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In the last of a three-part series on local furniture firms championing their Asian roots, Julian Koh from Commune shares with us how the brand designs contemporary pieces while tapping into the expertise of Koda, the furniture firm his grandfather founded

“We always try to do something that is different,” says Julian Koh, the chief design officer of local furniture brand Commune. “That’s our tagline: to defy the norm. We create products with subtle details and focus on invigorating all of our six senses.”

It could be said that a passion for furniture design is in his blood. Koh’s grandfather founded local manufacturer Koda in 1972, which produces furniture for American brands including Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn.

He grew up with fond childhood memories of visiting his family’s furniture factory, and as a teenager, he regularly visited the IMM Cologne and Salone del Mobile trade fairs in Europe with his family; Koh’s subsequent decision to study industrial design at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne was also a natural progression.

See also: How Local Brand Scene Shang Brings Modern Sensibilities To Traditional Crafts

In 2011, he co-founded Commune with his brother Joshua Koh and their cousin Gan Shee Wen to have a brand to call their own. The homegrown firm has since come a long way—it has opened over 80 stores in China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, while sister label Alt.o (which stands for Alternative Objects by Commune) was created two years ago and made its debut at the Maison&Objet fair in Paris in January 2020.

“For Alt.o, our furniture sizes are bigger and more catered to landed properties, with detailing in marble, stainless steel, brass and high-grade leather,” Koh explains.

That’s our tagline: to defy the norm. We create products with subtle details and focus on invigorating all of our six senses.
Julian Koh, co-founder and chief design officer of Commune

What are the hallmarks of Commune?

Julian Koh (JK) We use a lot of Koda’s factory capabilities in solid wood furniture. We push our factories to be able to learn new things—how to pair materials like metal, wood and leather together, the wear and tear of different items to make it viable for commercial use.

Being eco-conscious and responsible to our consumers has been something we knew had to be done from the start. We are very stringent with our material selection process; our wood has to come from sustainable and renewable sources. Our finishes use fewer harsh solvents and emit fewer volatile organic compounds, adhering to the strict manufacturing standards by the European emissions standards. We meet the standards for the E1 classification, by having the lowest amount of formaldehyde emissions (which is present in most industrial glues).

As a designer, what keeps you inspired?

JK One of the most important priorities for me is to constantly be aware of the users I’m designing for: their needs, wants and desires. From there, I start incorporating nuances that are part of our DNA, drawing inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, be it from the fashion world or from my travels.

Some of our bestselling collections are, in fact, our quirkier designs. For instance, the Bruno collection features a herringbone pattern, a motif traditionally found on flooring and wall tiles. Initially, we received feedback that it was a design that would not be well-received, but over time as consumers became more discerning, interest in this collection started picking up.

The Volta collection, one of our latest launches, features furniture with a combination of materials being seamlessly combined. These include leather, wood and brass finishing accents. It incorporates a rock ‘n’ roll vibe; one of our console pieces drew inspiration from the shape of music amplifiers.

Being eco-conscious and responsible to our consumers has been something we knew had to be done from the start.
Julian Koh, co-founder and chief design officer of Commune

How has the brand adapted to the challenges of the ongoing pandemic?

JK The current situation, while not ideal, validated the company’s direction to digitise the business as early as 2015. We started our online store that year as a means to provide information about the brand and products. When the retail stores were closed (during the circuit breaker phase last year), we saw a spike in e-commerce sales, which indicates that consumers are more willing to forgo the tactile portion of furniture shopping when they have enough information to convince them to make their purchases online.

While we were not spared from the global logistics issues, it did help that our main manufacturer Koda is situated in Malaysia, which helped ensure we still had a steady stream of products coming in.

What are the next steps for the brand?

JK We’ve been producing designs by an in-house team and the next step is to work with other designers, such as Scandinavian design studios, so that we can develop items that target the European market. My personal vision is for both Commune and Alt.o to constantly establish ourselves as thought leaders in the design field.

This story was first published in the July 2021 issue of Tatler Singapore, now available on Magzter and newsstands.

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