters received a letter from its Singapore outlet asking them not to engage a Singapore designer because it would not be good business for the Singapore market. Nathan found the incident discouraging. 'Here we were trying to break into the international market with our efforts, and there was someone from Singapore stopping us from putting Singapore on the global design map.' At the same time, he recalls with pleasure and amusement the opening of Air Division's first franchise in Jakarta, Indonesia. 'I remember I was in a cab in Jakarta and saw an old man on a trishaw with trash and among that trash were Air Division wrappers and cartoons. I found that image endearing.'

Nathan's success lies in his design philosophy. Good design, according to Nathan, is a combination of three factors. To begin with, the intention of the client and the designer must be to improve on the existing situation. 'Design is important,' he says, 'but only if it improves our living conditions, not just physically but also spiritually.' The designer must also take into account factors such as the social, cultural, historical, artistic, technological and material aspects that form the design context. Most of all, Nathan believes in being 'honest in the design approach, and in keeping it simple'.

This design philosophy has been the key to Nathan's success. His relentless pursuit of simplicity and honesty in design has made him one of Singapore's top designers and has garnered him numerous awards both locally and at the international level, for instance the Red Dot Award. In 2006, the Break stool garnered a Silver Award at MINES International Design Intelligence and a Bronze Award at the Singapore Furniture Industries Council Furniture Design Award. In the same year, Nathan was also shortlisted as being among the 20 best designers in the DesignSingapore Council 20/20 series, by peer review.

Nathan's influences are too numerous to name, but among those who have made an impression on him are the past great masters of the Bauhaus, Poul Kjaeholm, Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, as well as the more current Dieter Rams, Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, Nato Fukasawa and Eugenio Perazza. He draws his inspiration from his surroundings and from the simple acts of daily life, such as a walk in the market or fixing his bicycle. Inspiration is like a lotter, he says, in which wining depends on a number of parts failing into place. As he notes wryly, 'Sometimes it doesn't happen.'

At the start of each new project, Nathan's creative process includes taking into consideration numerous crucial aspects such as 'function, materials, technology, cost, arts, form, proportion, engineering, markets, time, social, culture and wonderment, in order of importance according to the design brief'. He then changes the arrangement 'until the result is an amalgamation of intelligence – intelligence from the distillation of informed choices'.

Nathan Yong is an exemplar to young design entrepreneurs with his winning blend of design integrity and commercial success. Success has not fazed him, and he views his accomplishments with his trademark unfussiness. When asked what sets him apart from other designers, he replies, with breathtaking simplicity, 'I am me.'

‘‘I take into consideration crucial aspects in order of importance according to the design brief, then change the arrangement until the result is an amalgamation of intelligence from the distillation of informed choices.’’

Insights from the Recipient

Advice for Emerging Designers

“After graduation, we as designers only know the technicalities of designing but we do not really know how to design. We need to improve ourselves by learning… about issues that concern living and life itself. I would advise young emerging designers to be inquisitive, humble and patient. Design is like acting, it takes a lot of practice and errors to perfect the craft.”


Jury Citation

Nathan Yong is the quintessential designer/entrepreneur. Since setting up his company Air Division in 1999, he has enjoyed both marketplace success and critical acclaim. His work combines design flair and commercial acumen. A graduate of Temasek Polytechnic, he has a deep understanding of technical issues and business reality. He is innovative not only in design but also in product development, manufacturing and the use of materials; in business development and business models, including retailing and franchising; and in creative collaboration. Most recently, he started a design consultancy to help other companies in design. He has skillfully used marketing communication to build presence for his brands in a crowded marketplace. He and his work are regularly featured in international publications.

In commending Nathan's strong body of successful work, the Jury would like to cite two particular aspects. First, his designs have a distinctive voice that is often characterised by a left-field sense of humour that is casual, approachable and resonant of the Singaporean lifestyle. Secondly, the Jury is impressed by his proactiveness in going international. His designs are currently exported to many parts of the world and are sold by renowned furniture houses like France's Ligne Rosset and Flemish producer Ethnicraft.

Nathan is an inspiration to young designers for his combination of design originality, business competency, and his ambitions and achievements beyond Singapore.

Nominator Citation

Christopher Soh
Marcomm Manager
Air Division Pte Ltd

Nathan is the story of an underdog made good. Coming from a humble background and armed with a diploma in Product Design, he embraced his passion for furniture design. Always willing to give anything a go, his try-first-talk-later attitude has paid valuable dividends.

Having made his early living as a buyer for reputed furniture stores and buying houses, Nathan never gave up his dream of wanting to make good, design-conscious furniture accessible and, more importantly, affordable to all who appreciate the art of good furniture.

His breakthrough came in 1999, when he and a few colleagues got together and formed what we now know as Air Division. Selling imported items, they also introduced their own designs slowly into their collection. This quickly gave rise to a following of ardent fans of their creations.

When they moved their operations nearer to the city centre, this proved to be the turning point. More of their designs began to replace the other store offerings, thus attracting increasing attention not only from consumers but also from the industry.

Remaining true to his principles, Nathan believes that design does not need to be overdone. His philosophy is to keep it simple and fuss-free. It is this rationale that has kept the company at the forefront of the field. Nathan went on to win design awards from the prestigious Red Dot as week as Communication Arts' Award of Excellence for their very own Air catalogue.

Other winning pieces include the Break stool, which clinched a Silver Award at MINES International Design Intelligence 2006 and a Bronze Award at the Singapore Furniture Industries Council Furniture Design Award 2006.

Apart from furniture design, Nathan also excels in industrial design. His potential is realized by being part of the design team in Air Design Group. Together with his partner in crime, Jerry Low, the duo has also picked up several awards on both local and international fronts.

Nathan's designs have kept the company at the forefront of the furniture industry and made it one of the very few local companies that designs their own furniture for the demanding and discerning retail market.

Being able to hold his own with the big boys of reputable imported German and Italian designs demonstrates the level that Nathan has achieved as a designer. His designs are currently being exported to many parts of the world and have put Singapore on the global map. His work and designs have also been picked up by renowned furniture houses like France's Ligne Roset and Felmish setup Ethnicraft.