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Interview with Director Raymond and Associate Director Leon from Free Space Intent

About Director Raymond & Associate Director Leon

Leon: I’ve been part of Free Space Intent for around 10 years, and in my time here I have seen a lot of progression in the company. For the past decade we’ve been improving in terms of our team’s competency, size and our design style. We try to be a firm that can be more versatile in design, and not one that focuses on a single type of style, or a niche design per say, so we believe that as designers we should be flexible, and point down to the principles of design first, rather than solely meeting owners and talking about the looks of the design upfront, because there’s always more than meets the eye with design. It's actually going down to talk about how this particular family functions within their space itself, so I think as designers we have to be very flexible, catering to trends, catering to owners needs, catering to what people are seeing online, like on Pinterest and other similar sites, but still keeping in mind that we want to provide authentic design services to our clients.

Raymond: I founded Free Space Intent in 1999, so now the company is around 21 years old. I started off with the interest of retro designs, 80s and 90s pop art, and colourful styles. That’s how I started implementing the retro-istic idea into my designs, as you can see (in the FSI office) the different kinds of relics that I’ve collected: the retro tv, and some posters that have been with me for over 10 years, more colourful collections like lava lamps which I guess by now after 10 years a significant amount of people don’t really know what lava lamps are anymore. So I started with more retro and colourful designs in the initial 10 years, then as time passed we started to diversify our style, as we couldn’t be doing the same thing forever. At first, our setup was a little bit smaller, it consisted of me, my few staff and my partner, so we decided to go along a niche path in the market. However, as we progressed, we realised we had to open up for the new generation, do something different, so we started doing more designs that the market wanted, like contemporary, modern, scandanavian, more eclectic, more mixed designs. We then attempted to include more ideas, bringing in new blood, adding the synergy of different people, as all designers have their own perspectives on styles. For example, when it comes to Free Space Intent they see the colours we use for designs, and they don’t really like the colours initially, but after a while they agree that colours can be done in this manner. I’ve seen a lot of growth in designers, the fact that some of them would use colours that I’ve never dared to include in my designs and the fact that they use it with great results shows the potential that they have. Free Space Intent is a place where people come in and feel the vibe and culture, then go on to explore on their own, meeting different people, experimenting a mix of different things, being open to everything, that’s why our projects are very diversified, with a different kind of energy. I am still into colours, as compared to other firms where they might still be more contemporary and more clean, and that's something about us which is slightly different from what other people are doing.

Image by Free Space Intent via Free Space Intent

What inspired you to be an interior designer?

Raymond: There is a glamorous reason and a not so glamorous reason. The glamorous reason is that everyone wants to be a designer, holding a very big portfolio and walking around. Being a designer means you can have long hair, tattoos, dress casually and still be regarded as a professional. The not so glamorous reason is that my academic background was not very good, so at the end of the day I wanted to do something that I was passionate about. Then my friends suggested that we should give art school a try, after which I realised that interior design is actually quite fun, so it was a step by step process. The glamorous part will always come into the picture, as people will be impressed when you tell them that you’re an interior designer. Furthermore, most traditional parents would want their kids to be a lawyer, a doctor, a profession that they can proudly tell their friends too, and designers fit into that group too. So the parents’ side is fulfilled, and the side of doing something that I enjoy is also fulfilled.

Leon: As Raymond said, the image of someone with a big portfolio, walking around, not having to dress formally, but still being classified as a professional, it’s a very attractive reason to be a designer. That was my mentality when I was a teenager, when I was thinking of what to do in life. I then decided to give architecture a try in Polytechnic, but it's kind of jaded in terms of design, because you can't really express too much design styles, too much creativity, as everything has to be very confined to the sciences, the building services. Also, after National Service, my parents wanted me to pursue my studies, so it came down to the same reason, to do something that satisfies my parents, and at the same time doing something that I want to do. Between all the design faculties like graphic design, fashion design, interior design, and even architecture, I still find architecture and interior design more humanly related in terms of proportion, because we are all encompassed into spaces. This kind of proportion and visualization, the size of space that can affect a human, different people having different perceptions of spaces, these parts of interior design are very interesting to me, that's why I chose this path, instead of graphic design or fashion design.

Image by Free Space Intent via Free Space Intent

What is a place that you have been to that has given you a burst of inspiration?

Leon: I haven’t been to a place that gave me that feeling yet, but if there is then it would be Barcelona where I have yet to visit, with the history of Gaudi and his organic architectural style, his unconventional way of design expression. That's one of the dream places that I'd like to visit. However, with the places that I’ve been to, I feel that the experience is different in terms of lifestyle as compared to Singapore, due to the present state of buildings and monuments being that way because of their long history. When I was in Rome, I was exposed to the history of The Colosseum, how it was constructed with travertine limestone, and how it reached its present state due to earthquakes and stone-robbers. Stories and histories like that opens your mind.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Leon: Hawaii. Usually, people might think of designers as very clean and very minimalistic people, very organized and stuff like that, but for me i'm more of a haphazard, laid back person. I appreciate minimalistic things, but I'm not very into it, I'm not that kind of person. I’m more of a beach vibe kind of person, which is why I chose Hawaii, with it’s laid back environment and it’s residents really living life.

