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Made With Passion: Furniture
Photograph: FOLKS; ipse ipsa ipsum; Commune; Onlewo

Made With Passion: Your home reimagined

Singaporean brands that bring home inspiration to life

Time Out Singapore in partnership with Made With Passion

It's safe to say that we've spent more time at home this year than ever before. There's nothing like being cooped up to realise just how important our living space is. Home should be a sanctuary, a space where we can relax and unwind after the stresses of daily life. More than that, the home should also be an expression of our identity – who we are, and who we want to be.

With a combination of passion, craft and purpose, local furniture brands such as FOLKS Furniture and Onlewo are pushing the boundaries of the homegrown design scene – pulling local influences and ingenuity into creating stylish and accessible works of art. The likes of Commune and ipse ipsa ipsum are also driving the industry forward with cutting-edge digital solutions.

These four movers and shakers represent the ethos of Made With Passion, an initiative by the Singapore Brand Office and Singapore Tourism Board, with support from Enterprise Singapore, to promote awareness and appreciation for our local lifestyle brands by showcasing the many facets of passion that go into creating the products we enjoy today. We delve into what makes them tick, and unearth sparkling advice for future entrepreneurs.

Defying norms: Commune
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For the founders of Commune, home furniture design is something of a family business. Brothers Joshua and Julian Koh, and their cousin Gan Shee Wen, grew up helping out at Koda, a furniture manufacturing outfit founded by their grandfather in 1972. Eager to refresh the legacy business and strike out with their own product designs, they launched Commune in 2011.

Even with the head start given their experience at Koda, the road to building Commune as one of Singapore's leading furniture retailers was not an easy one. "The early years were slightly more challenging as nobody really knew what the 'right' way was to run a retail business," shared Joshua Koh, CEO of Commune. It was a combination of hard work, market research, strategic partnerships and valuable guidance from their uncle that helped Commune develop a distinctive identity.

"We pride ourselves as the purveyor and curator of an authentic lifestyle concept," says Joshua, pointing to the fact that every piece of furniture is designed in-house with Julian at the helm, and manufactured in their factories in Malaysia and Vietnam. The brand has branched out to incorporate an in-store scent laboratory, café and bespoke lighting to engage the five senses and give customers a cosy, holistic experience. Ever attentive to customer needs, the trio have also launched Alto to cater to customers who require downsized yet stylish furniture to fit into today's shrinking homes.

Commune has also moved with the times. Adapting to the digital era has meant adopting augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and other omnichannel solutions to offer customers a brand new and improved shopping experience. Commune: In Motion, for example, was fully launched in 2019 – the initiative allows customers to leverage QR codes to seamlessly switch between online and offline to view, cart and check out furniture.

In 2020, Commune opened its 74th store, having found much success globally. When asked to share advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs, the Commune founders emphasise the need to do sufficient legwork to understand customers needs and aspirations, and to adapt to them as necessary.

“Commune has always believed and will continue to push boundaries and defy the norm, an adage that both business partners and consumers saw and appreciated,” they say. And that, perhaps, is the real secret to their success.

What to buy Add a mid-century modern flair to your home with the Volta reversible sofa ($3,999). The fabric sofa and chaise lounge come with reversible leather, digging into harmonious contrasts and exemplifying Commune's philosophy of 'defying norms'. or Shopee

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“Be committed. Work hard. Be passionate. Work with tenacity.”

That’s the advice that designer Nathan Yong has for future entrepreneurs. And there are scores of young designers in Singapore who want to emulate the career of Singapore’s ‘grandfather of design’. Over close to 20 years in the business, Nathan has won the coveted President Design’s Award, Designer of the Year in 2008 and co-founded furniture retail store Grafunkt, among other achievements.

FOLKS Furniture is his very own baby, a furniture line that focuses exclusively on woodworks. “I saw a gap in good quality and well-designed wooden furniture in the contemporary market,” says Nathan. In his hands, wood becomes not old-fashioned and heavy, but deceptively simple and elegant pieces of art that impart serenity to any living space.

It’s a testament to his artistry, and to the skill of the traditional Asian craftsmen who manufacture his pieces, that his work caught the eye of Michael Roset, CEO of French high-end furniture company Ligne Roset. And it speaks to the international appeal of FOLKS that it has regular shipments to the likes of America, the United Kingdom, Australia and Korea. His latest work, the Line storage desk, is also available worldwide through Herman Miller.

What keeps this veteran going after all these years? “As a creative force, the fuel that drives me is my passion,” says Nathan. Every day, he strives for the fine craftsmanship, inspiring design and intelligent detailing that has allowed FOLKS to gain favour worldwide.

“I find it important to share my story so that people know you can achieve anything in Singapore just by being passionate,” he shares, revealing his hope for the local creative scene at large. “For too long, people have thought that Singapore is void of risk-takers, creative entrepreneurs and passionate people.” His message, clearly, is that the assumption is not at all true.

What to buy The newest Line storage desk ($2,995) exudes quiet elegance. A large workspace, ample drawers and a hidden cable management system make this the perfect work-from-home companion.

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  • Tiong Bahru

Not one for the cookie-cutter minimalist aesthetic that seems to have taken over homes, Instagram feeds and the lifestyle design industry itself, ipse ipsa ipsum shows off the best of Indian craft making given a contemporary twist. There's no mass manufacturing going on here – the semi-luxurious furniture and accessories that you see in its Tan Boon Liat showroom have been individually handmade by local artisans at its production facility in India. They showcase a bold and unique design aesthetic replete with semi-precious gemstones and dazzling inlay work.

