January 14, 2009 Wednesday

Air Division going full steam ahead

By Elizabeth Wilmot

Air Division design director and managing director Nathan Yong, 38, started the furniture design and retail firm in 1999 with four friends. -- PHOTO: TERENCE TAN

FURNITURE designer and retailer Air Division has already made quite an impression on the global market - and has no intention of allowing the current downturn to impede its expansion.

The home-grown firm, which started out in 1999, has already implemented some modest cost-cutting measures amid slightly weaker sales.

But this is not in any way curbing the firm's determination to hone its key selling point: cutting-edge design.

Nor is the downturn undermining its drive to put up its name in lights on the international stage.

Right now, senior Air Division staff are gearing up for their fourth visit to the prestigious imm cologne furniture fair to be held in Germany from Jan 19 to 25.

To Air Division, such fairs are vital to securing global clients and becoming better-known internationally.

'I think the main thing is getting ourselves more established in the world market,' said Mr Michael Toh, 40, finance and business director of the company, and one of the five founders.

Referring to their three previous visits, he added: 'Basically, it's the largest furniture fair in Europe and the exposure there was very good for us.

'We are still relatively young in the export market, so I think now it's time for us to establish ourselves as a market player. Customers need to have a certain level of confidence before they try out products. So the past few years, it has been more about getting ourselves known.

'Last year when we became a Singapore Mozaic member, we got more publicity and we are better-known now.'

The Singapore Mozaic brand is an initiative of the Singapore Furniture Industries Council that brings together furniture companies with various stand-out attributes such as customer service and high-quality products.

The company has other reasons to be optimistic. 'Last year, for imm cologne, we actually had clients from Denmark and Germany for the first time. The year before was Mexico and Morocco. Before that, we sold only to the United States,' Mr Toh said.

The fair would also be a good opportunity for Air Division to be 'exposed to what other people are offering' since they would see renowned companies showcasing their products in the fair.

'So it's good exposure for us, and at the same time it's also a learning experience,' Mr Toh explained.

In spite of the ambitious plans, the company remains realistic in the present bleak climate. Mr Toh said the firm is seeing a slight slowdown in sales of 10 to 15 per cent year-on-year.

'We have started cost-cutting measures like pay cuts. We are also talking to landlords to see if we can get a better deal, and to suppliers on how we can save costs and things like that.'

However, the cost-cutting measures will in no way undermine Air Division's main selling point - design.

Mr Toh said: 'Our company renews its product range every three to six months. We always have new designs coming out to keep the showroom fresh so people don't always see the same things.

'Design is a very integral part of the company and it is not just the final products that we offer to the end-consumers at the end of the day. It goes well beyond what you see to what we have, in terms of the running of the company with a very design-skewed element to it.'

Indeed, design was the driving force behind the founding of the company in 1999, when five friends felt that there was a lack of well-designed furniture in Singapore.

From a small outlet started in Novena Square back in 2000, the company now has three retail outlets in Singapore and a franchise outlet in Jakarta. It generated revenues of $4.2 million last year and employs 13 staff locally.

Co-founder, design director and managing director Nathan Yong, 38, last year won a 'designer of the year' award at the President's Design Award.

Some of Mr Yong's designs have been sold to top-shelf furniture companies such as Ligne Roset from France and Italy's Living Divani.

He revealed the source of his creativity when coming up with new designs.

'Everyday activities inspire me. When you are into design, everything which surrounds you is an education on what design can affect and how it makes changes to modern life,' he said. 'To make a successful product, there is a chain of decisions that needs to be researched by the producer, the manufacturer and the designer.'

The firm has developed four in-house brands: Air, Plank, Royce and Funktion catering to different markets.

Its Air range is contemporary and simple. Plank is mainly solid wood items, and Funktion was created as a more affordable range. Royce is the luxury brand.

Mr Toh said: 'I think general acceptance of our products means people recognise us as the company with the design element which is slightly ahead of the curve in Singapore.

'In Singapore, there are not many companies which focus solely on design. We want to bring this home to everybody, so that more people can appreciate what good design is and can enjoy a nice piece of furniture when they go home.'

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