Meet the Singaporean Furniture Mavericks Making a Statement on Contemporary Living

It’s not just about cutting-edge design, it’s a way of living. Joshua Koh, Julian Koh and Gan Shee Wen, CEO, CDO and CMO of Commune, Saurabh Mangla, Founder of ipse ipsa ipsum, and Nathan Yong, Founder of Folks Furniture and Grafunkt, tells us how they built an industry presence, their design philosophy, and how they have integrated retail and online experiences as Made With Passion brands.

By SGN | 14 September 2021

ipse ipsa ipsum’s Saurabh Mangla, veteran designer Nathan Yong, and Commune’s Gan Shee Wen, Joshua Koh, and Julian Koh (left to right) are making their mark in Singapore’s growing furniture business.

Great furniture breathes life into empty spaces and sets the mood of the environment. With people spending more time at home than ever, consumers are investing more time and energy into designing homes that are not only functional but personal.

Increasingly, this means supporting designers who incorporate Asian-influenced elements into timeless articles worthy of being handed down to future generations.

“Singapore’s furniture industry is a young but dynamic one,” says Saurabh Mangla, founder of Singapore-based ipse ipsa ipsum, a furniture brand that pairs individuals with artisans and designers to co-create one-of-a-kind, handcrafted pieces. He explains that more consumers today are wary of their individual preferences – often taking inspirations from various sources – and want to be co-creators of their own homes.

ipse ipsa ipsum’s Palm Tree Floor Lamp (far right) was one of over 40 pieces sent to dress the set of the Warner Brother’s hit blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians. (Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

“They are discovering their own style personas and finding real meaning within their homes. Our goal is to achieve a collaborative spirit whereby our pieces synergise with their personal style rather than the other way around,” he explains.

With Singapore sitting at the crossroads of Asian and Western cultures, Saurabh finds it natural that both influences have come together to inspire unique Singapore furniture concepts, each with distinct philosophies and designs. He believes that these influences give rise to designs which are not only unique, but globally in-demand.

“These are the same qualities that influence and make ipse ipsa ipsum unique – the use of Asian craftsmanship and Asian design to revisit trends that have emerged out of Europe and America, together with the desire to disrupt the industry with technology,” he says.

Purchasing attitudes have no doubt begun to shift, and Saurabh notes that there is an increasing desire in consumers to build meaningful relationships with their own homes and the environment around them. “If somebody has put in the care and attention to your furniture piece, the likelihood is that you would too. There is an added layer of personalisation that goes into co-designing your furniture, and to transform a house into a home,” Saurabh says.

Designing Human-centric Furniture with Asian influences

“As the world becomes more homogeneous with internet, it is even more important to preserve our craft and identity as it gives variety to life. I view objects as artefacts – like a historian or archaeologist that tells the stories of our lives. In that sense, buying a piece of furniture is not purely for function but also to educate and inspire,” Nathan Yong, founder of established furniture stores Folks Furniture and Grafunkt, says.

Design veteran Nathan Yong has won numerous prestigious industry awards, including the coveted Singapore President’s Design Award, Designer of the Year in 2008. (Image source: Grafunkt)

He describes his brand, Grafunkt, as a purveyor of the storytelling of lives through furniture, where curation is guided by how well a designer’s beliefs and ethos translates to their designs. His other brand, Folks Furniture, pays homage to Asian craftsmen and primarily works with wood. Folks Furniture’s designs, he explains, play to Asian sensitivity and are quieter and less assuming.

At Commune, being human and user-centric informs Commune’s core design philosophy. Asian values of meticulousness, discipline, and possessing a respectful work ethic forms the heartbeat of the organisation. The founders, Joshua KohJulian Koh and Gan Shee Wen, believe that designing a deliberate design philosophy was key to the company’s enduring success, as strong values ground the brand in a way that would allow them to withstand the test of time, which they believe consumers can feel through the furniture they design.

How Designing for Life at Home Has Evolved

Commune co-founders Gan Shee Wen, Julian Koh and Joshua Koh (left to right) share that their passion for the furniture industry grew as teenagers when they helped out with the family business, furniture-manufacturing company Koda, after school and during the holidays.

As a furniture design and lifestyle company, Commune prides itself on the full production of high-quality, human-centric artisanal pieces. The founders share that opportunities are emerging as more consumers are looking to style spaces that are flexible in form and function. With increasing work-life integration at home, the home now needs to double as a conducive working environment and a relaxing space to unwind after hours. 

“Consumers today want more than a chair to sit on, or a dining table to have meals at. They want designs that elevate their living space; styles which represent who they are and pieces which bring about meaningful connections,” Julian says.

Single design or single-purpose furniture takes a backseat as more consumers are looking for pieces that are versatile in functionality and design. “Consumers today would also be considering factors such as overall style of their living space, emotions and vibe they would like to convey,” Shee Wen adds.

Styles and designs that evoke the mood and vibe of destinations are also highly sought after, what with tighter travel restrictions today.

