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What does it take to build an award-winning company in Singapore?

Nikki Hunt, founder of Design Intervention, chats to Susannah Jaffer about how she turned her part-time passion into the award-winning interior design company that it is today.

design intervention founder
We catch up with the founder of the award-winning Design Intervention, Nikki Hunt

 

Twenty-four years is quite the expat stint! What brought you to Singapore?

Actually, it’s a bit longer than that. I first came to Singapore in 1990. I was working in the finance industry and was posted here by my company to cover Asia. After a year here, I had brief stints in Hong Kong, Jakarta and back in London, where I met my husband-to-be, and then we moved to Singapore together in 1993.

I was still working in the financial sector, and it wasn’t until my second child was born in 1998 that I left that industry, realising that the demands of a banking career and motherhood just weren’t going to gel.

At that time, most of my friends were bankers with jobs that had them flying around the region. Being so busy, several of them asked for help with their home renovations. One thing led to another, and Design Intervention was born. In the early years, it was very much part-time and I would work around my children’s schedule. Then in 2004 when my youngest was six, I took a small office in Guthrie House and hired three staff, two of whom are still with me today!

I was definitely a wife and mother first. Design was a secondary activity for me back then; a chance to indulge my passion and exercise my mind. And although they weren’t particularly profitable, my early projects were invaluable. I have no formal training and learnt my craft on the job, from the people I worked with and my clients, too. Even today, I continue to learn and grow as a designer, taking something new from each new project I complete.

Things changed when designer Andrea Savage walked into my studio in 2010. At that point, as my kids were more independent in their teenage years, I suddenly had a lot more time for work; and Andrea brought a fresh perspective and energy to the business. After working together for a year or so, in 2012 we formed a partnership. We haven’t looked back since.

design intervention
The Modern Chinoiserie Home awarded as the Asia Pacific’s Best Interior Design in Private Residence.

How does a typical working day at Design Intervention start for Nikki Hunt?

My family leaves the house at about 7.30am, so between then and 8.30am is probably my most productive time of the day. I sit with a cup of coffee in total quietness and develop my ideas for the day, or respond to emails. This uninterrupted hour is invaluable, as when I get to the studio unexpected issues tend to sidetrack me from what I’d planned for the day.

I wouldn’t be here today without the support of my husband. He’s also been instrumental in the development of the business; from introducing clients, to being a sounding board for ideas and being hands-on with the finances. He is a true partner in every sense of the word, fully sharing the parenting responsibilities. If I had to miss an important activity for the kids, or to travel, he was there for them.

As my kids are all grown up now, managing it all is easier than it used to be and I think that is reflected in how Design Intervention has performed recently. We’ve been established for 14 years now, but it’s only in the last three or four years that we have really excelled, winning Best Interior Designer in Asia Pacific for the past three years running, and making it to the Interior Design Reviews Top 95 Global Design list for the past four.

Those are incredible achievements!

Thank you. I’m proud to say that we won our first global awards last year at the 2016 International Design & Architecture Awards, which was just fabulous: one was for Best Table Design in the world, and the other for Best Kitchen Design.

When I was interviewed by Expat Living just a couple of years ago after we had won the title of best designer in Asia Pacific, I was asked what my goal was for the future. I remember saying that we were going to continue to push our boundaries and aim higher and who knows, strive for a global win, but I was still surprised and shocked when these awards were announced. In fact, no-one from Design Intervention attended the ceremony at London’s Dorchester Hotel! Even though we knew we’d been shortlisted, it did seem an awfully long way to go for dinner! So when our name was called, there was no representative to receive the award – and that night we won twice.

 

design intervention
The Modern Chinoiserie Home awarded as the Asia Pacific’s Best Interior Design in Private Residence.

Well, sometimes hard work really does pay off.

Yes, but I’m very aware that this recent success is due to the fact that I am not being pulled in two directions (mother and career woman). They say that women can’t have it all, but I still don’t fully agree. I think you can have it all, but not at the same time. At one point in my life, I did prioritise my kids and had less time to work. Now I have more time to dedicate to the business, and our achievements reflect this.

The show is the brainchild of Carl Zuzarte, Senior Vice-President of Scripps Network Asia. He believes that the Asian market is eager for design shows, but most of the current home shows available here are produced overseas, and there’s a gap for content that speaks to local issues and Asian viewers.

Carl had seen some of our work featured in local magazines and believed that Design Intervention had the creative flair and experience to bring authenticity to the show. Andrea had done some TV work before in her role as a judge on The Apartment, and as an ex-model she is very comfortable in front of the camera.

I was more hesitant! I’m far more comfortable sitting behind my desk with a pencil and my scale, so I initially resisted the idea. After meeting Carl, though, and seeing his enthusiasm for the project and his genuine interest in design, I agreed to work on two test episodes.

interior design business founder
“They say that women can’t have it all, but I still don’t fully agree. I think you can have it all, but not at the same time.”

 

Good things come from pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, it seems.

Well, it was a very different experience from anything I have done before. We worked with Beach House, a local production company headed by husband-and-wife team Jocelyn and Donavon Chan. Donavon produced and directed the episodes and patiently coached me through the filming process. Andrea was a natural, and between the two of them they put me at ease. Surprisingly, I actually found I was enjoying myself. I think the key was to forget about the cameras!

Those two initial episodes turned out to be an amazing experience, and I’ve realised that there are a lot of parallels between producing a TV show and working on a design project. Don is a very talented director and has been a joy to work with. We will begin shooting a new series in a couple of months, and the show should air towards the end of this year.

design intervention founder
“Turning inspiration off and relaxing is what I find hard to do.”

 

Tell us more about yet another of your projects, the Young Designer Award.

Design isn’t the first choice of career for most Singaporeans, or for their parents. Banking, medicine or engineering are usually the preference, and as business owners we’re faced with the challenge of attracting talented individuals.

We began looking to local colleges and regularly taking on student interns for training, but soon realised that residential design is not really taught here; even to students who take an interior design degree course, because they tend to focus more on the commercial or hospitality side. So we established the award as a way of getting students to think like a residential designer; to consider the needs of a homeowner. This year, the awards have been officially endorsed by the Singapore Design Council, and the local colleges have incorporated the competition into their curriculum.

interior design
Another view of the company’s award-winning Modern Chinoiserie Home.

Don’t you ever get creative block?

No, I never find it hard to find inspiration. Actually, the hard thing for me is to stop finding it! I’m constantly thinking, looking at everything around me, from the trim on a friend’s dress to the set design of a TV show, or simply the form of a tree in the garden. Turning inspiration off and relaxing is what I find hard to do. The only time the design side of my brain truly switches off is when I go skiing. Perhaps it’s being surrounded by a totally blank white canvas, but I think it’s more likely that I’m such a terrible skier I need all my powers of concentration not to fall!

 

There seems to be so much to choose from, but what are you most proud of?

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I have to say my kids. I have two lovely, happy, well-balanced children, and preparing them for adult life has been my most rewarding achievement.

 

This article first appeared in the April 2017 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!

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