Headed up by creative director Saurabh Mangla – better known as Sam – ipse ipsa ipsum was established in 2016 precisely to break the monotony. Starting out as a silverware business when Sam's grandfather sold cutlery to the army in his Gurkha days, ipse ipsa ipsum now works closely with local designers and Indian artisans to produce stunning pieces that marry tradition with modernity. "We want to make handmade, luxury furniture accessible to the public and create a new design language in Singapore that is relevant to the international audience," Sam shares.

But how does a young furniture design brand win over a populace that's used to ready-to-buy products for the home? That's where ipse ipsa ipsum has had to get creative, whether it is adding a polished accent, giving it a new shape, or giving a traditional material a new use to refresh everyday home furniture and accessories. The brand has also embarked on successful designer collaborations with the likes of Jeremy Sun and Nathan Yong. In fact, the eponymous Nathan Yong Collection won the Best Exhibit Award 2017 "Living Room" at the International Furniture Fair Singapore from a pool of 23 contenders.

Technology is also part of the solution. ipse ipsa ipsum applies AR, VR and omnichannel solutions to offer customers a uniquely customisable experience. QR codes in the showroom take shoppers to the ipse ipsa ipsum website, where they can play around with customisation options and 3D models to visualise the product in their own homes. "By encouraging customers to play around with different materials and explore their options, Sam says, "We want to engage consumers in the designing process and get them excited about creating their own unique item, hopefully giving them a newfound appreciation for craftsmanship."

In the furniture and lifestyle industry, customers usually turn to European design for luxury and quality. Even as ipse ipsa ipsum looks toward international expansion, it continues to take pride in the fact that it has inspired and designed locally. The brand hopes to help the local design scene along the way too: its new Arts and Crafts centre expected next year hopes to be a platform for aspiring designers to bring their works to life and launch on the world stage.

What to buy The Adam Park bedside table ($898) featuring intricate bone inlay will add personality to your bedroom, with fully customisable materials and finishings. For the living room, consider the Lykas coffee table ($1,600). Choose between rose quartz, light smokey quartz or marble to give your coffee chats a touch of class.

Patterns of Singapore: Onlewo
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Onlewo owes its beginnings to the charming old neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru. When designer Mike Tay moved in with his family in 2004, it kickstarted a nine-year journey through the beguiling old world charm and heritage beauty of the place. Listening to the stories of Singaporeans living there then and in the past, Mike was inspired to express its architecture, food, history and simple way of life in the way that he knew best – through pattern design.

Onlewo first started out designing patterned wallpapers, before expanding into upholstery, curtains and a variety of home and wear products. What unites every piece is the story of Singapore and Singaporeans they are based on. Iconic patterns like 'Chinatown', 'Little India' and 'Tiong Bahru' pay homage to distinctive local districts. Modern landmarks have also made their way onto Onlewo fabrics, including Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Flyer and more.

For a fledgling business with limited resources to market itself, Onlewo took a more personable approach. Mike describes sharing the stories and inspiration behind the designs with every customer he meets. "Customers who have been inspired will stay connected with us, while growing awareness of our brand," he shares. "Nothing is more long-lasting and meaningful than every individual whose passion has been ignited by what they discover in our works."

Since then, Onlewo has been featured in magazines like Monocle and Louis Vuitton City Guide, and invited to represent the best of Singaporean design at Tokyo Inside Out 2017, The Peranakan Exhibition and Fashion Show 2019 and Design Orchard. It has also contributed custom pieces for The Peranakan Museum Ambek Gambar Exhibition and GIC China Office's 20th Anniversary in 2018.

Mike is especially buoyed by the fact that local brands are gaining recognition from Singaporeans. "The market is now convinced that we have designs and products that are unique and high standard," he says. As long as entrepreneurs continue being authentic, unique and unbridled in their creation, the local design scene can only reach new heights.

Onlewo hopes to open a destination store that will one day become a must-see for tourists and locals alike. In the meantime, Onlewo is focusing efforts on materialising the endless stream of inspiration into new designs and products. And what keeps Onlewo in the business? "Knowing that our customers feel happy having our works in their homes or hands is most rewarding, as this is what our works are all about."

What to buy The Peranakan floral tiles table lamp ($285) depicts glazed patterns that used to embellish the facades of Peranakan houses in the early 1900s. It will add just the right splash of colour and heritage to your home. To add even more vibrancy, invest Onlewo's beautifully patterned curtain fabrics ($130).

Get inspired

Keen to make your home more beautiful and expressive? Brands like Commune, ipse ipsa ipsum, Onlewo and FOLKS Furniture are just some of the highlighted brands under the Made With Passion (MWP) initiative, a joint venture between the Singapore Brand Office and the Singapore Tourism Board, supported by Enterprise Singapore.

The campaign celebrates local brands across lifestyle categories like beauty & wellness, fashion & accessories, homeware & decor and packaged F&B – and also hopes to inspire other brand owners and Singaporeans  to pursue their dreams and passions. Get to know more about the brands and the people behind it via the Made With Passion website, Facebook, and Instagram page, or browse the exclusive Shopee microsite. Whether you’re shopping online or in-store, be sure to look out for the Made With Passion brand mark to identify items that truly embody the Singapore spirit.


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