On the other end of the design spectrum, the rise of e-commerce has also influenced the way consumers shop for furniture. Instead of bespoke pieces, these retailers provide a vast and affordable range of furniture options, perfectly styled in Scandinavian and modern sets. Consumers have grown comfortable with shopping for furniture pieces online, with sales of furniture and household equipment on an upward trajectory.

Yet Nathan emphasises that this does not mean that brick-and-mortar shops have become irrelevant.

With e-commerce making design trends more accessible today, consumers have developed a more sophisticated understanding of their design preferences, he explains. While some may turn to e-commerce, a significant majority still prefers to interact with their furniture in person.

“I am a true believer that when it comes to furniture, we really have to feel it. We need to have a sense of proportion, true colours, texture and comfort before making a decision.”

­­“To my customers, buying furniture is like buying art – they need to have meaning and intelligently communicate their inspiration. Having that human interaction is very important,” he says.

Leveraging Tech to Elevate the Retail Shopping Experience

That said, Nathan believes in developing an e-commerce strategy complementary to the retail shopping experience. Nathan views technology as a tool for optimising design, production, and logistics processes, all of which work together to enhance the purchase experience.

“We are not jumping onto the bandwagon of e-commerce cluelessly. We are putting our money into enhancing the experience in our shop at the same time, so customers can get a good feel of furniture in-person, but now with the additional option of making purchase online later,” he explains.

Commune’s founders echo his sentiment. “Brick-and-mortar provides experiential touch points that cannot be replaced with a digital experience. We believe in engaging our customer’s five senses in-store by creating a unique shopping experience with signature scents and a curated music playlist,” Joshua explains.

In addition to enhancing the retail store experience and building a user-friendly e-commerce site, Commune has taken tech integration a step further by developing Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) digital solutions. With these tools, they hope help shoppers better visualise how furniture fit into their homes, thereby reducing uncertainty in decision-making.

The launch of Commune-in-Motion in 2018 created a seamless online to offline for consumers.

Commune-in-Motion, the brand’s enhanced cloud-based customer relationship management system, uses both offline and online data gathered from a consumer’s shopping and browsing behaviour for a more efficient handling of purchases. Salespersons can predict what a consumer would want and give appropriate recommendations, guidance, and support – reducing the time taken to serve customers by about 70%.

Saurabh believes that while many buyers still with to experience furniture in-store before investing in larger sized pieces, more consumers are willing to make purchase decisions online directly today.

Similar to Commune, ipse ipsa ipsum has also adopted an omnichannel strategy, which includes a customiser and AR tool that allows customers to customise their own furniture.

To meet the needs of these consumers, ipse ipsa ipsum introduced digital and AR tools which help consumers digitally customise their pieces and visualise products to scale within their spaces. Machine learning and artificial intelligence was also integrated within the business to help the team improve campaign targeting to specific customer groups.

“The goal is to bring the materiality of our pieces online, where they may be easily accessed. Customers can better visualise our pieces in their homes with the touch of a button, bringing the retail experience beyond the pillars of our showroom,” Saurabh says.

Customers go through an intimate experience where they work with designers and artisans to conceptualise and produce their unique pieces. At the end, consumers receive both the furniture piece and a QR code that documents their personal journey.

“By encouraging our customers to spend a little more time and thought into their style personas and the design of their pieces, we want to create an environment for more mindful consumption. By focusing on handcrafted artisanal pieces, we want to create a sustainable cycle where our customers design furniture that they’ll pass down to future generations,” Saurabh says.

About Joshua

Joshua Koh is co-founder and chief executive officer at Commune. He was previously at Koda Ltd, where he served as Deputy Managing Director and Group Chief Financial Officer. Joshua is currently Vice President at the Singapore Furniture Industries Council.

Connect with Joshua on LinkedIn here.

About Julian

Julian Koh is co-founder and chief design officer at Commune. In 2015, Julian was awarded an SG Mark for his Dualtone collection which plays on the contrast between bright oak and dark walnut.

Connect with Julian on LinkedIn he­re.

About Shee Wen

Gan Shee Wen is co-founder and chief operating/marketing officer at Commune. Shee Wen is also the Group Vice President of Sales & Marketing for KODA LTD. He is currently Honorary Secretary at the Singapore Furniture Industries Council.

Connect with Shee Wen on LinkedIn here.

About Saurabh

Saurabh Mangla is the founder of ipse ipsa ipsum, a brand of luxurious yet accessible handcrafted furniture and accessories for the global market. At the core of his design philosophy is his belief in combining forward-facing aesthetics from around the world with traditional craftsmanship. Saurabh is currently an Executive Committee Member at the Singapore Furniture Industries Council.

Connect with Saurabh on LinkedIn here.

About Nathan

Nathan Yong is the co-founder and design director at Grafunkt, and founder and designer at Folks Furniture. He is also a Programme Leader for (BA) Product Design at LASALLE College of the Arts.

Nathan has received numerous prestigious awards including the Red Dot Concept Design Award for two consecutive years in 2006 and 2007, Singapore President’s Design Award, Designer of the Year in 2008.

Connect with Nathan on LinkedIn here.

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