Raymond: Singapore. I don't really like to travel, I prefer my life to be a bit more linear. I get a lot of information from watching movies and television channels like Channel News Asia, and I already feel like I’m travelling just from watching films. I don’t really like to travel as I feel that it disrupts my life. I enjoy every day of my life, be it work or leisure. Usually, when people go on a holiday break, they tend to switch off their minds from work related stuff, a so called holiday mode, but I enjoy my work so much that it’s already a holiday for me, in a sense. So if I depart from work, I won’t enjoy the holiday. Everyday I'm working, designing, solving problems but I enjoy what I'm doing, and it doesn’t feel like work when I’m doing something that I’m passionate about, something that I love.

Image by Free Space Intent via Free Space Intent

What is the key principle that you follow throughout your projects?

Raymond: Space planning is key. There is a fundamental right of space planning. If the place doesn’t work ergonomically, then whatever you put in that space won’t matter. Space planning is a big foundation of any design style. Everybody has their own perspectives on how they want their space to look like. Normally when dealing with just one client for their house it's easier, because it’s just one point of view, but most of the time a home is for a family, for couples, so how we marry their ideas into one is also important.

Leon: I feel that context is crucial. Context of everything, from the person using the space, their lifestyle, their likes and dislikes. One example would be bar counters, everybody likes bar counters, but everyone’s idea of bar counters and how it’s going to be used is different. For me, if I have a bar counter, I’d hope it’ll function for me to serve drinks and my friends will be sitting there, drinking, literally a bar. But for some people, they envision themselves sitting at the counter, with their laptop, a cup of coffee, and doing their work. And some people just want it there for aesthetic reasons, just to look good. For some, it's convenience, it's an open counter, you can just put anything there. So there are a lot of reasons for having a specific thing and a lot of ways of using it, so we have to find out what clients want, and how they’re going to use it. So context, it covers everything, and it works hand in hand with space planning as what Raymond said.

Image by Free Space Intent via Free Space Intent

How do you think loose furniture affects the essence of space in a home?

Leon: It depends on style. Let's talk about what you’ll wear, like accessories. Would you wear a necklace, a bracelet? What kind of necklace or bracelet would it be, like a gold chain? It comes down to the kind of style you want to express. So if I were in interior architecture, breaking down the walls and such would be akin to cosmetic surgery, like how high you want your nose bridge to be, whether you want double eyelids and such. After which, how you’ll dress up, what kind of makeup you apply, that would be the loose furniture coming into play. Your wrist watch can be any design, any brand, it all comes back to what you’ll think looks good on you. It’s about how people want to express themselves.

Raymond: Everybody has a particular style. The problem with style is that most people follow a style that they think is trending, which it may be, but it might not be their own style, to say. If you don’t define a style that belongs to you, but then have someone define it for you, that would be a problem. That's a question that I ask my clients, finding a style that is comfortable to you, that defines you. If someone else has to define your style for you, you’ll eventually think about it and ask yourself, is this actually MY style? Or is this style mine because everyone is telling me it's good, so I’m going by it. This is where trends come into play, because it helps people define their style, influencing their thoughts on style. Let’s talk about European countries, they can literally place high end furniture in a place with an old setting, and it works as a style. They go around looking at stuff like lava lamps, little knick knacks, pick them up and put them in their home, and it still works as a style, because they’ve defined it as theirs. Now to the Japanese, cement screed, they like it, because it exudes zen, then some families will look at that and then follow that culture because it’s either popular or they think because it's the trend so they apply it for themselves, but it wouldn’t make sense for a family with kids to have a home with cement screed flooring, it wouldn’t fit their style. So I always discuss with my clients and tell them to find their flavour, their style, like if they like a certain brand or franchise, go ahead and decorate their place with things of that nature. If you like vintage items, like gramophones and such, those are amazing pieces of decor to put in your house as well, as it is a statement piece, it is a story to tell visitors who come over. Have a style, a story, that you’re proud of and want to tell people about it when they visit your place. We as interior designers, want to help our home owners find their story and materialise their personality into their home setting.

Free Space Intent is one of the first firms to use cement screed for walls, how did that come about?

