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Profile: Tan Lay Koon of Nature Squared left finance to work with natural materials

It was in 2000 when Tan Lay Koon made the brave but risky decision to leave her cushy job in the finance industry at the height of the dot.com bubble. Paul Hoeve, her business partner at accounting and consulting giant Arthur Andersen, quit as well, and both thought about doing something radically different in their next career move. At the top of Lay Koon’s list of possibilities was establishing a company that would somehow benefit society, along with creating minimal environmental impact.

“We were particularly concerned that insufficient attention was being paid to sustainability,” she explains. “We felt that most people were either apathetic or driven by a single issue (like climate change, social development or protecting endangered species). Few initiatives took a holistic multifaceted view of sustainability, balancing social, environmental and economic factors.”

That was when they launched Nature Squared, a London-based company specialising in bespoke luxury surfaces made with sustainable materials such as bamboo, mother of pearl, tobacco leaves and reeds.

Lay Koon had no formal training in design, but nearly two decades of working with leading designers on cutting-edge projects gave her on-the-job training. Having grown up in Malaysia, lived in Switzerland and the UK, and travelled extensively worldwide, she has also had the privilege to observe and appreciate nature’s diversity.  

Both Paul and her are also keen divers. "What drew me to this business is the fact that I find nature’s design endlessly fascinating. Everyone who has watched Blue Planet II can appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the underwater world. But as a diver, you experience it with heightened sensory awareness. The structures, colours and textures are all magnified. The Fibonacci golden ratio manifested in a seashell is much more attractive than in a banana skin!"

TURNING NATURAL MATERIALS INTO HIGH-END SURFACES

"Given that our focus is the use of waste or fast-growing materials in the immediate environment of our source communities, the idea of transforming them into surfaces using superlative craftsmanship was a pretty obvious one to us. Perhaps less obviously, we chose to pitch it to the highest end of the market, targeting superyachts and private jets. We felt that our product should be uncompromising in its beauty and quality," shares Lay Koon.

SOURCING SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS

Nature Squared starts by identifying a by-product of another industry or activity that would otherwise be discarded as waste, or by finding a fast-growing and abundant material. Next, they identify and assess their source(s) to ensure they meet our standards for both environmental and social welfare.

"Our mussel and abalone shells come from community-based farms in South Africa (where they are discarded when the animals are canned); our eggshells from farms and hatcheries; sea urchin spines from local fishermen; tobacco leaves as the sub-standard (for smoking!) plantation produce," she shares.

Nature Squared is currently working with one of the world’s oldest conservation agencies to identify communities where it has active projects, as they "aim to create a virtuous circle where conservation efforts result in tangible financial gains".

THE TOUGHEST MATERIAL YET

Feathers - our latest development - are the most delicate/ fragile material the company had to work with so far. "My daughter, like most kids, was fascinated by them and would pick them up wherever she found them. So I had been staring at a motley collection for a couple of years. I found their delicacy and subtlety sublimely beautiful," she shares.

However, Nature Squared needed their supplies to meet the sustainability and traceability criteria. Though Lay Koon felt very strongly that the feathers needed to be from birds that were eaten, almost all such birds are mechanically plucked. On the other hand, picking up moult or shedded feathers would not provide the quantities Nature Squared needs.

Thankfully, Lay Koon's friends Christina Tooley of Chevron Hackles and Andy Gray of specialist game butchers MC Kelly were able to supply them with feathers. They would be Both embraced the idea of hand-plucking pheasant feathers from local sources, before the meat went into the food chain. The feathers were otherwise destined for landfill.

In 2019, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars provided Nature Squared with the opportunity to create a spectacular dashboard made up of a mesh of woven feathers, for its new Phantom model.

COLLABORATING WITH OTHER ARTISTS

Furniture and homeware designer Bethan Gray, who works from a London studio located just two doors away from Nature Squared, is the first artist Nature Squared has collaborated with.

"She was filling her kettle in our corridor as we were entering our studio. Peeking through our open door, she became fascinated by what she saw. We then found common ground in our dedication to craft, and in valuing the material’s journey through the design process. We wanted our work to become more accessible and collaborating with furniture and other product designers was the obvious next step in our journey," shares Lay Koon.

Other designers Lay Koon wishes to work with include Chi Wing Lo, a furniture designer whose work has an architectural approach and clever use of materials, Elaine Ng Yan Ling of The Fabrick Lab, who is a forward-thinking materiologist with a commitment to sustainability, and Jiang Qiong Er’s of Shang Xia, who explores the synergies of French and Chinese aesthetic sensibilities.

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