Eightytwo's design director Terence Neo.
A brief scroll through boutique interior design firm Eightytwo’s extensive portfolio unveils a montage of white and light wood interiors, intermittently deepened by blue and black accents – unmistakably Scandinavian in style. It is little wonder then that the firm has come to be known as specialists of the look. But don’t call it a one-trick pony. “The next worse thing you could call us is a ‘cookie-cutter’ company,” says Terence Neo, Eightytwo’s design director. “That’s the antithesis of who we are.”
The 35-year-old founded the firm in 2012, seeing it through the rocky nascent years – enduring hardships such as his business partner taking off after six months – to managing a team of 14 young and talented employees in a East Coast Road shophouse today.
“My inclination to the Scandinavian aesthetic is its timelessness,” Terence explains. “Its simple and minimalist qualities liken it to a canvas, allowing owners to steadily build up the look of their home through their personalities, lifestyle, art pieces and collectibles. This is what sets it apart and it perfectly aligns with our intention to create sustainably designed homes that are extremely versatile.”
Looking at this breezy four-storey house in Bukit Timah that Terence transformed, you wouldn't have imagined that it used to look dark and gaudy.
For someone who holds so much conviction for his work, it’s a surprise to learn that starting this firm wasn’t his idea, nor was he keen when it was broached to him by his former business partner, an ex-colleague. Initially reluctant, Terence was eventually persuaded. “What’s much harder than starting, is running the business. You get all sorts of surprises, like thinking you have enough funds but, once you get the business up and running, you wonder where you’re going to find the money you need,” he says.
To build their portfolio up from scratch, they needed to scale back their ambitions to accept humbler jobs – renovating a toilet here, a small kitchen there. “By the time I got my first actual home project, my partner had left. We had gone on for six months with nothing.”
Those trying days are behind him. Terence has since consciously postured his company for the middle ground, between bespoke upscale designers that few Singaporeans can afford, and cheap contractors who produce mediocre work. “I want to moderate the market, to come up with high-quality designs that remain accessible to a wider client base.“
Part of the reason for setting up Eightytwo was to make a statement. “I want to show we’re not just more expensive to make more money out of our clients. It is not true that you pay more at a boutique firm for the same thing that you could get at a renovation package firm. How could it be the same thing? Our entire service – the quality of our workmanship, our contractors, materials – is dedicated and bespoke.”
Indeed, to Terence, getting consumers informed about interior designers is the bigger struggle. In his eyes, the distinction is clear: There are interior designers, and there are the one-size-fits-all renovation package firms. Aggressive and highly visible with their participation at roadshows, big-package firms are most homeowners’ first exposure to interior design providers.
He explains: “People acquire this mentality that they can get an instant quote because the sales pitch is: ‘Leave me your number and I’ll e-mail you our designs and the quote.’ But they are able to do that because they have a template ready. Homeowners then think we’re being difficult when we say we can’t provide the same information upon the first meeting.
“However, for us, providing the quote upfront runs against how we operate. Besides, I don’t even know the client yet, let alone the brief, requirements or floor plan. I don’t use a generic template from which I can extrapolate a design for homes. The design we do is customised uniquely for our clients’ houses. With us, it takes between three and four meetings – from meeting the clients for the first time, to producing the design, to coming up with the quote and signing with them.”
If he isn’t in his office or on-site, you will find Terence at home. “I spent three years fixated on this business when I started it. Then I got married and my daughters came along so I have to focus on my family.” To wind down, Terence turns to cooking and the occasional drink. “Cooking is very therapeutic; I do it every day. It is the only activity that involves all the senses – your sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. And then to have people compliment your food – the feeling is out of this world.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Terence thinks it’s premature to call his firm a success. “Have we completed huge, iconic projects, or reached big milestones? I would say, not yet.” He has set his sights on other cities in the region, such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and would embrace opportunities to branch out into hospitality and institutions.
“My dream hotel will be designed based on the concept of a ‘home away from home’. I think the opulent hotel experience is becoming a bit passe. If you’re talking about starting a new hotel trend, I think a place that is extremely cosy, that makes you feel nice and warm, will sell well. A Scandinavian look – warm, bright and airy – will do just the trick.”