If you’re on the lookout for distinctive furniture pieces to complete your home look, you can’t go wrong with Commune and Grafunkt at Millenia Walk. These two home-grown furniture retailers offer a smorgasbord of well-crafted furnishing items, each piece exuding a quiet sense of elegance and beauty. And the temptation to bring one of these creations into your own home will be hard to resist.
We sat down with the founders of Commune and Grafunkt, Julian Koh, Jefery K and Nathan Yong, respectively – to learn more about their experiences in creating, building and selling furniture in Singapore.
How long have you been in the business?
We’ve actually been designing and manufacturing furniture for about 30 years. What Commune designs and sells is achieved only after a lot of consideration of many factors. So we create not just for the end-consumer, but also for the buyer who brings our furniture to their respective markets.
What’s your creative process like?
Before we begin the design of any piece of furniture, we need to do the research. We study trends, materials, intended functions and purposes. Then we look at the external considerations: we export our creations, so the designs for Japan will be smaller than those for the European or American markets.
What materials does Commune use?
Our furniture is mainly made from solid walnut and solid oak imported from North America. Our key market is the USA and consumers in these places still can’t appreciate Asian wood, so we stick to the more “premium” quality woods. Even in China, where we are currently trying to expand to, there is a perception that walnut and oak is better than teak or rosewood.
How would you describe Commune’s design style?
You can broadly place our designs into three categories: one is minimalist, one is Scandinavian, and the third is industrial modern. They sound very different, but we try to incorporate common thematic elements so that all the pieces can work with each other. So, it’s possible to have a minimalist dining table, but complemented by Scandinavian or even rustic chairs. In a way, you can say this is what sets us apart from the others.
What happens after that?
Well, after we’ve decided on a style, we’ll fine-tune the design. Usually, this portion involves the type of material used. With walnut or oak, the designs can be made with thinner pieces, so the overall look is sleeker and slimmer. But if the material is softer, say ash, rubberwood, birch, or caesile wood, the design has to be made a bit thicker. So it’s a to and fro process.
What about the manufacturing of your designs?
We’ll do a lot of hand sketches and foam prototypes. Currently, we’re looking into 3D-printing for smaller sized chairs. We prefer to have control over the entire process, including the manufacturing. Our factories are located in Malaysia and Vietnam, and we make sure that the moisture content of the wood is kept constant. We can’t afford to make mistakes that damage or compromise the integrity of the materials.
Why Millenia Walk?
Well, the crowd that comes here are just right for us. These customers appreciate quality craftsmanship and design. There are many furniture shops, but not many do their own design and manufacturing, and our customers like this holistic concept. We like to bring things together, that’s why we’re called Commune. At our in-store café, we bring people together, so it really feels like home, and you can get a sense of how the furniture will fit into your own home.
Jefery K and Nathan Yong
What inspires you when creating furniture?
Well, it starts when we see a need. It could be something that’s not in the market yet, or it could be something that needs improving. Our goal is to create beautiful and functional items that people will treasure. It shouldn’t just be a piece of thing. It should add meaning to the owner’s living space and lives.
What goes into your thinking process?
It’s about thoughtful design. By using the item, the user is also appreciating life. There must be a strong connection: to the materials used, the whole process of creation, the craftsmanship… we want our customers to understand all this.
You mentioned the importance of materials, can you elaborate?
The material determines the design. We start by understanding the materials in order to enhance their inherent natures. Our design has to be true to the material. For example, it goes against nature to create a super thin chair out of marble. Sure, one might insert a metal rod to strengthen it, but we feel that’s cheating. If you use laminates, don’t try to make it look like wood-grain, leather, marble, and all that. We feel it’s too contrived. And the customer can sense this too.
How would you define your designing style?
Our style is defined by our process, by the brief we give ourselves, and our intentions. Form is a by-product of the process, dictated by needs, the function, the production capabilities, the material… it changes from item to item.
Take us through an imaginary brief. How would you go about it?
First, we see a need or a problem. Second, we see what materials our factories have in stock. We work very closely with the factories because we need their knowledge of the materials and the craft. We work with them to experiment - can we join two pieces in a different way? Can we change the thickness of the wood? Can we shave it? Can we round it? If it’s a bed, can we move the legs in to make it look like it’s floating on air? It’s a back and forth process, but it’s all for the better.
Where do you manufacture your items?
Our factories are in Asia, where the industry is relatively new, only about 40 years old. Our designs are sometimes limited by their capabilities. But it’s okay. Again, it’s about working with and not against nature. If the factory can’t do something, we won’t force it. Because the quality of the end results may be compromised.
What does quality mean to you?
It all goes back to the intention. We wouldn’t call it an art, because we don’t want to create some “iconic art piece” that is good to look at but can’t be used. Nathan is an industrial designer by training, so practicality is our guiding principle.
Last question: why did you choose Millenia Walk?
Actually, we met halfway. Millenia Walk told us that they were looking to do a mix that focused on design and craft. That was great news to us! Most of the shops here are quirky, independent, a bit artsy… but very much in line with our personality, and we are quite happy with where we are now.