Wai Yuh-Hunn
Wai Yuh-Hunn graduated in 2005 and is the co-founder of Lanzavecchia + Wai







You did your Master’s in Eindhoven, am I right?
Yes, I think it was quite serendipitous; it was something that Dr. Yen suggested after we graduated. I think I was working for a local design consultancy for three weeks then and I realised that it was not my cup of tea.
Really, just three weeks?
Yeah! I think we were quite inspired by the Dutch design movement, such as Droog design, when we were studying at that period of time. So naturally we would gravitate to where they come from. So at the Design Academy Eindhoven the head of Droog design, Gijs Bakker, was also the director of the course! So that was pretty awesome. At least for me, I didn't know what I wanted to do yet, so I thought, okay, I’ll just go and do my Master’s.
You mentioned Droog design. How did Gijs Bakker influence or develop your aesthetic taste?
Let me explain a bit about the Dutch design culture. The school was quite brutal. It was like a Hunger Games kind of thing, like a reality show, so you could get chopped out at any point along the way if they didn’t find you good enough there. It was not about modules or points or scores. I think it shapes you so you really are sure you want to do design. I guess that kind of extracts certain core values out of you. It's quite punishing, but I think because of that we were better from it. So that's one. What I learnt from Gijs Bakker was sharpness—he could see through your concept, find the beating heart and then like, "that's what you need to change, that's where this needs to be”. At the academy I also saw the bandwidth of what design could be; not only as a process to solve problems, but as a process to find invisible problems.
What is your favourite project you did at Design Academy Eindhoven?
Probably my graduation project. Back in the day before the Industrial Revolution, you would see the signature of the craftsman through the joints. But then as the Industrial Revolution came along, everything became jointless, seamless, so we don't see that anymore. I wanted to bring that back again and see how the joint could be the protagonist again. So I made a series of chairs; because the joints were made of clay, suddenly they (the chairs) became animated. They could become lounge, dining, or high chairs. Then I made a shelf. I made small holes inside, and got friends with hot air guns to heat up all four holes at the same time and hammer a beech wood stave through.
I know this; it's really nice.
It was worthwhile because even the guy in the workshop said that it could not be done. He's around sixty years old and has made models for the likes of Rem Koolhaas so he knows his stuff. But I said, no, let's try. For me I guess it was not only like a design thesis, but it's also like a trial of fire. Once I did it, it was like I graduated in my mind, graduated inside...
So you acquired this confidence.
Yeah! Even when people said I couldn’t do it, and even though I thought I couldn’t do it, I still did it anyway, because I believed in it. I gained that bravery and confidence. I think spending two years there was like growing up ten years.
Coming from different backgrounds, yourself from Singapore and your partner Francesca Lanzavecchia from Italy, how do you complement each other in design?
Actually, we want to thrive on diversity. We make an effort to, as in we desire that kind of difference, so that you get a tension. Good designs result from a tension, a place in tension. Design never comes, or innovation never comes from a comfortable place. I guess where we're both similar in terms of value is that we believe in a beautiful future. So it's a constant push towards, “How could we make it better? Where is that next space for innovation opportunity?”
How do you describe your design philosophy?
Our philosophy is about being open-minded. It’s about always being aware of information, new shifts in context, new shifts in socio-economics… if you want to design good stuff you need to know the people you design it for. So it is by default that you need to be extremely emphatic.
For you and Francesca, what have you worked on that you really like?
I guess something that we are really proud of is the No Country for Old Men collection; the one that we proposed in 2012 about how products for the elderly in the domestic environment can be rethought.
Why?
Something personal to us. It locked in a few things we are interested in, how design can really improve living. I mean more than handbags or shoes. It was looking at where design is needed and we answered that with the sensibility we have with furniture design. And we got good results and good responses. And it has brought us to places. For example, we have done research for Herman Miller for their healthcare division. Also, right now we are working on smart bathroom accessories with an Italian company.
How was the design scene then, in 2009 when you were starting up? What were the challenges?
Even after I graduated, I didn’t know what to do. So I showed at Milan after that and got a job as a brand manager and designer from my family friendwho runs this luxury kitchen business in Hong Kong and Shanghai. So I lived in China for a bit.
I can see where this is going already.
Coming from Eindhoven, it was quite easy to get annoyed in China. In Eindhoven it was really about sensitive things—talking to people who understood what I was talking about—we could talk about more aspirational ideals and things like that. It was kind of like, “What am I doing here in China?” Then that year in 2009, my graduation pieces were auctioned off in Brussels. I sold my pieces and the route we took was really sort of organic. But we just sort of believed it every step of the way and tried to do it as bravely and smartly as possible. I think for us the challenge was to define what kind of space we want to occupy in the design world. So from a humanistic standpoint, we thought it should be a bit more fun, design… it should be a bit more humorous, and it should be livelier. Because that’s who we are, we like minimalism but we don’t think we are minimalists at all. She is Italian, I’m from Singapore, these two areas… we are known for colours, we are known for liveliness, we are known for night markets, and we are known for crazy foods. So we try to work it into our design philosophy and we attracted the kind of people we attracted. Although for us money was not always an issue, we felt that we would do what we were doing even if we weren’t paid. And you begin to find out the things that really matter, which is in tune with now. Now it's all about what is your passion and like chase it and things will follow. But I think back then it's all a personal journey.
You teach and you have taught at DID. What do you make of the students?
I think everyone is very smart. I think because it’s DID and its degree level and of course by cutting off grades, everyone is intelligent. And people were confident in how they presented themselves which was very good.
Why did you join DID as a student then in the first place?
It happened to be in my brown envelope when I received my ‘A’ Level results. It was the first year that it was introduced. In 1999, I graduated from Anglo-Chinese Junior College and you get this pack, this prospectus from NUS and I had thought of enrolling in architecture or something.
Why? Did you always have this flair for design?
Yeah, always, when I was five I was convinced I wanted to design Audi cars.
Wow, did you read up on the course?
I only asked my uncle who is a banker and he looked at it and said, “Seems cool, go for it.”
And that was it?
And it was done. From reading the prospectus, it seemed quite interesting.
In DID, what was one thing you remember working on?
I think it was group project in Year 1. It was about finding a novel mechanism and making something out of it. It was fun because we went as a group around the science centre and we found this smoke ring machine. So we went online to look for how it worked and we created our own. All in all, it’s quite a good first start to just explore, understand and apply. So, that was something interesting.
What’s the most useful thing you heard from a tutor?
It still impacts me very deeply. It’s from Patrick Chia. Patrick, back then in Year 1 said, “It doesn’t matter if you are successful only in Singapore. It matters if internationally people look at you.”