Raymond: I was really fascinated by how the Japanese used cement screed in a home setting, like how they could use something so industrial and still create a house of zen. When we first used it for walls, our home owners would usually get the question (usually by their mothers) like “why the wall like that” or “why the wall hasn't been painted yet”. It all goes back to style. To the owner, they like the raw, industrial look, it is their style, and when friends and family come to visit, they will have a story to tell, about the origins of cement screed and how the Japanese use it and such. It is unconventional, but it is a style and it works.

Image by Free Space Intent via Free Space Intent

What is something memorable that your homeowner has done for you?

Raymond: The best feeling I get when my homeowner does something for me is when they subtly put in a good word for me when they talk about me to their friends and relatives. It gets spread to the point where a whole community would know about FSI, and that’s very heartwarming to know. So when a new client comes in and they say “oh this person told me about FSI and how good you guys are”, it's a pleasant feeling to know that our clients are spreading the good word about us.

Leon: Staying in touch is also a heartwarming thing. Throughout a project, we’re with an owner for around 5 months, so we don’t want to stick to a business relationship, where by when we complete a project then that's it, the end of our relationship. I always appreciate it when clients treat me like a friend, and stay in touch. Like after a while after a project, a client would message me regarding what kind of plants to buy because they know I like to buy plants, or telling me about places that I should stay away from because of the COVID situation, and that’s very heartwarming as I feel that these kinds of interactions are very genuine. It's all about the human touch, not doing projects just because it's a business, but keeping a good relationship between interior designers and homeowners. And that's the best kind of report book that you can get from your homeowners. Yes, there are more superficial projects whereby a client just tells you what they want and you just do it, but there are some who’ll really talk to you, heart to heart, for example i had this project where my owner had a husky, and sadly halfway through the project the husky died, and there was this feature wall in the house where we wanted to do graffiti, but we didn’t really decide what to put on it yet, so after the husky passed, I suggested to feature the husky in graffiti form on the wall, so in the end, their beloved husky was featured on the wall alongside other graffiti arts of comic book characters. This is the kind of human touch and interaction that keeps a designer’s relationship to an owner strong.

What advice would you give to fresh or aspiring interior designers?

Leon: Keep an open mind. When we graduate from design school, we have this very glamorous image of being a designer. Nobody really sees us doing the dirty work, but that's part and parcel of life. So keep an open mind, and experience the whole spectrum of the work scope. Don’t be tied down to one specific image of being an interior designer.

Raymond: For years, people over glorify the idea of being an interior designer. Being a designer, my advice is to remember that we’re all human too. Don’t be extreme, find moderation, balance. Most people want to do everything at once as a designer, but take it step by step, know your fundamentals first, before you explore everything else. Be practical.

Image by Free Space Intent via Free Space Intent

Any tips you would like to share with homeowners?

Leon: Have faith and be honest. Sometimes they’ll maybe hear bad stories about a renovation process. The topic of budget is very sensitive, that is true, but we have to consider all costs. If we were to over design, then it might go up to 3 times or even 4 times in cost. So it would be best for the owner to tell me what they want and then I can plan out what we can do. Plus it's a long term process, so if you cannot be open about your own criteria, like budget, in this initial stage, it will be hard for everyone to move on in the project.

Raymond: 3 tips. Firstly, do enough research. Secondly, find your own style, because if you don't find a style that you like, then someone will have to define your style for you, as I said previously. Thirdly, find the right designer that suits you, so this brings back to tip 1 regarding research. But research is very general. So then you have to find what style you want. These combined will help you find the right designer. Understand what you are looking for, and be realistic as well. One thing I’ve learnt as well is that when something is too good to be true, it actually is too good to be true.

What is the future you have planned for yourself and Free Space Intent?

Raymond: I’m trying to build up the new generation with like minded people. It would be too ambitious to say that I will open up 5 or 10 more Free Space Intent branches, because the essence of our design will be hard to replicate within them all. For example, if you have one hawker store that’s good, and you open up a few more, it all just won’t taste the same. For me, I enjoy what I'm doing, and I think we’ll continue our fundamental concept of changing as it goes. At most I’ll open up another outlet as time goes, but not to the point of opening up so many that we end up diluting our fundamentals. We want to be more open in our designs and also spread the culture of Free Space Intent, letting people know about us. We aim to be more FSI than FSI. We also hope to be able to open up our own carpentry in the future. Our direction will be even more clearer, more focused, more boutique kind of setting, more bespoke kind of services.

Leon: The thing I like that can be maintained or to be expanded is cultivating the culture of Free Space Intent within our designers. That contributes to creating quality designers that represent us, to make FSI more FSI, so the people representing us to clients can deliver the true essence of Free Space Intent.


Raymond Seow (Director)

Leon Luo (Associate Director)

Free Space Intent

NO. 8 UBI ROAD 2 #02-07

Tel: +65 6392 8885
Fax: +65 6292 8885
Email: enquiry@fsi.com.sg